WPC Santa Fe July 15, 2007
So at family camp a few weekends back, Trasie and I were teaching a few people one of our favorite games, a Mexican style of dominos. Before we could even get the dominoes out of the box the questions began: So how do you play? What’s the object of the game? What are the rules? (I am always accused of making up rules) How do I win?
When I was in college, without fail at the beginning of every class after the teacher hands out the syllabus, containing all the readings, assignments, process of evaluation, and dates due; indicating clearly: do this to get an A, this merits a B, and so on. Invariably one or more students needs more details, does the paper have to be that many pages, what if one of absences is because we were sick, etc, etc.
When you go for a job interview, you don’t only want to know what your going to get paid, but also, what exactly is required of you in the job. How many hours? How much responsibility? What kind of benefits? How much vacation?
The lawyer in the story we read from Luke, wants to know what he’s supposed to do, too. How the game is played? He’s concerned with existential matters—deep philosophical questions. We’ve all asked these same questions: What must we do to inherit eternal life? How can I get saved? Interestingly, Jesus didn’t respond to the lawyer: Accept me as your personal Lord and Savior. Instead, Jesus lets the lawyer answer his own question, and he does so with flying colors—Love God with everything you got, and love your neighbor as yourself. But that’s not enough. Love God, love your neighbor, love myself. Point of clarification: Just who is my neighbor? Just how much of my love am I supposed to be spreading?
It’s really a perfect scenario: a laywer, the kind of detailed person we need to find out the right answers: asking Jesus, the son of God, the kind of person we want the answers from. So Jesus’ answer is the parable of the good Samaritan. Everyone in here knows this story. A man walking down the road gets robbed, beaten, and stripped and left for dead. A couple of men, religious people, pass by him for whatever reason, and finally a third man, a good Samaritan, gives him first aid, and hauls him to an inn and pays his room and board. That’s being a neighbor. And we’re supposed to do the same, because Christ calls us to be neighborly.
It’s a great story!
But did the lawyer get it? And more importantly, do we get what Jesus wanted the lawyer to get? It’s hard to get it actually. The character, the Good Samaritan has become a secularized saint. There are hospitals, helping groups, and civic awards named after this guy. To be a good Samaritan means helping once a week at the local soup kitchen, going out of one’s way at the Christmas season to see that the food baskets get delivered to the neediest people, sacrificing a few consecutive Saturdays to build a house for Haibitat for Humanity. But do these actions, while good things to do, reflect the Samaritan in Jesus’ story?1 We forget that the Samaritan was not a saint, but was despised by the Jews. The word good is not in the parable.
So attempts are made to try and make the story more real, to get at the thrust of Jesus’ story about racial and social implications of the Samaritan, to bring it home using a modern day example: In the 1950s, Clarence Jordon preaching in Americus, Georgia (that’s south), told the story like this: a white business man was traveling from Ellaville to Albany. Jordon’s listeners would know there was one town between those two places—Americus. The businessman is robbed and beaten and left for dead on the outskirts of Americus. First a white traveling evangelist and then the white gospel choir director pass by the victim. Then a local black farmer hauling watermelons in an old beat-up pickup truck sees the white man lying half dead on the side of the road. He pulls his truck over, and gets out. He helps bandage the victim and takes him to the hospital. When Jordon asks his listeners, Who was the neighbor to that man? He would get, “Ooh, I don’t want to answer that question.” It was the…, it was the colored man…” Does that help capture the good Samaritan in the context of the 50s and 60s in the South?2
What about today? Who is a potential good Samaritan today here in Santa Fe, New Mexico? The young guy always hanging out at the tattoo parlor, wearing his ball-cap sideways, baggy pants, tattoos cover his body. He drives a low-rider with neon lights, fancy rims, and hydraulic shocks that help him bounce bounce bounce to the beat. The day laborer who doesn’t speak English who sees the poor person pathetically laying on the side of the road, as he’s walking to a bus stop after a long day’s work out in the hot sun. He has compassion and helps out with the $55 dollars cash he’d just gotten paid. Maybe the Samaritan is the Muslim who is coming from the mosque, dressed in traditional garb, his long beard adorning his face. But even these examples in many ways probably fall short.
Another problem we have in our understanding of this parable is similar to the lawyer’s problem— Who is our neighbor? Everyone? While neighbor may be easily understood abstractly as universal brother and sisterhood—we are all neighbors part of a global village, connected by economic systems and the internet—the reality is that in this day and age it seems that there are few people we would really call our neighbors (unless you’re Fred Rogers). Who is your neighbor? The word in greek translated neighbor derives it’s meaning from the concept of nearness, in other words it has something to do with proximity. Certainly we can relate to this concept today. Trasie and I have just moved into the Casa Alegre neighborhood. We’ve met many of our neighbors, next door and across the street. We neighborly, saying hello when out on a walk? Ken next door waters our garden when we’re out of town. He ran out of charcoal the other day, like good neighbors we helped him out. Is this what Jesus was getting at with neighbor?
Another problem with the story is that things are different now than they were back in Jesus’ day? It can be dangerous to stop on the road to help someone out. I’ve heard stories of people attempting to enact this story of the Samaritan by stopping to help a seemingly fallen victim, but when they stop they are mugged by a mob beaten, robbed, and left for dead themselves. Or, maybe if you stop and help someone out today and you administer first aid you could be accused of practicing medicine illegally, maybe even a suspect in the authorities investigation of who dun it. Also, you’ve heard about two young people, down in Southern Arizona, who were out in the desert making sure water stations were adequately supplied. They came across some individuals lying in the sand suffering from severe dehydration and heat exhaustion. When they saw they could not treat them with the “wine” and “oil” they were offering they loaded them up in their car and headed toward the nearest hospital. On their way, they were stopped by border patrol, arrested for smuggling undocumented migrants, and spent time in jail and put on trial.
