How many times in the course of a lifetime of slightly more than three quarters of a century have I read, either publicly or privately, the Parable of the Good Samaritan? I do not know, nor have I any way of even roughly estimating. I do know, however, that in recent years it has more and more put me in mind of a nursery rhyme which Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations ascribes to that most prolific or authors : Anonymous. In other words, it is part of the common heritage of the English speaking world. “As I was going to St. Ives, I met a man with seven wives, Each wife had seven sacks, Each sack had seven cats, Each cat had seven kits: Kits, cats sacks, and wives. How many were there going to S. Ives?” This, of course, is not about a resort town on the north coast of Cornwall; nor is it a bit of proselytizing for the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints; neither is it an humanitarian plea to have one’s pets spayed or neutered. It is a riddle. “A question or statement testing ingenuity in divining its answer or meaning.” Now for those of you who are still trying to reckon up wives, sacks, cats and kits on your fingers, I won’t leave you hanging. Only one was going to St. Ives, “As I was going to St. Ives, I met …” this bizarre multitude coming the other way. And so, the Parable of the Good Samaritan is a riddle as well – a question testing our ingenuity. Or rather, it is what our parents and teachers told us never to do. It is the answering of question with another question. From our perspective an exercise in rudeness, but with plenty of Rabbinic precedence. The initial question comes in response to what we know as the Summary of the Law, the two great commandments of Hebrew scripture to love God with one’s whole being, and to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. And that’s good, but, the questioner wants to know, how far? Give us some limits, give us some boundaries, Reb Jesuit! Who is my neighbor? And Jesus responded, and responds by saying “You’re asking the wrong question. You should be asking ‘What constitutes neighborliness?’ A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho.”
Now I am constrained to tell you a story from my own experience of parochial ministry. I do this with some hesitancy, since there are some elements of this story which would tend to cast me in the role of Good Samaritan, but that would be unjustified. You see I find myself, as I suspect most of us do, guided by two apparently conflicting attitudes, apparently conflicting, but in reality comfortable coexisting. “Charity begins at home” we proclaim; followed by, “But not in my backyard.” And armed with those two mottos, when confronted with the man mugged on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, I find myself identified with my clerical colleagues, the priest and the Levite who after all, had they been going to Jerusalem, rather than from it, might have had at least a dim excuse for ignoring the victim by the side of the road. Had they been on their way to the Temple to exercise their ministry, they might have run the risk of defilement, rendering them ritually unable to perform their duties. But as it was, they were on their way to Jericho, where a salubrious climate offered its comforts for off-duty and well-to-do members of the Temple staff. So the risks of pollution constituted only a minor inconvenience. The priest and the Levite just plain didn’t want to be bothered. No, in this story I am about to tell you, the role of the Good Samaritan is best played by the third person of the Holy Trinity, the Holy Spirit, than by me, or anyone else. It was New Year’s Day, 1990 (the date is significant). The previous week had been very busy, and I arrived home from a family luncheon in the late afternoon, wanting to do nothing more than to take a nap, but feeling impelled to check the phone first. And there it was: the answering machine insistently winking at me. Having pushed the right buttons, I began to listen to what proved to a life-changing message. Neither the voice nor the name was known to me, but the message went on and on. Its burden was that the caller was a member of another communion, but he had been told that Episcopalians were more compassionate, and he therefore wanted to become an Episcopalian. About the time I began praying for him to wind it up (I was afraid the answering machine would run out of tape), he concluded with the words “And by the way, I’m dying.” Yes, you’re right. This was a case of AIDS. In 1990 AIDS was still an urban disease. People in old, stable, even stagnant, decayed industrial boroughs in Southeastern Pennsylvania, towns with strong ethnic communities, didn’t have AIDS. But my caller had lived in the big city, and, finding himself suffering from a disease which pharmacy had not learned to control, had come home to his mother to die. Over the next few months I learned how ill prepared both intellectually and emotionally I was to deal with this disease. With the advice and support of the then bishop of Pennsylvania I saw to it that my caller was duly enrolled as a communicant member of my parish. He died a week before Palm Sunday, the undertaker telling me that it was one of the most peaceful deaths we had ever seen. His Requiem was celebrated in the church, with the interment of his ashes in the parish cemetery. During the service, at his request, I read that prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, which you probably know well enough to repeat along with me, at least under your breath.
“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love, where there is injury, pardon, where there is doubt, faith, where there is despair, hope, where there is darkness, light, and where there is sadness, joy. O, divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console, to be understood, as to understand, to be loved, as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”
I still look back on those three months from the Holy Name of Jesus, New Year’s Day to the fifth week of Lent 1990, as one of the most demanding periods of my active ministry.
A few weeks after Easter that year I was waited upon one morning in my office by an elderly priest, recently retired as rector of a nearby parish. I had secured his services as a supply priest while I was to be away that summer. He was a crusty old party, never popular with his parishioners, and regarded as a joke by his colleagues, just the sort of person to get as a summer supply. It makes your own parishioners happy to have you back. At any rate, his visit was the first chance I had had to discuss these experiences with a fellow priest. And I remember saying that I had never even asked how my New Years’ caller had contracted his disease. It was a dumb thing to say, but not the first dumb thing I’ve ever said. My colleague almost jumped out of his chair. “Of course you didn’t,” he said. “You heard someone in need, and you responded.” Jesus said, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers? The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.”
Preached by the Rev. Nicholas Phelps
11 July 2010
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia