by Daniel Harrell
You really can’t do a year of the Good Neighbor without a sermon on the Good Samaritan. We spent part of last fall probing this popular parable in the context of our first core value: Welcome Beloved. Beloved pertains both to the welcomed and the welcomer because God loves all people, the righteous and unrighteous alike. But because we’re not God, loving our neighbors can be hard—and that without Jesus’ caveat that we love our enemies too. Only God’s love for us makes love possible—as well as mandatory too. We welcome because Jesus welcomed us first.
As I’m leaving Colonial to become Editor-in-Chief of Christianity Today in January, I thought I’d should check what the magazine I’m going to be in charge of had to say. In one article by an economist (which I thought was another magazine), I read how, “the Parable of the Good Samaritan is so familiar, we often forget what prompted it. It was Jesus’ response to a [lawyer’s] question: “Who is my neighbor?” In Jesus’ day, one’s neighbor was someone in your social network. One helped one’s neighbor because, at least potentially, someday the neighbor may return the favor. [Do unto others as you want them to do unto you, so to speak.] In contrast, Jesus offered a radical view: Your neighbor is someone with whom you may share few existing ties. Your neighbor may not even be a fellow countryman. Your neighbor may be someone whom it is risky to love, and loving your neighbor may call you to make inconvenient sacrifices.”
Among the first sermons I preached more than 30 years ago was entitled Had Jesus Been Born in Queens, the topic influenced by a youth group trip I had led into New York back when New York was a place to avoid. As a youth minister, I used to take suburban kids on various urban adventures, only losing a few here and there. Once we witnessed a fight break out beneath a window in the place we were staying . The kids quickly gathered at the window to watch and were horrified to see a knife drawn and blood spilled. They instinctively yelled at the assailant to stop, but were quickly subdued by the Christian owner of the home who yelled at us to get away from the window. The rules of the street mandated non-involvement for the sake of self-preservation.
Such non-involvement, while prudent, was tough to justify to these privileged kids we were trying to encourage to get involved in the city for the sake of the gospel on behalf of the poor—especially since we’d spent that particular weekend studying the Good Samaritan. It’s a hard story to read if you’re not planning to go and do likewise. Or even just stay and do likewise. Among the most difficult aspects of my years serving a church in the city was the constant queue of folks who’d come to our door needing help, or so they’d say. Not ashamed of the gospel, we listened to a lot of stories. Sorting out the legit from the fake in the name of good stewardship often required a full-day’s worth of effort and energy, a whole day which my schedule did not always allow. I’d feel guilty in those cases until I recalled the Good Samaritan parable. As the modern-day equivalents of the priest as the Levite, we ministers are supposed to pass people by on the other side. That’s how I justfied myself.
Of course now that I’m stepping down as a minister I won’t have that excuse anymore. I’ll need to be a better Samaritan, if not yet a good one. Violet and I were out for a walk along Xerxes Avenue last month, strolling north on our way home from York Park. To our right we saw a boy walking nonchalantly down in the middle of the busy street, cars swerving and stopping to dodge him. Had he been an adult I would have thought he was drunk or on drugs, but as he was young with no shoes and a puzzled look on his face, I suspected he faced other challenges. I stepped out into the street and tried to stop traffic and coax the boy to the curb. Several others soon stopped to help too, and soon we’d gotten the boy out of the road and away from the din, phoned the police and transported him home. As expected, he suffered severe autism and often wandered off without notice.
Among the moral imperatives salted by the Good Samaritan is going the extra mile beyond taking time to stop and help a person in crisis to seeing the crisis through to resolution. Giving somebody money makes me feel better, but not until they’re off the streets are they better. The Samaritan had no reason to be good to the wounded Jewish man he stumbled upon by the road. Samaritans were supposed to hate Jews given all the torment piled on Samaritans by Jews over the centuries. Instead, the Samaritan not only interrupted his travel schedule, risked infection by patching up the Jewish man’s bloody wounds, used up his own costly oil and wine as salves, surrendered the comfort of his own burro and searched for an inn, but he also gave the Jewish innkeeper permission to run a tab to cover whatever expenses the beaten man’s convalescence incurred. Who does that? As we waited with the little boy for the police to arrive, a number of my fellow Samaritans started getting impatient. As I was the first on the scene and had called the police, the others presumed I could stick around until everything was resolved, even though we needed to get home ourselves. You got this, right? Of course, I said, though I thought to myself, how long was this going to take?
Last week I took a stroll around Lake Harriet last week with a friend of a friend whose husband died of cancer last year. We commiserated over our losses and sorrows, compared notes about our experiences, talked long and lovingly about our spouses. We shared gratitude for all the people who’d showed up and stepped up to help, some practically strangers if not Samaraitans—people with whom we’d been at odds but now, because of cancer, were reconciled—and all of it overwhelming. But life goes on as it must, and everybody moves on way before we can. As suddenly as we were surrounded it seemed we were left to figure the rest out on our own by ourselves. Even the Good Samaritan had to get down the road.
We read how the lawyer questioning Jesus was actually trying to test him. In Mark’s version, which I preached for kickoff Sunday, the lawyer was more of a straight shooter, but not here. Jesus throws the test back at the lawyer, answering by asking his own question. “You’re a lawyer. What does the law say?” The lawyer passes the test by reciting the two great commandments from Deuteronomy and Leviticus: Love God with all you got and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus gave him an A for his answer, “Do this and you will live.” Had the lawyer been content with his A, we’d all have been let off the hook. But he refused to leave well enough alone. Instead the lawyer, wanting to justify himself, just had to ask, “Who is my neighbor?”
