Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON
When I was in seminary there was an organization called the Preaching Association. If a church needed someone to fill their pulpit on a particular Sunday, the church could call the Preaching Association and one of the seminary students who was a member of that organization would go and preach for them. The rules were quite simple: you were allowed to preach about any part of the Bible you wanted to, except you were not allowed to preach about the Parable of the Prodigal Son, and you weren’t allowed to preach about this parable, commonly known as the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The reason for that was that churches were complaining. They were complaining that every time they got one of the seminary students to come and preach for them, the only sermons they ever heard were sermons about those two parables.
One of the challenges of preaching a parable such as this one is that everyone has heard it. In fact, the concluding episode of the Seinfeld series was predicated on that fact that the general public—including many people who never even set foot inside a church—would know what a Good Samaritan is. In that series finale the four main characters—Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer—find themselves stuck in a small town in Massachusetts. At one point, as they make their way along a sidewalk, they end up standing by and watching as a fat man gets robbed. Rather than help the man or call for the police, they look on and laugh at the chubby fellow’s plight. As a result, the four of them get arrested, charged with violating the town’s Good Samaritan law, a law that requires people to do what the Good Samaritan did—help others when they’re in need.
The truth is that so many people are already familiar with the story about the Good Samaritan, having listened to it countless times before, that perhaps a majority of people might wonder if listening to another sermon on this passage isn’t a waste of time. After all, we figure that it doesn’t take a rocket scientist or a Ph.D. in Biblical studies to tell us that the message of this parable is: the Good Samaritan was nice and helped the man who was hurting; therefore we should be nice and help people who are hurting. In a nutshell, that’s what this parable is all about. Or is it?
We need to remember that Jesus told this parable in response to a lawyer who was asking what it takes to inherit eternal life. So, using the standard interpretation that we apply to this parable, Jesus seems to be saying that we can make our way into eternal life by doing good things for other people, just as the Good Samaritan did. Yet the recurring theme of the Bible tends to be that we can’t make our way into heaven by means of our own deeds. Rather the Bible repeatedly indicates that we are saved by God’s grace. So, how do we reconcile this parable to the overarching message of the Scriptures?
One solution is proposed by Robert Farrar Capon in his insightful and thought-provoking volume, The Parables of Grace. Capon contends that the Jesus figure in this story is not, as we usually assume, the Good Samaritan, but instead the man who was left dying by the side of the road. After all, that man was left to die in the midst of robbers; Jesus was left to die between two robbers. Notice that the parable says that the dying man was stripped, beaten, and left for dead. Did not Jesus endure those same indignities during his Passion? Those who view the dying man in the parable flee from him. At his crucifixion, Jesus’ disciples and all the others who had benefited from his ministry abandoned him as well. Jesus is in this parable. But he’s not the Good Samaritan. He’s that dying man by the side of the road.
Therefore, this parable is not saying what we usually think it says, that we can all make our way into heaven by going out and helping people. If that were true, we may as well forget about church and just join up with the Kiwanis, the Rotary, or the Girl Scouts. After all, those groups help people. Helping people, of course, certainly is a good and important undertaking. But that is not what gets us into heaven.
This parable, despite conventional wisdom, is not about the importance of helping people. Instead, this parable is about how we respond to that one left dying by the side of the road. This parable is about how we respond to the crucified Christ. In the parable, the first two characters—the priest and the Levite—see the dying man and cross over to the other side of the road in order to pass him by. Yet it’s not fair to make the priest and the Levite out as bad guys. No, they were a lot like us. They were the kind of people who paid their taxes on time, kept their lawns mowed, and went to church every Sunday. They weren’t bad people, but they had their own set of plans in mind, plans for where they wanted to go in their lives. And those plans did not permit them to become sidetracked by some dying fellow.
Finally, the Samaritan comes along. When he sees the dying man, in essence, the Samaritan turns his entire life over to him. The Samaritan gives the dying man his time, his effort, his money. In effect, the Samaritan abandons whatever plans he had and concentrates his entire being on what is best not for himself, but what is best for that one who was dying.
What lies at the heart of the confrontation with the lawyer, then, is a clash between two quite different visions of what it means to be Israel, God’s people. The lawyer’s question about the key requirements for entering the age to come was a standard rabbinic question, to which there were standard answers available. His own summary is exactly the same as that which Jesus himself gives in Mark 12:29–31 and Matthew 22:37–40. But what he had in mind was the way in which the law provided a definition of Israel. He wanted to put Jesus on the spot and force him into saying something that might appear heretical.
When Jesus makes him reveal his own summary, and then simply agrees with it, the lawyer now aims ‘to win the point’, ‘to justify himself’—not simply meaning ‘to show that he hadn’t asked a trivial or obvious question’, but ‘to come out on top in this public confrontation’. The question about the neighbor is designed to smoke out Jesus’ supposedly heretical views on God’s wider plans for the whole world, and so to show that the lawyer was right to challenge him. It does indeed produce from Jesus an answer about the wide-reaching grace of God, but the story Jesus tells makes it clear that these views are not heretical, but rather the true fulfilment of the commandment which the lawyer claims to regard as vital.
What is at stake, then and now, is the question of whether we will use the God-given revelation of love and grace as a way of boosting our own sense of isolated security and purity, or whether we will see it as a call and challenge to extend that love and grace to the whole world. No church, no Christian, can remain content with easy definitions which allow us to watch most of the world lying half-dead in the road. Today’s preachers, and today’s defenders of the gospel, must find fresh ways of telling the story of God’s love which will do for our day what this brilliant parable did for Jesus’ first hearers. (Wright, T. Luke for Everyone [2004, London] p128–129)
Let us look at the teaching of the parable. The scribe who asked this question was in earnest. Jesus asked him what was written in the law, and then said, ‘How do you read?’ Strict orthodox Jews wore round their wrists little leather boxes called phylacteries, which contained certain passages of Scripture—Exodus 13:1–10, 11–16; Deuteronomy 6:4–9, 11:13–20. ‘You shall love the Lord your God’ is from Deuteronomy 6:4 and 11:13. So Jesus said to the scribe, ‘Look at the phylactery on your own wrist and it will answer your question.’ To that the scribes added Leviticus 19:18, which has the bidding ‘love your neighbor as yourself’; but with their passion for definition the Rabbis sought to define who a person’s neighbor was; and at their worst and their narrowest they confined the word neighbor to their fellow Jews. For instance, some of them said that it was illegal to help a Gentile woman in her sorest time, the time of childbirth, for that would only have been to bring another Gentile into the world. So then the scribe’s question, ‘Who is my neighbor?’ was genuine.
Jesus’ answer involves three things. (1) We must be prepared to help others even when they have brought their trouble on themselves, as the traveler had done. (2) Anyone from any nation who is in need is our neighbor. Our help must be as wide as the love of God. (3) The help must be practical and not consist merely in feeling sorry. No doubt the priest and the Levite felt a pang of pity for the wounded man, but they did nothing. Compassion, to be real, must issue in deeds. What Jesus said to the scribe, he says to us— ‘Go you and do the same.’ (Barclay, W. The Gospel of Luke [2001, Louisville, KY] p166–167)
But like all the parables of Jesus, the story of the good Samaritan has hidden depths, and one clue to them is the lawyer’s original question. He had asked, not about a way of life, but about a way to life— ‘What shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ (10:25)—and the distinction is all-important. Jesus answers with what is called an argumentum ad hominem, an ‘argument to the man’. His questioner is a specialist in Jewish religious law; so, Jesus replies ‘to the man’ on the man’s own terms— ‘What is written in the law? How do you read?’ (10:26). The lawyer asks what he must do to inherit eternal life; so, Jesus replies first that he must do what the two great commandments tell him, and then that he must do as the Samaritan did (10:28, 37). He wants to know the way to life; so, Jesus says, ‘Do this, and you will live’ (10:28).
But where eternal life is concerned, if there is one thing more than another about which the whole of Scripture speaks with one voice, it is that ‘no human being will be justified in his sight by works of the law’. It is theoretically true that ‘the man who practices the righteousness which is based on the law shall live by it’;16 the trouble is that no-one ever succeeds in doing so. If the lawyer thinks eternal life can be obtained by doing what the law demands, he will have to learn how extreme those demands are.
