Proving to Be a Neighbor

Priests tell time in an odd way, and part of that is the slow circuit of the lectionary. There were years (maybe not happier years, but they seem less troubled from where we stand now) when it always seemed that this Gospel’s appearance would be matched with an uptick in the numbers of people who rang the parish door bell looking for help. The usual requests: a job three towns over and train fare would make it all alright, or some other more or less plausible crisis that more or less money from the discretionary fund could fix. Probably it was more likely a prick of conscience that made me more aware. Working on this gospel will unsettle you, just as hearing it will.

This time, the parable that asks us to look at the wounded man and ponder what we would do. This parable of danger, avoidance, and mercy played out on the street is read when we have seen too many streets as places where danger, denial, and too little mercy demand our attention. It is a parable of questions that were meant to stump someone, but instead evoke ever more challenging questions and that require answers which come from deeper and deeper in our being.

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Luke suggests the question was a test, or a trap (if so, Jesus handles it easily). The answer is on the lawyer’s own lips and we know it: the Summary of the Law. Love God, love your neighbor. And if we don’t hear it as part of the opening rite in the Eucharist as we did once, we are reminded of it every time the deacon calls us to confess our sins against God and our neighbor. Then Lawyer asks a harder question, and though he thinks the answer will give him a framework—a structure within which he can operate, a clear limit that love has to go, but no farther—the answer changes the orientation of the question, because the answer changes anyone who will listen.

Who is my neighbor? Maybe it was a trick question that a clever lawyer threw at a wandering teacher, but I know it’s been my question in earnest. I’ve wondered more than once what my obligation was, what I owed to any number of people. What do I owe the person who shakes a cup at me on the sidewalk? What do I owe a family member whose needs overwhelm me? What claim does my work create between me and colleagues? What am I supposed to give to whom? What must I take into account? Whose flourishing, whose life is affected by how I vote, how I spend money, what I do with my time? Where do I stand, given my reality as white, male, married, reasonably educated, middle class, a father, or any other marker of my identity: chosen, given, or imposed? Each of those puts me in contact and connection with some and distances me from others; and so I have to ask, “Who is my neighbor?” If there is a day when that question demanded an answer in this country, this might be it.

Jesus answers with a story and once the setup is established, he brings on three stock characters. There is of course the disappointing priest; simply a hypocrite? Fearful perhaps, uncertain of what dangers lurked waiting to pounce if he slowed down on the road? Caught in his own troubles and so not registering what was on the road? Quick to blame the victim; writing the man off as drunk or someone who was likely involved in crime and so deserved it? For whatever reason, he passed by and the wounded man lay there. And then there was the Levite, another clerical figure, and he does the same. Clergy: what can you expect? That might have been what the crowd was thinking, and particularly since the Lawyer who raised the question was himself part of the religious establishment.

The crowd knows who’s likely to round out the three characters. If the joke starts, a priest, a Levite, and one more person come down the road, the third person should have been basically a regular guy, an ordinary person, one of us (one of you). You could have watched some folks turn red as this parable began and some folks begin to let a little smirk spread on their face, offended clergy and others thinking they were about to come out on top until Jesus kept going: a Samaritan.

Who were they? Well, without going into the depths of political and religious rivalry of the time, they were half-breeds, heretics, and generally disliked by everyone involved in this encounter with Jesus. Lawyer, religious leaders, towns folk – nobody likes the Samaritans. Just a few passages before this Samaritans had refused to let Jesus and his disciples enter their villages, and James and John had suggested it might be time to call down fire from heaven. Luke carefully places this parable and this question where he does. Here was one of those people who had refused Jesus and whom James and John wanted to blast with fire from heaven.

A Samaritan comes down the road, and you know the rest of the parable. This most unlikely first responder arrives, this unexpected doctor without borders, this unwanted person who is necessary. The wounded man is soothed with wine and oil, placed on a donkey and taken to an inn, given refuge, comfort, and safety. Providing what the wounded man’s future demanded, the Samaritan quietly leaves the scene.

This week, the priest might have an excuse not to notice the single man wounded by the road side. I’ve lost track frankly, but bombs twice in Baghdad? And weren’t the ones in Medina at the Muslim shrines this week? There were a few references in the news back to Orlando and the massacre of 49 people, mostly LGBT and people of color, but troubles and griefs crowd in on us these days, and soon one mass shooting or inexplicable death in police custody replaces another. Baton Rouge was so quickly followed by Minneapolis, with the image of a four year old in the back of a squad car comforting her mother and even that was taken over quickly enough. Dallas: five police men killed, more wounded. Each one of those stories holds the stories of scores of people broken hearted, of lives disrupted. Each time fear and anger burrow deeper into the hearts of countless people.

