7 Pentecost

The Rev. Mary Grambsch

Your Word is a lantern for our feet, and a Light upon our path; in the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

The gospel story you heard today is a very familiar one; I am sure that you have heard it many, many times before.  Often with gospel stories that are so well known it can be difficult to learn something new, but if we open our hearts and lives to the gospel somehow we can learn new things even from well known stories.

Today’s Gospel passage begins with two questions, both poised by a lawyer:

The first question:  “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
In other words, “how do I live a righteous life that will be pleasing to God?”  Jesus, like any good teacher, gets his student to answer the question for himself; “You shall love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; and your neighbor as yourself”. Jesus confirms that this is the right answer and commands the man to “do this”.  Notice that Jesus does not just tell him to believe what he has said, but to act on it; to turn his faith and belief into actions.

This command to action gives rise to the second question:
“And who is my neighbor”

Contrary to what you might think the lawyer is not being confrontational in this question.  The lawyer has been very respectful and polite toward Jesus, and his attempt to justify himself shows just how much Jesus opinion matters to him.  He wants Jesus to think he is a righteous man.  His question, “And who is my neighbor” is a very practical question, because the Jewish laws and customs around hospitality are very strict and absolute.  People could be expelled from their community for not showing proper hospitality, which is why the people of Israel when to great lengths to be good hosts; even giving up their last bit of food to feed a guest in their home.  The lawyer wanted to know who he owed this gracious hospitality to – “who is my neighbor”.

Jesus answers this man’s serious question with a story or parable, as many teachers did in those times, to illustrate his point.  Jesus tells of a man who was traveling a dangerous road and was attached by robbers and left for dead.  Two other travelers, a Priest and a Levite saw the man and passed by with offering to help him.  A Levite worked in the Temple – sort of like the Temple Altar Guild and Acolyte.  A third man, a Samaritan saw him and had compassion on him and helped him. 

Jesus told this parable to shock his audience and I am sure the lawyer and the other people listening to this story were shocked.  We are shocked too, but I suspect for very different reasons than the lawyer.  We are shocked by the indifference to human suffering that the Priest and the Levite showed in not stopping to help the battered, bleeding man in any way; they just looked away and hurried by.  The lawyer and other listeners would not have been shocked by this, they would think the Priest’s and Levite’s actions were absolutely right and proper.  For you see, the Priest and Levite offered sacrifice and prayers to God for all of the people of Israel and to touch a bleeding stranger would have made them ritually unclean under the Law, and therefore not able to make a sacrifice for the people before God.  The choice in their mind was the needs of one man on one hand and the needs of thousands and thousands of people on the other hand.  The lawyer would have thought, “it is unfortunate for this one poor, beaten man, but the Priest and the Levite served all the people of Israel by not touching this man.”

What was shocking in this parable for the lawyer and the other hearers was who did stop and help the man; not a righteous Israelite, but a Samaritan.  The Jews hated the Samaritians and would have nothing to do with them; the Samaritans were considered to be unclean, impious, barbarians and no Jew could come into contact with them without being polluted. We think of the Samaritan as being the “good guy” in this parable, we even call this parable, “The Parable of the Good Samaritan”  and, in our modern world, we have “Good Samaritan Laws” and consider those who come to the rescue of strangers to be heroes.  The Jews did not think that an Samaritan was capable of being “good”.  The prejudice against the Samaritans was deep and wide in the Jewish community.

Jesus told this parable not only to illustrate compassionate, neighborly actions, but also to point out how wrong prejudice and stereotyping can be.  It is also a lesson we need to hear again in our own day, all of us, myself included.

One day I was on a crowded subway car, every seat was taken and a few people were standing.  There was a teenager sitting across from me by the door and he was a sight to behold.  He was 18 or 19 years old and had tattoos all over his arms and neck, even his hands, and probably over all the rest of his body.  He also was pierced in dozens of places; his ears, lips, nose, eyebrows and probably other places as well.  He was big, he was surly, he was dangerous looking and he looked like he probably had used drugs as well, and everyone in the car had given him lots of space, not wanting to be near him.   

Well, we pulled into a station and the doors opened and standing there was a tiny, bent, grey-haired grandmother, probably great-grandmother.  As soon as I saw her I though, “what is her family letting her travel in the subway by herself, don’t they know how dangerous it is for someone like her!”  Before I or any one could stand up to offer her a seat, this tattooed, pierces, hulking teenager jumped up and said very politely, “please have a seat ma’am” and helped her to sit down as the train lurched on.  The lady looked a little surprised at first, but took his tattooed hand and said “Thank you young man, that is very kind of you.  I am glad to see that chivalry is not dead!” 

I was surprised, I was shocked, I did not expect to see such kindness and care coming from this young man.  My prejudice against his appearance and my assumption that he would be uncaring, surly and indifferent to this old lady’s needs blinded me from seeing him as a Good Samaritan.  Indeed, I have tried to be more careful in not making assumptions about people because of how they look or letting my own fears get the better of me.

When Jesus finished telling the parable he asked the lawyer a question, “Which of these three was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  And the lawyer, even though he was surprised said, “The one who showed mercy”  He could not yet bring himself to even say the word “Samaritan”, but showed that he was trying to overcome his prejudice.  Jesus tells him, just as before to “go and do this”; to put what he knows is the truth into action.

We too are called by Jesus to put our faith into action; to be compassionate and loving, to look below what we think we know about people, beyond our prejudices and fears to the true heart of people, to instead look with caring eyes, God’s eyes, on all the people we meet and do what we can to be the compassionate and loving followers of Jesus.  AMEN.