And in this lies the barbed point of the story of the good Samaritan. For the thing is impossible. We are so used to thinking of the victim and his rescuer as ‘neighbors’, that we forget this was Jesus’s scandalous twist to the story; he deliberately wove it around the representatives of two groups of people whom his hearers knew to be not good neighbors at all, but inveterate enemies. Jesus says imagine a Samaritan helping a Jew. Or to put it in more modern terms. ‘An Irish Republican fell among thieves, and an Ulster Orangeman came and helped him; a white colonialist fell among thieves, and a black freedom fighter came to his aid; that is what God’s law requires of you.’
The lawyer was right in one thing, at any rate. Eternal life is something to be inherited. And to receive an inheritance, you have to be an heir. No amount of doing will make you into one. Keeping the law is a way of life; it is not a way to life. It is only when by God’s grace we have become the right sort of people—his people, by the new birth—that we begin to do the right sort of things.
The way of Jesus is one of devotion and dedication, both in following him and in heralding him. But the way is not, on that account, a matter of assiduous ‘religion’ and frenzied service, of busy-ness and incessant good works. It means not achievement, but commitment; not activities, but attitudes; not quantity, but quality.
(Wilcock, M. The Savior Of The World: The Message Of Luke’s Gospel [1979, Downers Grove, IL] p122–123)
The over-allegorization of the parable (vv. 30–35) that saw the Samaritan as Christ, the inn as the church, etc., must be rejected. The characters of the story must have the same significance they had to the original hearers. The religious persons act contrary to love, though not contrary to expectation. It is made clear that the priest, at least, is pursuing his religious duty, going “down,” i.e., back from Jerusalem (v. 31). To an extent, the “Law” (vv. 26–27) was being observed, but studious readers will recognize the neglect of mercy (cf. Matt 23:23 and especially the occurrence of “merciful” in Luke 6:36 in place of perfect in Matt 5:48). The “rule of three” is fulfilled by the appearance of a third character, but unexpectedly he is not just a layman (in contrast to the clerical characters) but a Samaritan (in contrast to the Jewish victim).
The distance from Jerusalem to Jericho is about seventeen miles, descending sharply toward the Jordan River just north of the Dead Sea. The old road, even more than the present one, curved through rugged bleak, rocky terrain where robbers could easily hide. It was considered especially dangerous, even in a day when travel was normally full of hazards.
Priests served in the temple; their highest duty was to offer sacrifices. Levites assisted in the maintenance of the temple services and order. It has been suggested that the priest (v. 31) and the Levite (v. 32) refrained from helping the man because he appeared to be dead and they feared ritual defilement. Jeremias rejects this explanation on the grounds that (1) ritual purity was only significant when carrying out cultic activities; (2) the priest was going “down” i.e., away from Jerusalem, presumably having finished with those duties; (3) the Levite by implication (v. 32) was probably also going away from Jerusalem; and (4) when priests and Levites were on their way to serve in the temple, they traveled in groups; but these two were alone and therefore not on their way to Jerusalem (Parables of Jesus, pp. 203–4). Also, the point of the story seems to require that the priest and the Levite be without excuse.
The NT parables aim to lead one to a decision; Jesus’ second counter question (v. 36) forces the “expert in the law” to voice his decision. In his question, Jesus does not focus on the object of neighborly love, the Jewish victim, but on the subject, the Samaritan who made himself a neighbor. This reversal of the “expert’s” question (v. 29) provides in itself the key to the meaning of the parable and to Jesus’ teaching on love. Love should not be limited by its object; its extent and quality are in the control of its subject. Furthermore, love is demonstrated in action, in this case in an act of mercy. It may be costly: cloth, wine, oil, transportation, money, and sacrifice of time. There is a striking reversal of roles here. The Jewish “expert” would have thought of the Jewish victim as a good person and the Samaritan as an evil one. To a Jew there was no such person as a “good” Samaritan. Jesus could have told the story with a Samaritan victim and a Jewish helper, but the role reversal drives the story home by shaking the hearer loose from his preconceptions.
The “expert” cannot avoid the thrust of the parable, though he apparently finds it impossible to say the word “Samaritan” in his reply. Jesus now refers back to the original question, “What must I do?” by saying, “Go and do likewise.” Both this man and the rich ruler of 18:18–25 needed to learn that God does not bestow the life of the kingdom on those who reject the command to love. Such rejection shows that they have not truly recognized how much they need the love of God themselves.
