We have all heard this story many, many times. We’ve heard it so many times that I fear we don’t even hear it anymore. Or we don’t hear it for anything new. We think we understand it. But as a wise man once said to me, “if we think we understand the parables, we’ve missed their meaning entirely” for there are always new layers to uncover, new meanings to explore, new messages for each of us each day. The whole point in saying things with a story is exactly that – that stories have much greater depth, they share at deeper and deeper levels if we let them into our hearts. They stick with us, and this story sticks particularly well, and gives our hearts something to chew on, to meditate on, to engage with in our prayers and our time with God. However, while we know that stories do this, sometimes even they can become so familiar that we no longer really hear them, or we no longer can accept new information from them.
Today we used a “reader’s theater” version of the story in an attempt to hear it a little differently. Did that help? What did you hear differently? Did anything strike you that hadn’t struck you before?
Are there certain kinds of people who when they approach you it bothers you? Are there strangers who, when they approach you, you find yourself thinking “oh, no: not today.” Or “please don’t talk to me!” Or “You can’t see me, you can’t see me!” Who are they? The beggars near the grocery stores? How about political solicitors - those are the ones who really bother me - they stand outside the stores trying to get you to donate money for whatever cause they have and to sign their petitions. I find that really annoying - I just want to go to the store in peace, but there they are trying to get my attention, my time, and sometimes my money as I try to go about my business, and there are times when it is just too much to even try to be polite, when even a simple, “no thank you!” feels like too much work. Who else?
A half dozen years ago I had a doctor’s appointment that I was a little nervous about and as I was waiting in the waiting room a woman came in who plopped herself down next to another patient and began to talk, asking very personal questions about his medical problems and his wife (whom all of us in the waiting room soon discovered had recently died - apparently, this did nothing though to stop this woman from further inquiries into the nature and specifics of her death!). At first, I found it a little amusing listening to her harass this poor guy and also share some very personal stuff (like about her sex life) that the rest of us really didn’t particularly want to hear. But as I sat there, one by one the other patients in the waiting room were called, I began to get nervous. When her conversational victim of choice was called to his appointment, this woman got up and sat next to someone else and began all over again. I found myself quickly reaching for a book and pretending to be completely engrossed in it. When everyone else was finally called in and I was left, just her and I in the waiting room, I found myself bending over and praying HARD that I would be invisible to her or called in as quickly as possible. This kind of thing is hard for me to take. And the reality is that it was only after I had left that situation that I realized that I had missed an opportunity. An opportunity to listen, to grow, to help, and to be enrichened by this other human being. Are there people like that for you?
Some of these people don’t need too much help. And others need a great deal of help (this poor woman at the hospital for example, probably really needed someone to talk to). In the face of the reality that at times we don’t want to be bothered with the hurts and needs of the strangers around us, the story of the Good Samaritan is usually a story of conviction; we are convicted of being, on too many occasions, the priest or the Levite, who in our hurry or in our own crisis do not have time to deal with the crisis of someone else right in front of us. We’ve been told, probably almost every time we’ve heard this story, that the priest and Levite also have “good” reasons for not helping out the man: religious reasons even. For the priest, touching this bloodied man would have rendered the priest unclean which then would have prevented him from being able to do his job as a priest - caring for others, serving others. He did not help this beaten up man, perhaps SO THAT he might be able to help many other people. With the Levite there are similar issues. And most of the time that we hear this story preached, then, we are reminded that though we, too, may have really good reasons - we too are in a hurry because we have to care for our children, or go to work, or do whatever else needs to be done in our lives that involves caring for people we know and have commitments to, that according to Jesus these reasons just plain aren’t enough. Not then. Not now. Not ever.
But this is hard to do, at times it feels impossible. A few years ago one of our seminaries decided to really test its ministerial candidates. All of the candidates had to walk through a specific tunnel on their way to one of the class rooms. On the day of the final exam for the class, the dean “put” an “injured” person in the tunnel whom all of the students would need to pass by on their way to their final. The result? What we would probably consider a shocking number of students - 70% of these ministerial students did not stop to help the man because they were worried about being late for their final. These are people like the priest and Levite in the Good Samaritan story - these are people like us.
We currently have laws called “Good Samaritan law” which in most cases in the United States are laws that say if you try to help someone medically who really needs the help, even if you fail or end up injuring them further in the attempt, you cannot be sued. But there are also more and more places, beginning with Vermont, that now have a law that says if you are in a position to help someone without risk to yourself, who is experiencing a crime or medical problem and you fail to do so, you can be fined or even imprisoned. This law has been enacted in places to prevent what happened in one Seinfeld episode from happening on a regular basis: in this episode everyone stood around and watched while a woman was robbed and no one did anything to help. The law in Massachusetts General Law Chapter 268, Section 40, requires that anyone who "knows that another person is a victim of aggravated rape, murder, manslaughter or armed robbery and is at the scene of said crime shall, to the extent that said person can do so without danger or peril to himself or others, report said crime to an appropriate law enforcement official as soon as reasonably practicable."
We hear terrible stories in the papers all the time in which a crime is happening to someone in a public place and everyone just stands around and watches, but no one steps in and offers the simple assistance that would actually stop the problem, no one calls for help, no one does anything but stop and stare. It is in response to these that such laws are made. But really, isn’t it unfortunate that the idea of helping someone in dire crisis has to be made into a law in order to make it happen in many cases? I find the fact that these laws are being made in some places pushes me to think even farther. Maybe these laws should be expanded. For example, maybe we should be fined, or arrested for standing idle and not sending money to help starving children in Africa when we can afford it. Maybe we should be fined for not adopting a desperate child who’s being abused. How about for failing to call the cops when we hear a neighbor hurting or being hurt by another family member? What about shopping at a store that we know uses child labor or mistreats its employees?
There are so many ways of turning away, of failing to be the neighbors we are called to be. There is a song by Pink Floyd (that I won’t play for you) but I do want to share with you the words because I think they are really appropriate for today’s scripture lesson:
Oh the turning away
From the pale and downtrodden
And the words they say, Which we won't understand
"Don't accept that what's happening Is just a case of others' suffering
Or you'll find that you're joining in The turning away
Feel the new wind of change On the wings of the night.
No more turning away From the weak and the weary
No more turning away From the coldness inside
Just a world that we all must share It's not enough just to stand and stare
Is it only a dream that there'll be No more turning away?
The Good Samaritan story in the Bible is really about something very simple. We are called to help those around us, no matter who they are. As an Arab proverb tells us - “To have a good neighbor you must be one.”
So, as I said at the beginning, we’ve all heard this story and mostly this story convicts us. Where is the good news in this? Well, someone does come along to help the poor man on the side of the road - someone considered imperfect by the standards of the day - a Samaritan, an outcast, a person who didn’t have it right. Sinner saving sinner. The lost helping the lost. Grace, mercy, coming out when we least expect it. And the Good Samaritan is sometimes us. Sometimes it is you and sometimes it is me. Other times we are the one hurt on the side of the road. But again, someone does come and help. Together we work together, helping each other, uplifting each other, wrapped in the action of love - God’s love and God’s grace. This is what the kingdom of heaven looks like. Here on earth, all around. As the words to one of my favorite hymns, “Gather us in” say, “Not in the dark of buildings confining; and not in some heaven light years away, but here in this place a new light is shining. Now is the kingdom. Now is the day.” Let there be no more turning away. Amen.