Rev. Sarah Buteux
July 14, 20019
Mary Luti wrote a brilliant little daily devotional for the UCC a few weeks ago called “Guests among Guests.” Did any of you read it? The Still Speaking Devotionals are little mediations the UCC puts out via e-mail, and in this one she challenged Christians to re-think our role in the church.
You may have noticed that in churches like ours, we go out of our way to extend an extravagant welcome to all, and one of the most striking places that is evident is our emphasis on open communion.
On the first Sunday of every month we welcome all people -be they friends, members, believers, or seekers – to break bread and share the cup at our table because Jesus welcomed everyone at his table.
All of which sounds good, except for the fact that Jesus himself never owned a table. As Luti points out, when Jesus is sharing a meal with others, it’s always at the home of someone else.
“Tax collectors like Levi and Zacchaeus throw him banquets,” she says. “Pharisees, too. Peter’s wife feeds him. And Martha in Bethany. Jesus doesn’t invite; he gets invited.
So when we say we welcome everyone to the church’s table because Jesus welcomed everyone to his, we’re on shaky evidentiary ground. Which doesn’t argue for exclusion, (she says). It only suggests that Jesus may present a challenge to us not so much because he was a gracious host, but because he was a willing guest.
If our churches aren’t (always as welcoming and) inclusive (as we’d like to think they are), it might be because too many of us have mistaken ourselves for the Giver of the Feast.
We’re not hosts extending invitations.
We’re guests among guests.
Yet we behave as if having arrived earlier than others has given us proprietary rights over the hall. Which means we haven’t yet pondered deeply enough the Mercy by which we all got in here in the first place.”
There’s some sting in those words, isn’t there? I feel them. I know my proper role as a pastor and a church member is to be a good steward of you and this building, our energy and our resources. I know in my heart – as do you – that all of this belongs to God and is a gift of God to be poured out and passed on.
But it’s amazing how quickly a sense of gratitude and stewardship can evolve into a sense of control and ownership. How quickly the church we belong to can become ours; the place from which we welcome others to come be part of what we are doing, rather than the place where we come with others to take part in what God is doing.
Good can happen either way, but Luti’s words offer a much needed corrective, a reminder of our proper role in the scheme of things. Her devotional has bite precisely because it puts us in our place.
And I think a similar thing needs to happen with our reading of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, because our over familiarity with this story has caused most of us to identify with the wrong role in this tale, to think of it simply as a straightforward story about loving your neighbor.
But Jesus’ parables are never straightforward, and if we choose the wrong role then we rob this brilliant little story of its teeth.
Case in point: if I were to ask you to define what a Good Samaritan is – which I won’t because you already know it’s a set up – you’d probably say a Good Samaritan is a person who goes out of their way to help someone in distress, right? Just like the Samaritan helped that poor man he found on the side of the road. You might say that a Good Samaritan is a selfless or charitable person who is willing to help others, because thanks to a dim cultural recollection of Jesus’ story, that is what those words have come to mean in our day and age.
And there’s nothing wrong with that definition, it just doesn’t capture the full import of what is going on in the original story, because for one thing, back in Jesus’ day – at least among his own people – there was no such thing as a “Good Samaritan.”
Those of you who have read the gospel of Luke for yourself or heard sermons in the past probably know that part of the power of this story derives from the fact that the Samaritans and the Jewish people were enemies back in the day. So much so, that the phrase “Good Samaritan” – to Jesus’ original audience – would have sounded to their ears like an oxymoron: think “jumbo shrimp” or “exact estimate.”
It’s true. Getting that small crowd to revise their unbiased opinions of the Samaritans as anything but confirmed heretics would have taken a minor miracle. The fact that Jesus would even suggest such a thing would have left them clearly confused. The silence would have been deafening. There’s a definite possibility that it might have been seriously funny, but…well, you get the idea.
I’ll stop now with the oxymorons and go back to acting naturally.
That was the last one, I swear. But where was I?
Ah yes, the Samaritans being anything but good.
Well anyhow, when you figure that historical detail into the mix, most people assume that the moral of the story is not just that we should be willing to help others, but that we should be willing to help those who are other, that is willing to put our differences aside – be they racial, religious, historical, or cultural- and help a person in need.
And that’s a good message too. It just wasn’t the message Jesus set out to convey to the lawyer or the crowd.
Because, you see, when we hear this story now, we think Jesus is encouraging us all to be more like the Samaritan, and we judge ourselves accordingly.
We think about those times when we passed by people in need because we were too busy to help them change a tire, too tight on cash to drop a dollar in their cup, or simply too scared to draw near and get involved. Or we applaud ourselves for going out of our way to help a stranger in need.
But what if we’re missing the heart of Jesus’ parable because we are casting ourselves in the wrong role? What if Jesus isn’t asking or expecting us to identify with the Samaritan, but rather with the man whom he helped, the poor fellow in the ditch?
What if we’re not the heroes of this tale – the givers – but the ones in need of mercy, the ones who need to be helped if we’re ever going to live and live abundantly into the life Christ offers? After all, that’s the lawyer’s initial query – “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” This abundant life you speak of Jesus. And our good teacher, to his credit, never loses sight of the question.