(Liefeld, W. L. Luke. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.) The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew, Mark, Luke Vol. 8 [1984, Grand Rapids, MI] p943–944)
When we encounter the crucified Christ, do we just glance at him, nod in his direction, and then head off on our merry way to live our lives in the way we feel like living them? Or when we see the crucified One, do we recognize him as our one and only Savior, and then redirect our lives with him as our focus? When we walk down the road of life, we need to choose well what we do. Eternal life hangs in the balance. Eternal life starts with recognizing God’s love and living out God’s love.
The parable about the Samaritan is so familiar to us all that we forget the real gravity and force of Jesus’ illustration. We need to take away the softening cover of familiarity and renew the harsh reality of how we need to live. We need to recognize the demands of God’s love in our lives. We need to hear God’s love each day. God’s love often demands action when we would rather stand on the other side of the street. God’s love is wonderful and fearful all at the same time.
Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON
Early one evening, a successful young man took his new Nissan Maxima to the mall to buy his girlfriend a Christmas present. He had heard on the radio that his usual route was closed off, so he decided to chance it, and go through the crazy-dangerous area of Samaria, to get there. He figured it was a better choice than having to go all the way around the city, thus adding two hours to his journey.
Well, the area he had to cut through was in the North End of the city, known for its gang warfare and biker bars, and he had chosen the completely wrong time to go through, too, as young punks started to gather for their nightly escapades, and certain young ladies went outside to claim their piece of the sidewalk for their nightly business of selling themselves.
At a red light, the young man stopped, and found himself in the middle of a gang war. The gang member from one group took a shot at his enemy, across the street, and the young man in the Maxima was the unfortunate barrier between them. The bullet barely grazed his shoulder, and he cried out in sharp pain, managing to pull over and stop the car.
He got out of the car, intending to go get help, but in his weakened state attracted the wrong kind of attention. A couple of kids looking for some quick drug money noticed his stupor, and decided it would be easier to give him a couple of punches, than try to break into a store. They also noticed his car keys and the car running close by and put the two and two together. Soon, he was out of a car, a cell phone and a wallet.
By the time they were gone, he was in rough shape and lay smashed and dirty on the sidewalk. He lay there for what seemed like hours but was only a few minutes. He was thrilled when he looked up and saw a pastor from his local church walk by. "Help, John!" he cried out feebly, but the leader crossed over the other side of the sidewalk and did not even look his way.
The minster did not usually walk this way, but he was on his way to a board meeting for all the churches in his district. Unfortunately, it was in one of the rougher areas of town, and John really wasn't used to this environment. He wished he had been able to find parking closer, but he had been forced to walk several blocks to his destination.
He saw the man lying down from a few feet away and felt nervous. Who knows what that man had been imbibing in order to be that intoxicated? Often these people were dangerous, and unpredictable. Just for security's sake, he crossed over to the other side of the street. He was already late for the meeting, and he didn't want any complications. "I'm sure the police will deal with him," he thought. "I need to get going."
A faint wave of guilt washed over him, hoping this man would be okay, but he quickly told himself that he wasn't responsible for saving the world. "They have people for that," he thought. "It's not my calling."
About a half hour later, a very frequent church-going lady walked by in a rush. She was carrying a Bible, and the injured young man thought for sure she would help him. He tried to call out to her, but she did not help. Instead, she put her nose in the air and quickly walked away in horror and disgust.
The woman had lived on that street for years and had seen everything decline in the last decade. What had once been a hard-working population had been overrun by hookers, pimps and drug addicts. Every day, she heard of more horrors on the nightly news, and it made her sick. She had once been proud to live her, but now she lived in fear. When she heard the young man call out to her, she was sure he would be begging for money to buy some more booze. She was tired of being lambasted by these welfare-dependent bums. She looked at him in disgust, anger at the way the country was going, and hurried home to her little apartment, safe with bars on the windows and a good security system. She knew she shouldn't have gone out so late in the afternoon.
Just he was almost passing into unconsciousness, the young man caught a glimpse of a man in a jean vest covered with decals, and tight pants. He would have been afraid of this biker-looking man under different circumstance, but he had no fear left, only vacuous curiosity. "I wonder what kind of bike he drives," he pondered.
The man, who was dressed like a biker, parked his Harley-Davidson, and decided to hoof it to the bar where he was going to relax for a few hours. He had had a hard week at the mill and was looking forward to forgetting his troubles with some good friends. Later, he would grab a cab and pick up his bike in the morning. No one on the street would dare to touch it.
Just as he neared his destination, he noticed a young man who looked like he'd been beat up pretty badly. Feeling sorry for him, he went over and gently felt his wrist. Yes, he was still breathing. "Are you okay?" he whispered, not wanting to startle him. "Not really," the young man replied. Let me call you an ambulance .... you look like you're in pretty bad shape. He used his cell phone to call 911, waited with the young man until they arrived, and paid the ambulance driver the $500 fee. "Take my cell," he told the young man, "and use it to call your Mom and Dad and girlfriend about where you are. And here's a couple hundred to tide you over until you get all your I.D. straightened out. Sorry for what happened to you, man. Those guys were jerks."
The young man left in the ambulance and went to the hospital, used the cell phone to call his family and friends, and afterwards called the biker to give him back his cell phone. "How can I repay you," he asked. "Don't worry about it," the biker told him. "There are still a few good guys left in this world."
Three people passed by our young man and saw three different things. One saw a dangerous drunk, another saw a lazy bum, and one saw a person that needed help. Who was the one that helped his neighbor?
It is said, love your neighbor as yourself. Who is your neighbor? Think about this tale and discover for yourself.
This an adaptation of a parable told by Jesus, as recounted in Luke: 10:25-37. Here is the story. as told by Jesus in the Scriptures.:
And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.
And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. And likewise, a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.
But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him, And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.
And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.
Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbor unto him that fell among the thieves? And he said, He that shewed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise. (https://owlcation.com/humanities/The-Unscrupulous-Lawyer)
We’ll start light, because the list gets heavy pretty quick. Bao Xishuan is listed by Guinness as the tallest man in the world (7ft, 8.95 in), and his arm extends 1.06 meters. In 2006, the Mongolian herdsman got the call from Chinese vets that his wingspan was urgently needed at the Funshun aquarium. And no, it didn’t involve basketball.
The doctors had repeatedly failed to remove painful plastic shards that two dolphins had swallowed, and the animals were slowly starving. All surgical instruments had failed to remove the fragments. Mr. Bao immediately traveled to the aquarium, and workers pried the animals’ jaws open with towels so he wouldn’t be bitten. With scores of onlookers watching, Bao reached deep into the animals’ stomachs and removed as many shards as he could find. The fragments he couldn’t reach were safely digested and the dolphins made a full recovery. Bao accepted a few pats on the (lower) back and returned to his fields.
Staying home due to bad weather, 29 year old grape picker Victor Perez heard a local radio alert that a young girl had been abducted. He was in his yard when he saw a passing truck that matched the description of the kidnapper’s vehicle. Fearing the worst, Perez got into his own vehicle and gave chase, even though he could not see the child. When he finally did see her, he screamed at the driver “That’s not your little girl!” over and over until the kidnapper pushed her onto the street and drove away.
Perez stayed with the girl until the police arrived and reunited the child with her mother. The California Highway Patrol later arrested Gregorio Gonzalez with kidnapping, false imprisonment, and tragically, sexual assault.
On April 7, 2010, Julien Duret was strolling New York’s South Street Seaport with his girlfriend when he saw something fall into the water. At first he thought it was a doll, but then realized it was a baby. In an instant he stripped down and dove into the filthy, freezing East river. Reaching her first, Duret handed the unresponsive child to her father, who was then lifted to safety. Once out of the water, young Bridget Anderson opened her eyes. Anderson’s father praised Duret as ‘the first man in the water’.
Back on the pier, onlookers shed their dry clothes and gave them to the freezing Duret. He said he was ‘glad to help’ and went on his way. Only later did he realize the rescue had captured the hearts of New Yorkers, who were desperate to find the “Mystery Frenchman.” Once discovered, the humble engineer finally relented to an interview, saying ‘he’d never done anything like this before”.
Marc Patterson was camping with his wife and daughter when 12-year-old Colton Reeb was attacked by a wild cougar near Clinton, British Columbia (Canada). Investigating a ‘deathly scream’, his daughter told her father ‘Dad, there’s a cougar on him’. Patterson ran to the site and saw the boy had rolled into a ball, protecting his head, which was already in the cougar’s mouth.
