He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” (Read the whole passage)
To begin with a moment of honest confession: with baby number 2 two arriving on Wednesday, I had planned to lessen my preparation load this past week by preaching a sermon that I wrote 6 years ago on this passage of the Good Samaritan. It was a good sermon that challenged the ways in which we look at just what the story of the Good Samaritan is about.
It was a good plan and a good sermon.
But then guns, and racism, and violence and death broke out.
Then Cyril Weenusk, a visitor to Winnipeg coming to bring his father to the hospital, was beaten to death in downtown Winnipeg for no apparent reason.
Then Alton Sterling, an unarmed black man was pinned to the ground under two police officers and then shot and killed in Louisiana.
Then another black man, Philando Castile, was shot and killed by a cop in front of his girlfriend and her 4 year old daughter, during a routine traffic stop.
And then 5 police officers were shot and killed in Dallas during a protest of the violence, by a troubled man upset by the state of race relations in the United States.
And then all of a sudden, it was impossible to hear this parable of the Good Samaritan, a parable about violence, about race relations, about the debate between #SamaritanLivesMatter and #AllLivesMatter, about what it means to truly be a good neighbour, and not to think about the events of this week.
In fact, the parable of the Good Samaritan has already been told to us in many different ways this week, and the questions it raised in Jesus’ day, continue to be raised in our world.
A young man, a religious lawyer or expert in religious law is having a conversation with Jesus about what it means to be saved, and when Jesus tells him to love his neighbour as himself, the man wants to confuse and blur the lines of the issue, “Who is my neighbour?” he asks.
Jesus responds with a parable about a man taking the dangerous journey from Jericho to Jerusalem – a rocky, downhill road that requires a traveller to leave the safety of Jewish territory. It is an ideal place for bandits, and along the way, the man is beaten, robbed and left half-dead.
And then a temple priest passes by the man. The priest is not heartless, but rather makes a considered ethical choice. He chooses the good of the many over the good of one. If he defiles himself to save this one half-dead man, he will be unclean for 7 days an unable to help scores of people obtain forgives in the temple.
And then a Levite passed by the man. He too is not heartless, but rather makes the same considered ethical choice, as he too is a servant of the greater good.
But then a Samaritan comes along. The Samaritan is a heretical jew, because he worships God in the wrong place. And he would not be concerned with ritual purity, because Samaritans were considered unclean anyways. Yet, despite the bad blood between Samaritans and Jews, the Samaritan stops to help. He goes the extra mile and makes sure the half-dead man is taken care of by an innkeeper.
The story is meant to challenge ideas around who is our neighbour, but also the systems that lay at the foundation of our society. This parable isn’t about telling us to be Good Samaritans, and telling us not to be priests and levites. The parable questions the assumptions and ethics that are buried deep within our society.
As police officers encountered Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, it wasn’t a heartless merciless instinct that led them to shoot these two men. Rather it was something worse. It was an ethical framework that told them it was not even worth ten seconds of second thought before shooting. It is the ingrained belief that allowing for even the question to hang in the air about whether a black man may or may not be dangerous is simply not worth it. The police officers made the same decision that the priest and levite made. It is better for the half-person before them to die, than to risk their ability to serve.
As a gunman in Dallas decided that he wanted white people and police officers to die, he was suffering from the same ethical framework embedded in our world. He was suffering under the idea that somehow some lives were more valuable than his, that it was okay for him to try and inflict as much damage as possible to even some kind of score. That his half-personhood was worth a certain and violent end in order to get as many full persons a possible.
The tragic reality of the parable of the Good Samaritan is that it is not the moral lesson we usually think it to be. Instead, it is a mirror that we can hold up to see the broken state of the world. There are bandits who would rob and beat a traveller on the road to Jericho, there are bandits who would kill a traveler on his way with his father to a hospital in Winnipeg. There are important privileged people who are compelled to walk by the suffering of others for the sake of the greater good, those who under a banner that says all lives matter, easily impose a hierarchy valuing some lives more than others in the name of good social order. And in the world of police shooter and vengeful snipers, being a Good Samaritan is maintaining the status quo and systems that oppress some and privilege others.
But the grace-filled reality of the parable of the Good Samaritan is that it is not the moral lesson that we usually think it to be. Instead, it is a lens that we can hold up to see God’s action in the world. There is God who comes along to rescue and save a half-dead traveller in the ditch, there is God who says that random, senseless violence does not define us. There is the God of all power and might, who gives it up to come and find us in the ditch, and who doesn’t make distinctions between greater and lesser good. The Good Samaritan is not who we should aspire to be, but who God is.
We can never be the Good Samaritan. God is always the Good Samaritan.
Back at the beginning of the story, before Jesus tells the parable, a young lawyer stands to ask Jesus what he must to do inherit eternal life. And this question points us back to the heart of what this parable is about. The parable tells us about God’s response to sin and death in our world. And when we listen closely, the parable sounds more like this:
“Humanity” was going down from “The Holy City” into “the night”, and fell into the hands of robbers or racist cops or vengeful gunmen, “into the hands of Sin and Death” who stripped “Humanity”, beat humanity, and went away, leaving humanity half dead. Now by chance “Power” was going down that road; and when he saw “Humanity, “Power” passed by on the other side. So likewise “Privilege”, when he came to the place and saw “Humanity” passed by on the other side. But “the Grace and Mercy of God” while traveling came near “to Humanity”; and when “Grace and Mercy” saw humanity, “she” was moved with pity. “Grace and Mercy” went to humanity and bandaged humanity’s wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then “Grace and Mercy” put humanity on “her” own animal, brought humanity to an inn, and took care of humankind. The next day “she” took out two denarii (silver coins), gave them to the innkeeper, and said, `Take care of “humanity”; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.
The parable of the Good Samaritan is not a moral lesson on good works, but a description of the injustice, suffering, sin and death that seem to control our world, that seem to control us. When the news tells us of sense violence and death, of the sins of racism and injustice, of revenge and tragedy, we can see ourselves in the man beaten and left to die.
But ultimately, the parable shows us how God comes into our broken world, with mercy and grace. And what God does in our world, only God can. God rescues us from the tragedy of random violence and suffering. God meets us where power and privilege can never go. And God finds us in the ditches of sin and death to bring us into healing, and new life.