So let’s back up a moment and look at this parable in context. Notice first off, that Jesus takes the lawyer seriously, even though the lawyer has come to test him rather than learn from him. Jesus takes the lawyer seriously even though his question – “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” – is absurd.
The lawyer asks what he must do, as if eternal life is a commodity to be earned with a few good deeds rather than a gift God has already promised to all people.
“The lawyer,” says Amy-Jill Levine, just wants “something to check off his to-do list: recite a prayer, offer a sacrifice, drop…a twenty in the collection plate. If he’s efficient he can inherit eternal life before lunch.” But he’s thinking about this all wrong.
The lawyer wants to know just how righteous he has to be to get into God’s good graces, but it’s the wrong question. The right question is how do I live a righteous life in response to the graciousness of God. That’s the path, not to eternal life, but of eternal life, the life of heaven, the life abundant.
Unfortunately this guy fell off that path and into a ditch sometime ago. Lucky for him, the man whom he was intent on hurting is still willing to help.
Because you see, Jesus knows this man has come in the hopes of outwitting him and making him look a fool or worse, so Jesus is wise as a serpent and gentle as a dove, careful and compassionate. He doesn’t come right out and answer the lawyer’s question. Instead, he flatters the man and asks him to demonstrate his own knowledge of the law.
“What is written…?,” Jesus asks. And the lawyer is all too happy to show off. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28And Jesus said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
“Shoot!,” he must have thought, because notice there’s no one way to do all that. That’s an awful lot of love that Jesus just prescribed, the sort of loving that could take a life time, and that’s not what this lawyer wants. He’s looking for limits, the bare minimum in terms of requirements, a way out of loving everyone all the time.
Which is why he asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Because, you see, if he can determine whom he must love, then he can also determine who he doesn’t have to love at all. And here is where things get interesting.
“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers,” said Jesus. They “stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.”
With those words, Jesus would have had the attention, not just of the lawyer but of all those assembled. They knew how dangerous it was to travel that road down from the holy city. They knew that the man in the ditch, but for the grace of God, could very well be them someday. “Who will save the man?,” they would have wondered. “Who would save me?”
Jesus continued: “Now by chance a priest was going down that road;”
thank goodness, they would have thought.
“and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.”
Ohhhh, the crowd would have said.
“ 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.”
Oh, ok, we see where this is going, Jesus. They actually all would have relaxed in that moment. They would have known that the man was going to be ok, because everyone in that crowd would have been familiar with the rule of three. Amy-Jill Levine writes, “The duo anticipate, in good folkloric fashion, the appearance of a third figure.” Think Father, Son, and Holy _____. Think Huey, Dewey, and _____. Harry, Ron, and _______. Peter, Paul, and _________. I was going to say Barnabas, but Mary works.
If the first two have failed, chances are the third will succeed. That’s how these stories work. And if the first was a scared priest and the second was a lilly-livered Levite than the third will surely be a brave… Israelite. The third will succeed where the first two have failed. All will be well.
“However,” says Levine, “Jesus is telling a parable, and parables never go the way one expects. Instead of the anticipated Israelite, the person who stops to help is a Samaritan.
In modern terms, this would be like going from Larry and Moe” not to Curly but to, say, an ICE agent who, “while traveling came near the poor man; and when he saw him, was moved with pity. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him – not a detention center, but – to an inn, and took care of him. 35The next day the ICE agent took out his own money, gave it to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’
The crowd would have been struck dumb.
It would have been almost impossible to imagine.
36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
And all the lawyer can muster up in response is: “The one who showed him mercy.”
Notice he can’t even say the word, “Samaritan.”
Whose name would you find it hard to say?
Is there someone out there whom you would almost rather die, then accept help from?
The real question Jesus is asking us to consider is not, would you stop to help a person in need even if they were your enemy? The real question is, would you let your enemy stop and help you?
What would it take for you to see your enemy as someone capable of goodness, as a person with shared values like love and mercy, as someone’s parent or child, someone “with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine?”
Jesus invites his audience to consider not just that they might love their enemy, show compassion, be a good neighbor, save a life, but that the enemy might be capable of the same good impulses.
He invites us to imagine that when we stand in the role of needing mercy – and there are times when we all do – that the one we despise might be the one with enough grace and love to save us.
“We don’t need much imagination,” says Wendell Berry, “to imagine that to be free of hatred, of enmity, of the endless and hopeless effort to oppose violence with violence, would be to have life more abundantly. To be free of indifference would be to have life more abundantly. To be free of the insane rationalizations for our urge to kill one another— ( in an age where we can wipe out humanity with the touch of a button) that surely would be to have life more abundantly.”
Dear Ones, to see the humanity in one another leads to life. To deny it, limit it, label any group as less than or other, ultimately that line of thinking won’t just destroy them…it will destroy us all.
But seeing the humanity in our neighbors and our enemies to the point where we can see their goodness, to the point where we can see the image of God in them, to the point where we can see that there is no them, there is only us: that is eternal life, the life abundant Jesus’ holds out to us all.
May God grant us the grace to receive the life God offers and may God have mercy upon us all until we do. Amen