As individuals grieve and our society and our communities grapple with this, there are those who will quickly and loudly use the moment’s emotions as fodder for yet more division, who will build walls with the bricks of confusion and fear. Watching this, if not caught in demagoguery’s trap, many become cynical and so civic virtue and community decay even further. Last week, parents had to explain to children the deaths of people they knew and loved. And parents and grandparents had to ponder what risk, what danger waited for their children or grandchildren because of their race, the color of their skin. How many parents and family members sending good and decent first responders to work, wondering if they will come back? How many teenagers were thrown out of their homes and onto the streets when they came out to their parents? How many Muslims were attacked and vilified, not for any act of violence or hatred, but in perfect fulfillment of the terrorists’ intentions? There are the stories that captivate the news and there are the human stories that unfold quietly, constantly, and with echoes that will last for decades. Public and private grief and fear, who can see the man lying by the road? It is too much. So this priest on the road from Jerusalem, maybe he was overwhelmed by the violence of what he saw around him and one wounded man just did not register.

There are systemic and cultural, racial and religious roots that give rise to the violence that is all but swamping the roads between our cities and the cities themselves. We can never, never forget what danger, what evil comes quickly to hand from political rhetoric that makes an enemy of some group or the other, that plays on fear rather than work for the well-being of all. And we, in whatever capacity we have to speak, to act, to engage, are responsible for our part in those systems and patterns and assumptions. It matters when systemic racism weighs the scales of justice, of well-being against anyone or any group. And every small action we take to push back or to enable racism matters.

And then we are brought back to this gospel and to Jesus’ question, “Which of these three proved a neighbor to the man who fell among thieves?” At least one point that the parable is trying to make is this: that the priest didn’t even see the man and that the Lawyer is not able even to name the one who proved a neighbor. We easily and thoughtlessly connect “good” and “Samaritan” as if it’s a single term; for the lawyer it was utter nonsense. It struck against all his understanding of national and religious and ethnic identity, his and others. When was the last time you had solid, unexamined preconceptions blown away? When was the last time you faced your own prejudice and saw it for the lie it is? Remember that and you’ll understand where the Lawyer stands as Jesus questions him. Two questions set this parable in motion: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”, “Who is my neighbor?”, and a third one, “Who proved to be a neighbor?” is Jesus’ work to change the Lawyer and us. He didn’t say “the good Samaritan.” He couldn’t. But he had to say this: “The one who showed mercy.” And that was at least a beginning.

We come to this altar this morning, some of us broken hearted and even more fearful because of the flood of events these last weeks and with more than a little unease for what might be next. Some of us come aware of our own participation in privilege and some aware of our exposure to the danger that our culture doles out by race or class, religion or position. Maybe this Gospel catches us unaware of how often we pass by the wounded on the road. Maybe it makes us aware of our own sense of being set upon and attacked and defenseless. “The one who had mercy,” as the lawyer put it, meets all of us here. There is mercy here for burdened hearts and the guilty conscience. Early commentators were much more comfortable with analogy and were able to see in this parable the work of Christ, unexpected and not always welcome, who takes up the wounded and dying, and bathes us and anoints us with oil in baptism and gives us the wine of gladness at this altar and places us within the inn, the community that is his Church. We come this morning and entrust those who have died and those who grieve to the care of the Good Samaritan who gives himself for their healing. But there are also those whose hearts are caught in hate, who are happy to divide and blame, whose hands reach towards violence and whose words are knives. We have to pray for our enemies, that God changes hearts and restrains evil, and so we pray that the Good Samaritan will find those who lie in wait and who take aim by the road and bring healing to them as well.

And we have to hear Jesus’ question address each of us and all of us in this parish and all the communities in which we stand. Who proved neighbor? And each of us needs to understand and know who it is that Jesus would have us see, who lies wounded within the reach of our compassion, who needs our kind words and who it is that we need to stand with as companion or where we need to stand as shield. What we have, and who we are can be the oil and wine that binds wounds. What we have and what we can do can hold someone up. God grant that we know what we should do and have grace to do it. Did you hear the collect that began this Mass? Maybe it and this gospel need to be on our hearts and in our mouths in the days ahead. Priest, Levite, Samaritan: who saw the wounded traveler? Whom do you see? And then, once that is answered, Jesus asks, “Who proved neighbor?”

It is too late to say it now, but probably the only sermon needed on this parable is the one that Jesus gives to the Lawyer and to us: “Go thou and do likewise.” May we go and may the grace and the hope that we find be what we do and say – and may God’s healing flow through our cities and through our world.


Preached by Father David Cobb

10 July 2016, the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia

Posted on July 13, 2016 .