Along the Road: The Good Samaritan, Trayvon Martin, and what it means to be a neighbor

a homily for Proper 10C
Text: Luke 10:25-37

Unwrapping the Layers

We call this the Parable of the Good Samaritan. A traveler is beaten, left for dead, passed by on the road to Jerusalem, and finally helped by this stranger. It is a story so familiar, so recognizable, that any number of us could tell it cold. Perhaps our problem is that it is so familiar, we have trouble hearing it.

The Greek scholar, Amy-Jill Levine speaks of the parable’s three layers. The first is the layer many of us learned as children in Sunday School:

Here is a man in need. Be the unlikely one to stop and help.

The second layer we learn when we discover to whom Jesus is speaking: a Jewish leader:

The two that pass by the wounded man are church leaders. Speaking to the leaders, Jesus is saying you are the people that walk by the needy to maintain your purity.

The third layer we learn when we are told who the Samaritans were to the Hebrews in Jerusalem:

They were not simply “the other”, but justified others. They were notorious and the favorite scapegoat for trouble.

The reason we get stuck in the first layers of this complex parable is that it invites us to wrestle with what actually makes us us. It is not merely about the Random Act of Kindness we take it for. It deals with giving and receiving, insiders and outsiders, immigration and migration, safety and danger, oppression and justification.

And we don’t teach our children about that stuff. Not directly anyway. They pick it up from our attitudes toward others.

Overturning Good and Evil

We want it all to be about being good. To live a good life. To do what GOD wants us to…as long as we get to stay here: living where we already want to live, doing what we already want to do, and being who we already want to be. No room to be moved by the Holy Spirit. As Episcopalians we are often guilty of saying “Oh, we don’t do that.”

Hearing a parable then, that tells us to not only be good and nice and kind, but see our enemies as good?

When I heard Dr. Levine talk about this in the mid 2000s, she had us imagine and name our enemies. For as long as they are nameless (the “other”) we can claim to love them, without doing any of the hard work. Who might you name? Do they look like you? Or Me? What of their customs? What do they love? Are they “over there” or do they live “around the corner”?

source unknown
source unknown

As a people, we despise murderers and thieves. We hate the lawless and the lazy. But no group is more universally reviled than the abusers, the rapists, and the pedophiles. Are these our Samaritans?

What makes them our enemies? Why do we hate them so? Isn’t it just fear? Aren’t we just afraid of what is different? And no matter that Jesus tells us again and again “don’t be afraid!” we still are fearful, we still watch our neighborhoods for signs of trouble, and sometimes, we start the trouble; justified by our broad sense of defense. I will protect my neighborhood. I will be the justice. But the young man isn’t an intruder into your neighborhood; he is your neighbor. Trayvon Martin is our neighbor.

Who is Neighbor?

The beauty of this story from the gospel we call Luke is not merely this challenging parable, but that it is told by Jesus in response to a question. This lawyer is actually a Hebrew Scholar asking Jesus about eternal life and what it means to be a devoted Jew. Its a test. What kind of gospel is this guy preaching. But the scholar shouldn’t be disparaged for this question: he is probably, himself, a good person. His response to Jesus’s own question reveals that he knows how to behave. I’m certain this man is charitable and protects the poor. He is kind and forgiving. He is a good man.

He asks Jesus, in light of loving GOD and neighbor, who then is my neighbor? And Jesus tells him this parable, not so that he might be the Samaritan or that he might be the Jewish Leader he already is, but that he might see himself as the victim. That he might feel that sense of being ignored by his friends and helped by his enemy.

It is in the believer’s nature to go outward and see the neighbor as one to help, to reach out to. To be the one who gives of herself and to sacrifice and to go home to the safety of her house over here. To feel good inside for all that good she has done out there.

This man stands up, still, to stop Jesus on the road. He wants to know if Jesus is teaching what he already believes.

Jesus’s gift to this lawyer/scholar is the teaching that he has to be pushed into the gutter to know true kindness and generosity. That from there our good friends can’t help us. Not really. But “the other” can.

Moving with Jesus

Thomas Long writes:

In other words, the real answer to the lawyer’s question “who is my neighbor?” is that you have no idea who your neighbor is until you, yourself, know how needy you are, and in that need receive the unexpected grace of being neighbored by God. This is actually good news for the lawyer, because, as Jesus said later, there is a whole lot more laughter and joy in heaven over one lost sheep brought home than over ninety-nine righteous folk who don’t think they need to move, who don’t need any repentance.

This story works for us on the juxtaposition of stillness to movement. The man stops Jesus on His way to Jerusalem. Jesus tells the man a parable of a man beaten on his way from Jerusalem. This scholar/lawyer is comfortable here, where he’s at. In this very spot. It is stable. Jesus shows that we stop on our way to Jerusalem, not to stay or rest or get comfortable, but to receive help—to experience brokenness and face that we don’t do this alone. That the most wrong-headed jerks are the ones from whom we must learn. They might save us and bring us on the backs of their animals to Jerusalem.

Our pursuit of stability, of comfort, of control is an obstacle to the Kingdom, but Jesus delivers a way of moving forward, of going to where we are called.

The wrong aren’t any less wrong and we don’t throw our beliefs away to adopt those of others. But it is from them that we might learn, we might be healed, we might receive GOD’s grace. For we cannot share the grace if we don’t receive it. And we’ll never get to Jerusalem if we stay where we’re at.

May we today cast aside our fear and adopt mercy. May we be thankful for those neighbors who love us and accept the grace given by unlikely sources. And may we take a sabbath break from reaching outward and lay our hearts in the gutter, broken, to sit alongside our neighbors, where Jesus is.

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  1. says

    I have been teaching/preaching for the better part of a decade, I have heard great sermons and have delivered one or two great messages myself but I was caught off guard by the insight and eloquence of your homily. You have a gift for crafting words, I can tell you spent a good deal of time carefully choosing how to express your thoughts and it was worth it. I am really impressed and will be reading more of your stuff.


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