“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
+ In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
A man is on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. He’s attacked by robbers who beat him and leave him half dead. The respectable members of society walk right on by. Then someone who’s considered an enemy, really disliked and resented, stops and helps this man, and binds his wounds, and takes him to an inn and pays the innkeeper to take care of him.
It’s one of the shortest, most straightforward stories in Scripture. I think it certainly is one of the most transparent parables. It’s one of the most familiar and best loved passages in the Bible. I’ve heard people say that it was this story that really brought them to conversion because they felt that they could love a guy who taught this as a way of life, that they could follow this as a way to live. This is, I think, one of the most important stories in the New Testament, in terms of helping us to understand how we should live.
When I was in seminary, I took a course in Christian ethics, which is a way of saying how we should live our lives. The basic textbook for the course was called Go and Do Likewise. That was the title. Not that we should do exactly the same thing because our circumstances are different, but by reflecting on stories like this, we can understand what our faith says to us about how we should live our lives.
Before I go any farther, I have a confession to make. So you know that I’m really preaching to myself up here as much as to you. They say that all preachers are preaching to themselves. I have crossed the street to avoid engaging with someone I didn’t want to come close to. I’ve done it. Mostly in the city, mostly drunks or people who were yelling obscenities, sometimes simple panhandlers.
I tell myself the money isn’t really going to help. They’re going to spend it on drink. This won’t solve their problems. I donate to charities which have a better idea of how to deal with these people. In fact, I’m in awe of the people of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania’s Clare Project, who provide ministry to the unsheltered in Kensington, mostly people dealing with substance abuse problems. It’s a terrible situation. They’re out there on the streets praying with people, giving them some basics, not so much money as clean socks, and snacks, and water, and referrals to the Catholic Worker health clinic there. I’m in awe of those people, but that’s not really what this story of the Good Samaritan is about.
I’ve been hearing this story since I was a kid. I’ve preached on it a few times before. I always thought of it as a story about kindness, about compassion to people who were different, until I came across a post on Facebook last year.[i] The Book of Face, one of our primary texts. It made such an impression on me that I saved it, saved it for this day when I would again preach the story of the Good Samaritan.
Now all parables, you will remember, are subject to multiple interpretations. I’m not saying that interpretation that I just mentioned—kindness and compassion to people who are different—is wrong, but there are other ways of looking at it too.
According to the wisdom of this Facebook post, which really moved me, this story shows us that there are three kinds of people in the world. There are those who live by the principle that what’s yours is mine at whatever cost. Those, of course, are the robbers in this story.
There are people who live by the principle that what’s mine is mine, and I must protect it even if it means that you get hurt in the process. Those are the respectable people who pass by the victim in this story.
And there are people who live by the principle that what’s mine is yours if you have need of it. That, of course, is the Samaritan.
What’s mine is yours if you need it. That’s really a challenge. It’s hard to imagine truly living that way. I think the thing that holds us back from that is fear. I’m afraid of getting involved. I’m afraid of what might happen. I’m afraid there won’t be enough for me if I give it to you.
I think one way of understanding this story is that it’s really a story about fear. The road from Jerusalem was 17 miles of winding, remote, notoriously dangerous traveling. Maybe the respectable people in the story hurried on because they were afraid that if they lingered the robbers would come back, or a new group of robbers would come along and do the same thing to them.
A story about fear. I think a lesson about fear is really a lesson for our times because, my friends, we are on our own road to Jericho. I don’t remember a time in my life when I felt there was so much fear out there, that people were so afraid. If there’s anyone here today who isn’t afraid of something, I’d like to know your secret.
I’m afraid of all the haters. There seem to be so many haters out there. Some have actually been elected to public office, some are running for public office. Some of the school board meetings in our county sound like hate-group sessions.
I’m afraid of the haters and I’m afraid of guns. I was in the city on the Fourth of July. I could have gone down to the Parkway to see the fireworks, to hear the concert. I didn’t want to go, even before I heard about the shooting in Chicago that morning. I didn’t want to go because I don’t want to be exposed in a crowd like that. I am afraid of guns. In the city, I think about it, but we know now, it could happen anywhere. I’m afraid for my grandchildren when they go to school. I don’t have a gun, you might guess, but I think maybe the people who have guns are afraid of something too.
I’m afraid of what’s happening to our economy. As a retired person, I think, are my savings going to last? But I think working people are afraid that what it’s going to cost them just to buy gas to go to work, it’s going to eat up what they’re making. Where is this going?
I’m afraid of the erosion of our civil rights. I’m afraid of the instability of our democracy.
I’m afraid of what’s happening to the environment. I think what kind of a world are my grandchildren going to be living in when they grow up.
Yes, I am afraid. I remind myself, so many times Jesus told his disciples, “Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid.” It’s one of the most frequent sayings in the New Testament, but how can we get past all this fear when surely so many of these threats are real?
I’d be lying if I said I knew a simple answer, but I think we can find the beginning right here in this story. We begin by setting out on that road to Jericho even if it might feel safer to lock the doors and stay inside. We keep on living. We begin with the simple act of taking care of each other. I don’t just mean our dearest friends, and nearest neighbors.
We remember that it’s about receiving as well as about giving. It’s not just about giving to people, taking care of people, giving to people who are different. It’s about willing to be open to the humanity of people. Imagine your worst enemy, whoever you think that might be. Would you welcome them here? Would you welcome them to join us in worship? Would you welcome them to join you in your service projects? Would you be open to being taken care of by them, the humility of that?
I think that sometimes you just have to begin, even when you don’t know how. You have to live it before you can actually come to believe it. You have to fake it to make it. I think that’s a saying. It didn’t start with AA, but it’s a 12-step saying. Fake it until you make it.
But it isn’t just fake because the practice of virtue opens us to grace, I think, and we begin to live that way. We begin to live that way. We begin to let go of the fear and believe that a different way of living is possible.
Seeking to justify himself in this story, needing to really prove his own righteousness, the lawyer in the story asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” It turns out to be the man who wasn’t afraid to help.
[i] “A few years ago, a seminary professor of mine,” Hill Carmichael, Sept. 1, 2021, https://www.facebook.com/hill.carmichael/posts/pfbid028TZKsiDgJyovCryhwgkF69MTAR2JaFz2NhrBWU887vXhMx9eZgRwqH1XZPPN3LgAl, accessed July 11, 2022.