Some of earliest Christian leaders, bishops and theologians, perhaps seeking to justify themselves, preferred to interpret Jesus’ parable allegorically—revealing a hidden, deeper spiritual meaning beneath what’s said. The man robbed and left to die by the road was Adam cast out of the Garden of Eden. The thieves were who beat him were demons of doom whom Adam, and thereby all humanity, fall prey. Jesus, though Jewish, played the Good Samaritan. The soothing wine and medicinal oil were the sacraments of the church, and the inn was the church itself. As congregations we are collectively the innkeepers, tasked with spending the Lord’s money on the needs of others. And if we spend it all, Jesus will repay whatever more it costs us when he returns. The good news as innkeepers is that we don’t have to go out of the church. We just wait for the needy to come in—and then sort out the legit from the fake in the name of good stewardship.
These days we mostly interpret the Good Samaritan as a parable about social justice—which implies moving outside the church doors to where needy people live. Years ago I heard a good Good Samaritan talk from the popular speaker Bart Campolo, son of the popular Christian speaker Tony Campolo, who I think spoke here once. Bart described the passerby priest in the parable as one for whom elite Temple duty mandated a complicated cleanliness ritual. To help the victimized man on the side of the road would be to risk ritual contamination. The lesson? Social justice is messy. The passerby Levite represented the working class pastor for whom helping the stranger would have cost precious time and money. The lesson? Social justice is sacrificial. The Samaritan who helped had every reason and more not to help. The lesson? Social justice allows no excuses.
Bart told us about giving the same talk to a bunch of elderly women, one of whom interrupted him, “Sonny, you know there’s really no difference between these people. The man robbed and left to die by the road just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Had it been the Samaritan who got mugged there would have been no story to tell.” The lesson? Social justice requires you recognize you’re no better than anybody else. You’re just better off.
If you’ve followed Bart Campolo’s public journey from Jericho to Jerusalem, you know he’s long since abandoned believing in Jesus. He was out on his bike a few years ago when he hit a soft spot, flipped and crashed into a tree and was found deliriously teetering down the middle of his own busy street. In the hospital and near death, he had a different sort of religious experience, what you might call a de-religious experience. He concluded all he’d ever thought and hoped about God was wrong. There’s no heaven, no resurrection, no real Jesus, no God. Why else had he crashed his bike for no reason? Apparently this feeling had been building for a long time. Now having faced his own mortality, he had to stop living a lie. He could still do good. He just didn’t need God to do it.
We can do good without God. Plenty do. But not me. This is ironic. The most religious characters in Jesus’ parable, the priest and the Levite, ministers both, show the least compassion. The lesson? Faith in God can’t make us love others. Bart was right that faith in God can’t make us love others (though I’d argue it takes as much faith to reject God as believe). Instead, it’s God loving us that makes the difference, and God’s love does not depend on my faith. God loves all people, the righteous and unrighteous alike, because God is love.
For the man robbed and left by the road, in the wrong place at the wrong time, he got saved by the wrong person just in time. It’s always interesting to note how Jesus never answered the lawyer’s question. Remember the lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbor?” His was a justice question about yours and mine. But Jesus gave a love answer. By centering his reply on the kind acts of a despised Samaritan, Jesus underscored the fact that righteous belief never substitutes for compassionate action. “To love your neighbor” is not about rightly defining the object, “neighbor,” but about rightly doing the verb, “love.”
Loving God and our neighbors are the two great actions. “Do these and you will live.” But they are not the first action. Love starts with God loving us. As the apostle John writes, “this is love, not that we loved God but that God loved us and sent his son as a sacrifice for my sins,” in effect clearing the way for me to love God back. All those hesitations of inconvenience and superiority, not to mention my judgmental disdain or indifference, my impatience or preference for efficiency and presumptions of good stewardship and the outright harm I might do toward others, Jesus paid it all and all to him I owe. But Jesus doesn’t need my love back. Which means I’m freed up to expend love on my neighbor and enemy.
I compare Bart Campolo’s near-death experience with my wife Dawn’s own experience. Calvinist enough to blame God for her cancer, she saw it more as the bitter fruit of a world out of whack, a reason to cling to Jesus rather than let go, an honor to participate in Christ’s own suffering in that place where we all eventually descend. Grace rises up from beneath those places where life is most awful. Full of faith and no fear, it was remarkable and an honor to behold her bear her own cross and find genuine peace and gratitude and beauty and an enlarged capacity to love to the point of forgiving everything, and even me, with an unconcerned wave of her hand. Jesus paid it all, she knew, so she didn’t owe anybody and nobody owed her. In this was true freedom from which came power made perfect weakness to love unto death. Believe it or not, I need Jesus to inherit eternal life after death and live a good life before death too.
Some wonder whether the Good Samaritan was a true story, or at least a preview to a real story. There is an actual road from Jericho to Jerusalem, I’ve ridden on it. Jesus doesn’t set this story up in the fashion he does his parables. Was Jesus on it? If he was, he couldn’t have been the priest or the Levite. We can’t imagine Jesus letting messiness or sacrifice deter him from helping somebody. And as a Jew, Jesus couldn’t have been the Samaritan either, though it is the Samaritan’s behavior we are called to emulate. That leaves us only with the man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time left by the road dying, who coaxed out of his Samaritan-enemy-turned-neighbor a compassion the Samaritan might not have otherwise shown. An apt description of Jesus when you stop and think about it: “He was despised and rejected by people,” Isaiah prophesied, “a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom people hide their faces, whom men pass by on the other side, he was despised, and we esteemed him not. …we considered him stricken by God, smitten and afflicted. …He was pierced…and crushed … yet by his wounds we are healed.”