Patterson kicked the cougar five times to no effect, but then put his knees on its back, and began choking the animal. After a long five seconds the powerful cat let go. Patterson took the boy and growled backing up to his truck; the cougar staring back the entire time, ears flattened and growling back. The boy was then rushed to Ashcroft hospital and received surgical treatment for injuries to the face, neck and torso.
The Patterson family spent that night in a Clinton hotel, and conservation officers later killed the cougar only 15 meters from the original attack site. They theorize the cougar mistook the small boy for prey, since the campsite is heavily forested and populated with animals that cougars hunt.
In 2007, 50 year old construction worker Wesley Autrey was taking his two daughters to school on the subway. While waiting for the train, fellow passenger Cameron Hollopeter had a seizure and fell off the platform, landing between the two rails. With the train arriving in mere seconds, Autrey jumped from the platform and pushed the young man as deep into the ground as he could go. The incoming train rolled over both men, passing within inches of their heads.
When the onlookers stopped screaming, Autrey exhorted them to ‘tell the girls their father is okay”. The transit authority then arrived, cut the power, and extricated the lucky pair. Autrey refused medical treatment, and calmly took his kids to school. His only regret was that his hat got greasy.
Horia Cretan was working when he heard a scream from a nearby building. Looking up, he saw smoke in a window, but couldn’t see much else. Something clicked inside him, so he ran to the fire escape, pulled down the ladder, and began to climb. On reaching the window, he encountered a man sitting there in shock. While pushing him out to safety, Cretan learned someone else was in the apartment.
He entered the burning room, scarcely able to breathe or see. Firefighters broke into the apartment moments later and handed him a 4-year old boy. Cretan wrapped the child in curtains and carried him back down the fire escape to safety, stopping only to perform CPR. The child survived the ordeal with no lasting injuries. Cretan recounted the story on the talk show “Good Morning America”, where he also proposed to his girlfriend (she accepted).
Watching the Los Angeles race riots on TV, Reverend Bennie Newton learned that wilding thugs were assaulting truck driver Reginald Denny (pictured above) on a nearby street corner. He rushed to the scene, but when he arrived, Denny was gone. But the gang was already pummeling another innocent bystander.
The mob had ripped construction worker Fidel Lopez from his truck, robbed him of $2,000, bashed his forehead open with a car stereo, and even tried to slice his ear off. Then they stripped him naked and spray painted the married father’s chest, torso and genitals black. Reverend Newton saw the depravity and threw himself over Lopez’s body. Waving his Bible, Newton yelled “Kill him and you have to kill me, too!”
Shamed back to reality, the crowd dispersed while the minister prayed in the street for Lopez to regain consciousness. When he could not hail an ambulance, Newton drove Lopez to the hospital himself.
Martin “Lennie” Scutnik was a low-level manager at the US Congressional Budget office in 1982. Walking home in the ice and snow on January 13, he saw Air Florida Flight 90 crash into the frozen Potomac River. Most of the passengers never made it out of the submerged plane, and the ice was quickly taking the few who did.
A rescue helicopter repeatedly lowered a rope to the survivors, but they were too weak to grab the line. Seeing this, Scutnik jumped into the icy water, and assisted a drowning woman to the river shore, saving her life.
Less than a month later, President Ronald Reagan invited Scutnik to attend the 1982 State of the Union Address, where he was seated next to the First Lady and received a long standing ovation. Ordinary heroes are now celebrated at nearly every State of the Union Address, and the Washington Press Corps refers to them as ‘Scutniks’.
(collected from various sources)
The United States has a need as great as ever before for Good Samaritans. According to the Associated Press (12/18/03), the U. S. Conference of Mayors reported that hunger and homelessness is increasing in the nation’s largest cities. The report stated that requests for emergency food assistance rose 17% in the past year in the country’s 25 most populous cities. Requests for emergency shelter assistance increased by 13% during the same period. Most of the cities expected that requests for help with food and shelter would continue to rise during the current year. The greatest rise in demand for emergency food was in Denver (48% increase), Louisville
, and Providence, Rhode Island
. The study reported that as needs increased, more than half of the cities had to turn hungry people away, with more than 14% of requests for emergency food assistance going unmet. The Conference’s report further found that 39% of adults requesting food assistance are employed; and people remain homeless an average of five months.
