Why do you call me good? I’m not really, you know. I’m not bad, either, but I’m not particularly good. But for some reason you seem bound and determined to keep calling me good – the Good Samaritan, with a capital G and a capital S. I’ve become a compound noun, a phrase that’s shorthand for a particular kind of person doing a particular kind of thing. I’ve even become a clause in liability insurance policies and in state law to reassure you that if you’re trying to help someone in a crisis situation and you fail, you cannot be successfully sued or prosecuted. You all use this little phrase so much that it’s started to seem like those two words just go together, good and Samaritan. You realize, of course, that they don’t. At least they didn’t for the people who first heard my story. For them, for the Jews of Jesus’ time, good and Samaritan went together about as well as good and Mets’ fan would for you, or healthy and cheesesteak. No, Jesus’ listeners would have told you that there was nothing particularly good about Samaritans. We had had a serious falling out, you see; we were like first cousins after a family feud, like best friends who decide to try being roommates – we were so close that our differences drove us crazy and finally drove us apart. So the fact that now the phrase Good Samaritan just trips off of all of your tongues is a little shocking. The Parable of the Good Samaritan. The Church of the Good Samaritan. She was saved by a Good Samaritan. Inconceivable.
And why call me good? I’m not so good. I’m just a man who was in the wrong place at the right time. I’m not a saint, for heaven’s sake. I’m not even particularly religious. Sure I go to worship when I need to (on Mt. Gerazim, of course). I make my yearly sacrifices, I keep the Law. But I’m a working man; I don’t have time to sit around debating Torah and asking questions about eternal life. I have to work; I have to walk, to travel around the country selling the wine that my family has made for generations. I am a respectable businessman, a respectable husband and father, but I don’t have a halo, and I’m not some sort of hero.
I do not like traveling the Jericho road. Never have, never will. The people I run across when I make that journey back and forth from Jerusalem are mostly miserable. Especially during the high pilgrim season, when they’re in a hurry, and they’re anxious, and they’re all pushing and shoving and running their donkeys right up the back of your neck. The rest of the year they mostly just ignore you. Most people are so worried about who’s in and who’s out, who’s friend and who’s other, that it’s easier to just pretend like you aren’t even there.
And mostly I ignore them right back, especially Jerusalem Jews. Now don’t get me wrong; I’ve never been openly hostile to the Jews. When some of my neighbors got it into their heads to go to Jerusalem and desecrate the temple by throwing a bunch of old bones around the place, I didn’t go along. I was tempted to, but I didn’t. But I have to admit, when I see the way the way my people are treated – as outcasts, as heretics and lesser-thans – it angers me. So I stick to my own side of the road.
But that anger is nothing compared to how I feel about the robbers. They make me furious, these bands of men who run about this wilderness road stealing and wounding and basically scaring the hell out of people. I’m a large man, with strong hands, and they leave me alone. But I have wished time and time again that one of them would try to rob me, just so I would have the pleasure of beating him up one side and down the other with absolutely no guilt whatsoever. So you see? I’m not that good.
You know, I almost didn’t stop when I saw that guy on the other side of the road. He was such a mess. I couldn’t believe what a pounding he had taken. Every bone in my body told me to just keep my eyes down and my feet moving. You know that feeling. It’s like when you come up on a woman sitting on the pavement talking to herself with a cup of coins in her hand, or a man with greasy hair crying over a cardboard sign that reads, Hungry! Please help. I almost kept walking. The man looked like he might have been dead anyway. But then I stopped and looked at him. I really looked at him. I saw him, naked and bloody and lying in the dust, and suddenly I was full of anger and full of pity all at the same time. Just looking at him made my whole body hurt. I really didn’t want to get involved, but what could I do? I couldn’t just leave his body there for the wind and the wolves. I was starting to ponder if I could get a burial for him down in Jericho if I didn’t even know who he was, when just then, he moaned. Not a lot, just a little, desperate, moan.
And my heart just went out to the guy. I mean, he was really in a rough way. So I went over to him to see what I could do. I don’t know anything about first aid, but I didn’t think any bones were broken. Well, maybe a couple of ribs. But he was bruised from head to toe, with scrapes and cuts where the robbers’ knuckles had torn at his skin. His wounds were red and angry and filthy. Flies were already starting to pick at them. Well, I thought, I can at least clean him up a bit while we’re waiting for someone else to come along. So I poured some of my oil over the cuts to try to get some of the dust out; but that just made things sticky and not very clean. Wine would be better. All I had with me was the wine I was going to sell down in Jericho, and I wasn’t thrilled about wasting a whole wineskin just to wash out the wounds of a guy who was probably going to die anyway, but I saw him lying there, completely broken, and so I broke the seal on a wineskin and poured out some wine. On the open wounds. He didn’t like that much.
We sat there for a while, him flinching and moaning and muttering about someone named Sarah, me wiping his wounds and waiting for someone else to come along to take him off my hands. Which, of course, no one did. And, well, you know the rest of the story. I shrugged him up on my own donkey, put my pack on my own back, and got him out of there. I cared for him myself until I found someone else who could help. But that’s it. I’m not a Superman. I’m not a Savior. I’m just a Samaritan.
So why do you call me good? You know, Jesus asked that question, too. Why do you call me good? Of course, the person who was calling him good was a sycophantic hypocrite just trying to get in with “the man.” Jesus asked the question because he didn’t want to be flattered. I guess I’m asking it because I don’t want to be flattened. The Good Samaritan. As if calling me “good” explains everything. I’m not perfect, some great example of purity and saintly and noble guy. I’m not a good guy who of course had no other option but to help that man on the road. I’m just a normal guy – a guy like you – who did something, one thing, that was, actually, pretty good. The point of Jesus’ story is not that I am a person of particular virtue, who gets it better than you do, who is innately better, somehow, than you. To say that would be as idiotic as to say that the priest and Levite who walked by earlier are innately evil, or that the lawyer who asked Jesus the question that got this whole thing started was innately selfish or callous. That is hugely missing the point. We’re all just men, people, like you, and what determines whether we’re good or not is what we actually choose to do. What I did wasn’t easy. I didn’t do it because I’m particularly good, and I certainly didn’t do it because I was trying to be “nice.” I just did it, one little step at a time. I did it because I saw this guy and I felt his pain, and I found that I couldn’t just leave it at that. I stepped into his skin, and once I had done that, I just had to help him. I felt compassion for him. Compassion. I was suffering with him, and so helping him was actually helping me, because in that moment he was my brother, my neighbor, a part of my family, a part of myself. He was my responsibility. So if you’re going to call me anything, call me compassionate. The Compassionate Samaritan. The world could use more perfectly normal but wholeheartedly compassionate people doing good things any day of the week, just like I guess the world could use more neighborhood watch programs where people are watching for neighbors instead of for others.
So don’t call me good. I don’t think it’s so helpful, if it makes you feel like I’m good and therefore better than you so why bother. There is only really one who is good. No one is good but God alone. But he is so good, he is so good that he offers us his only Son, the compassionate one, to suffer with us, to die for us, to rise again in great glory, to offer all of us normal folk the glimmer of hope of being compassionate people doing good things. Because that we can do. That we must do. So go and do likewise.
Preached by Mtr. Erika Takacs
14 July 2013
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia