Sermon on 5 Pentecost C: Luke 10:25-37. Preached at Bethany, Escanaba, on July 14, 2019 by Pastor Dave Van Kley
I don’t suppose there is any text in the Bible more familiar than today’s gospel. It is so embedded in our culture that we speak of anyone who stops to help another as a “Good Samaritan.” I belong—as perhaps some of you do—to the “Good Sam Club,” which allows me to purchase certain goods and services at a discounted rate. Just what that has to do with the Good Samaritan story, I’m not really sure—but it shows how the story has found a place in our culture.
I suppose all of us have Good Samaritan stories to tell. Here are two of mine.
Some years ago, when we lived in Custer, South Dakota, I went for a winter hike with our son, Nick, and his wife, Tina, in nearby Wind Cave National Park. It was a mild day, with very little snow on the ground. We parked along a dirt road and walked for 6 or 8 miles through rolling hills of grass and pine before returning to our parking place. As we crested the last summit, we saw my pick-up truck below, surrounded by wild buffalo—there must have been twenty of them. And they were licking my truck. Licking the road salt residue from it, their big, wet, drooling tongues covering every inch with slobber.
Yuck! But the real problem was how were we going to get to our truck? Bison, you probably know, are dangerous and unpredictable. We could not approach them.
So we sat there, a couple hundred yards away, and waited. The buffalo did not move. Sunset approached: what to do? Finally, we saw an SUV coming down the two-track road. Yay! But my heart skipped a little when I saw from the license plates that the driver was from Minnehaha County, where Sioux Falls is located. Now, South Dakota, like Michigan, is divided into two unequal parts: above the bridge and below it, eastriver and westriver. People from west of the Missouri River feel dismissed by people from the more populous east. We experienced them as clueless tourists on our land. So I was biased against this driver.
When the car reached us, he rolled down his window and said, “That your pick up?” Yep. “A lotta buffalo around it!” Yep. A moment’s silence. Then: Could you help me? “How?” Drive me over there? The fellow from Sioux Falls thought for a moment and then let me in. I climbed in the passenger seat, while his two kids sat wide-eyed in the back. We literally bumped the bison out of the way with his vehicle, until he could position me alongside my truck. I dove into vehicle and saluted him and his kids, as they drove off. He proved my prejudice wrong.
A second—and briefer--story. The other day, we were driving with our two grandchildren back from Montana. As we pulled into Bismarck, North Dakota for the night, there was a homeless man standing alongside the exit ramp, holding a sign, which read: “Ashamed, Hungry, Jobless—Please Help.” Now, we usually don’t give handouts to such people. But something about this man—his sign, his appearance, or maybe the presence of our grandkids in the backseat, made me fish in my wallet for a $10 bill. We stopped long enough for me to hand it to him, then sped away, as he shouted, “Oh, thank you, thank you for caring!”
Both of these are Good Samaritan stories. Yet, when placed alongside today’s text, they pale by comparison.
Jesus told this story as a Jewish teacher to a Jewish religious leader about a Jewish man who had been brutally robbed and beaten. Two other religious Jews see the man lying there, but pass by without helping. The one who finally stops is not a Jew but a Samaritan. Now the hostility between these two groups of people—Jews and Samaritans—was nothing like the rivalry between Yoopers and people from lower Michigan, or from the different halves of South Dakota. More like what you’d find between Palestinians and Jewish settlers today. The Good Samaritan Jesus spoke about was an oxymoron to the lawyer. There were no good Samaritans.
The Samaritan wasn’t risking some dents in his SUV from unhappy buffalo. By stopping along that road to help, he was as likely as not to be robbed and beaten himself. He did not fork out a ten-dollar bill, which for people like me is a drop in the bucket: he bandaged wounds, put the man on his donkey, re-routed his journey, paid for a motel, and then wrote a blank check. His compassion knew no bounds.
This story has bite to it! It calls into question the lawyer’s definition of love. And ours.
Who is my neighbor? For the political conservative, the Green New Deal advocate who demands wholesale change. For the woman who works at Planned Parenthood, the man who stands outside the building every morning holding a Right to Life sign.
Who is my neighbor? The undocumented immigrants scheduled to be rounded up today. The transgender person we do not understand. The person from the other side of our family who will not talk to us. The kid in the hoodie, his body covered with tattoos and piercings. The black woman demanding reparations for white America’s sins. The person in Venezuela or North Korea or Syria, robbed of basic human rights, left for dead by the rest of us.
Who is my neighbor? What about some of the people in low income housing right around our church building, whom I’ve heard referred to as “druggies.” Aren’t they also victims, robbed and left for dead by addiction and by cultural and generational factors beyond their control?
“Who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asked. “Be careful what you ask for.” Jesus sees every human being as your neighbor. And the whole human race as your neighborhood.
The parable of the Good Samaritan is unsettling. It strips away our defenses. It disallows our rationalizations.
And didn’t Jesus say we would meet him in neighbors such as these? That he would be present in the person who is hungry or thirsty or naked or a stranger? Or in prison? “When you do it to one of the least of these, you do it to me,” Jesus said.
When we pass them by, we pass him by.
In another way, aren’t we like the man who was robbed? Sin robs us of the wholeness God intends for us. We are robbed of compassion by self-concern, courage by fear, joy by despair, freedom by guilt and shame. Sin beats us down, leaves us for dead.
But Jesus is the ultimate Good Samaritan. As a Jewish man, who stops to help Gentiles like us. He knew no sin—yet became sin for all of us—bearing its burden and cost on the cross, writing God’s promise of forgiveness in blood. He was the best of humankind, yet accepted the worst treatment humans can mete out, to overcome the power of evil, once and for all.
We whose lives are ravaged by sin and death find in him the gracious God whose amazing grace nurses us back to health.
I remember Lee, a truck driver, one of the most racist people I’ve ever known. Lee despised African Americans. One night, outside a truck stop, he collapsed. Another driver found him unconscious and called 911. He was airlifted to the nearest hospital. An aneurysm had burst, survival was very unlikely. However, a skilled surgeon saved his life.
The surgeon was African American. Lee didn’t meet him until he was removed from the vent tube and opened his eyes. And there was his Savior, as black as night. The Good Samaritan who gave him back his health.
Lee was a different person after that.
This sermon cannot end with this story, any more than Jesus’ encounter with the lawyer could end with the parable. Jesus ended the conversation with a command: “Go and do likewise.” Which is precisely what we are left with, too.