One of the greatest Good Samaritans of all time undoubtedly was Mother Teresa. To celebrate the way that she devoted herself completely to caring for the poor, sick, and dying people of the world, a theater in Italy produced a musical about her. According to Reuters (10/14/03), “Mother Teresa the Musical” was a collection of reggae, funk and pop tunes that celebrated the five decades that Mother Teresa spent caring for the forgotten and lost people around her. The musical, which opened last year, coincided with her beatification. Just as the Samaritan in the parable cared for a person lying along the side of the road, Mother Teresa was often referred to as the “Saint of the Gutters.”
The thinking today among many people is that instead of waiting for some Good Samaritan to help them, the beaten and bruised people along the sides of the roads should pick themselves up by their own bootstraps. In Nickel and Dimed: On
Getting By in America, a revealing of exposé of the lives of America’s working poor, Barbara Ehrenreich reports how extremely difficult it is for the poor in our society to extricate themselves from their predicament, regardless of how hard they might try. For instance, the common wisdom is that if poor people just went out and got a job, then their problems would be solved. But according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, in 1998 it took, on average nationwide, an hourly wage of $8.89 to be able to pay for a one-bedroom apartment and the most basic necessities. The Preamble Center of Public Policy, however, found that the odds against a typical welfare recipient finding a job that paid that much were 97 to 1.
The people of Jesus’ day would have readily identified the priest and the Levite as the truly “religious” people in the parable. In contrast, they would have considered the Samaritan to have been a “godless heathen.” Yet the end of the parable leaves us left to wonder if our assumptions are truly correct. For instance, many people today would tend to identify Europe and North America as the heart and soul of Christianity. However, in Unfettered Hope: A Call to Faithful Living in an Affluent Society, Marva Dawn cites historian Mark Noll’s observation that on an average Sunday there are more Christians going to church in China than in Europe. More Anglicans worship every week in each of Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda than worship in Britain and the United States combined.
The Samaritan is especially praised in this parable because he was willing to cross over not only to the other side of the road, but he was also willing to cross over religious boundaries to do what was needed. In modern American society, though, we seem to be more inclined to erect barriers between ourselves and those who are different than we are to build bridges. In The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead, David Callahan notes that in the early 1970s, there were approximately 2000 “gated communities” in the United States. Today there are more than 50,000 such communities. In all, some seven million households reside in gated communities, and 40% of all new homes built in California are in gated communities. In Fortress America, Edward Blakely and Mary Gail Snyder ask, “Can the nation fulfill its social contract in the absence of social contact?”
As Christians today, do we focus on ministering to the hurting people around us, or do we concentrate instead on assigning blame to people for the predicaments that they find themselves in? In What’s So Amazing About Grace? Philip Yancey relates the story of a friend who had a prostitute approach him for help. The woman’s situation could not have been much worse than it was. She was homeless, sick, and didn’t have money to buy food for her two-year-old daughter. In order to get money to support her own drug habit, the prostitute had been renting out her child by the hour for men to engage in sex with. As Yancey’s friend spoke with the woman and tried to comfort her, he asked her if she had ever thought about going to a church for help. Her reply: “Church! Why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse.”
Jesus told this parable in response to a lawyer’s question about who his “neighbor” was. In essence, the lawyer was looking for some loophole to limit the number of people that he had to love. In What’s So Amazing About Grace?, Philip Yancey tells about how one day a colleague caught W. C. Fields reading a Bible in his dressing room. This was surprising because Fields was widely known to be agnostic. When he saw that he had been caught reading the Bible, Fields explained, “Just looking for loopholes!”
“I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know; the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve” (Albert Schweitzer).
“Salvation is free, but discipleship costs everything we have” (Billy Graham).
“The disciple is one who, intent upon becoming Christ-like and so dwelling in his ‘faith and practice,’ systematically and progressively rearranges his affairs to that end” (Dallas Willard).
Just when it seems Americans have become so fearful of strangers that they no longer help one another, a story like this one appears. On a highway near my town, a man in a pickup truck noticed a car swerving back and forth across the lanes. At first he assumed the driver was drunk. As he came closer, he realized the driver was slumped over the wheel, clearly unconscious. At that point he drove his truck next to the car and then used his truck to push the car into the median strip, quickly cutting in front of the car to bring it to a stop. His car was damaged in the process, but he got both cars stopped and rushed out to see what was wrong. A doctor saw him taking the woman out of the car and stopped to offer his help. Soon the police and ambulance were on their way. By his self-sacrificing and dangerous act, this man may have averted not only the death of the driver, but a larger accident with more casualties.