Maybe it’s not worth it to even try to be like the good Samaritan. So what are we supposed to do with this parable? How are we supposed to act in light of what Jesus says? Are we free from our burdens and fears; are we free for living our lives in such a way that we can love God, love neighbor and love ourselves?
We can give charity to the poor—clothes and food for homeless teens, money to any variety of special offerings—these are kind acts in an of themselves, but according to the definition Jesus gives of neighbor, something is missing.
In the story did you notice how Jesus twisted around the lawyer’s question? The lawyer asked: Who is my neighbor?
Jesus, after telling the parable asked the lawyer: who became the neighbor to the man who had been beaten by robbers? “For Jesus, neighbor is something that is made. Neighbor is made in an act of mercy with someone in need. The Samaritan acts toward the man who had been beaten and robbed. He made a decision to help out this person, and by helping he voluntarily and responsibly became a neighbor. Instead of asking who is my neighbor? Jesus’ answer makes us ask: Who should I become neighborly toward?
It is suggested by a Spanish speaking Christian that instead of translating the word traditionally rendered neighbor, to translate it “compañero”—companion. The Samaritan and the fallen man become compañeros.3 In order to be neighbors, we must be companions. The abstract concept of neighbor becomes very concrete, very real once we realize how needy this world is. As I was listening for examples of Samaritan stories, all I heard on the news were stories of war and violence.
As I see more and more needs—be they among the millions who do not have adequate access to health care, the millions who do not have access to nutritious meals or clean drinking water, the millions who suffer from abuse—I see greater opportunities for Samaritans to appear, to show up on the scene like Superwoman and save the day; but instead it seems that people become more cautious, build bigger fences or walls and say that’s what makes a good neighbor. They make stricter laws that seem to fly in the face of those most needy, rather than living by the greatest law: Love God, love neighbor, love self.
What is required of us? What must we do for life? With whom should we become neighborly?
How many of you looked at this story from Luke and identified with a certain character? Who identified with the lawyer? That’s feasible, we all want to know what we need to do for eternal life. Who with the priest or the Levite?
No one wants to be either of those two guys, but often times our apathy about or complicity in oppressive systems certainly would lump us in with those guys.
Anyone with the innkeeper? Or the robbers? Oh yeah, forgot about those guys?
Who identified with the Samaritan? That’s my man, that dude was really cool, and besides, that’s how Jesus said I should be so, I’m a Samaritan man. But don’t you remember, the Samaritan was the ceremonially unclean, socially outcast, heritic. Who does that describe? Finally, who identified with the man beaten by robbers? The one who had been beaten down and left for dead? Anyone…but do you see, do you see that it is necessary, absolutely necessary to have the person in need in order for neighbor to even exist?
As I said, neighbor exists in relationship—compañeros—but so often, even though we may find ourselves terribly in need, we are reluctant to allow others to help us out, in both big and small ways. Even within this church community we can have so many opportunities to become neighbors to one another. But, we have to give each other a chance. Lisa was sick recently and she called on Barbara and Erik to come and be with her, neighbors were made that evening. Doug and Cat have asked for help taking Cat to the store once a week, and John Burnett has said he can be a neighbor. Opening ourselves up to the other, allowing someone else to come into neighborly relationship with us is wonderfully freeing, and deeply rewarding.
A friend I have made playing soccer, Kurt Shaw, works with street children all over Latin America. I asked him to help me out with some good “good Samaritan” stories he’d experienced. The thousands of street kids in every big city in Latin America are literally the man beaten, robbed, and left for dead on the side of the road. I was sure he’d had plenty of opportunities to be a good Samaritan. Kurt tells this “story set along Avenida Insurgentes in Mexico City, at midnight on a Saturday night:
An anthropologist and I were visiting the ramshackle hut where some homeless teenagers had set up a squat, and they were passing the night as street kids often do: drugging themselves with booze and inhalants. We managed interesting conversation with some of the kids. One talked about his experience as an extra on the set of a famous movie about street life; another sang in a sweet voice, crying perhaps from the pain, his foot recently run over by a bus, or perhaps from the intensity of the lyrics he had composed.
One of the boys, a quiet kid who’d been hanging back most of the time, just looking at us, gave a shy smile. “Are you hungry?” he asked. Though we hadn’t eaten since [lunch], there was no way we were as hungry as the kids were, so we told him not to worry. “No, no, I’ll make you something,” he insisted, and began to cut a potato into thin strips, then heat a pan on an improvised stove. Few people in the world suffer like a street child. Yet this boy, himself hungry, offered us some of his scarce food. We can, of course, contend that he was looking for some kind of recognition or hoping for an exchange of favors, but this does not change the basic fact that he cared about our hunger. When exposed to the face of the other, the boy wanted to do something to make our lives better.4
Because of compassion, because of mercy, unlikely compañeros were formed. Christ sets us free to become neighbors. To not only look out and respond to others in times of need, but also to recognize our own needs and open ourselves up to acts of mercy. Ultimately, perhaps, opening ourselves up to Christ, the ideal good Samaritan, who rescues us in our most desperate time of need, may be the greatest neighborly relation we could have.
Christ sees our needs, our burdens, and beckons us to come to him. So freely we come to this table to be fed and nourished, to be made whole and healthy again. So that we may be free to act with mercy in the world. To become neighborly through acts of mercy.
1 Cousar, et al, Texts for Preaching, p. 427.
2 Adapted from, “Clarence Jordan, Koinonia, and The Open Door Community,” Hospitality.
3 Néstor O. Míguez, “La parabola del buen samaritano” pp 65-78.
4 Kurt Shaw, “Universal Foundations or Universal Rights?” (abstract), pp. 5-6.