Go ahead, type in the words “Good Samaritan Hospital” and see how many ‘hits’ you receive. When I did this recently, I found over 89,000 references to this title. When Jesus told this parable, he bequeathed us with a legacy of mercy and healing that has truly spanned the globe.
“The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was a notoriously dangerous road. In little more than 20 miles, this road dropped 3,600 feet. It was a road of narrow, rocky defiles and sudden turnings which made it the happy hunting grounds of brigands.” (William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke, p 141)
“The traveler was obviously a reckless and foolhardy character. This man had no one but himself to blame for the plight in which he found himself. The priest hastened past the man, no doubt remembering that he who touched a dead man was unclean for seven days.” (William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke, p 141)
“The Levite seemed to have gone nearer the man…before he passed on. The Levite was a man whose motto was ‘Safety first.’ The Samaritan may have been theologically unsound but he was an honest man and he alone was prepared to help.” (William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke, pg. 142)
“In the end we will be judged not by the creed we hold but by the life we live.” (William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke, pg. 142)
“We must: help a man even when he has brought his trouble on himself, regardless of his nationality and we must offer help that is practical rather than just feeling sorry for him. Compassion, to be real compassion, must issue in deeds.” (William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke, pg. 143)
“Jesus does not clarify a point of law, but transmutes law to gospel. One must take the same risks with one’s life and possessions that the Samaritan did!” (Timothy Luke Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, pg. 175)
At 3 a.m. on a chilly October morning, Craig Allen Cross became a hero when, without regard for his own safety, he entered a burning apartment building in Frostburg, Md., to save his neighbor. A gas explosion had blown the structure apart and set it on fire.
“I had to go in and get him,” explained Cross, even though he barely knew the 72-year-old man who would sometimes wave to him from his kitchen window. “When I heard Bill’s haunting cries for help, I suddenly felt a strong connection between us.” For the rest of this story and many others: (www.carnegiehero.com)
“I do not expect to stimulate or create heroism by this fund, knowing well that heroic action is impulsive; but I do believe that, if the hero is injured in his bold attempt to serve or save his fellows, he and those dependent upon him should not suffer pecuniarily.” Andrew Carnegie (www.carnegiehero.com)
Mother Teresa was interviewed at her mission in Calcutta, India after winning the Nobel Prize. The reporter posed this question during his interview. “The number of people dying in Calcutta each week is greater than when you came to Calcutta. How can you accept this prize when you have made no noticeable difference in the problems of India?” Her response was to walk over to an “untouchable” dying on a cot and wipe his brow. She looked up and said,” For you success is only final victory. For me the struggle with those who suffer is my calling. You only see what is yet to be done. I see what I can do today. Will you join me?”
Are we more concerned about caring for hurting people, or are we more consumed with maintaining purity like the priest and Levite were? Over the years Tony Campolo has been a popular speaker on many college campuses. Frequently when he was asked to speak at chapel services or in some other forum, he would use the occasion to provoke his audience. He would say, “The United Nations reports that over ten thousand people starve to death each day, and most of you don’t give a sh–.” In almost every case, shocked looks would appear on his listeners’ faces when he said that. He continued, “However, what is even more tragic is that most of you are more consumed with the fact that I just said a bad word than you are about the fact that ten thousand people are going to die today.” In the aftermath of those college visits, Campolo frequently would get a letter from the school’s chaplain or president. Those letters proved his point. In nearly every instance, the letter proceeded to chastise him for using foul language in front of the students. None of the letters ever made any reference to the problem of world hunger.
Sometimes being a Good Samaritan can be a risky undertaking. After all, when the priest and the Levite avoided the man by the side of the road, they may have done that not only out of a concern to preserve their ritual purity, but they might have also avoided the man for fear that it was a ruse. After all, the route from Jericho to Jerusalem was widely known to be a haunt of thieves. That’s what happened to a man in Glasgow, Scotland, last year. According to the BBC (10/11/03), a man was walking along late one evening when he saw a woman slumped down inside of a phone booth. When he went to offer that person assistance, suddenly the woman in the phone booth pulled a knife on him, and immediately another woman appeared from behind and demanded money. After robbing the man, the two women fled into the darkness of the night.
Whereas the Levite and the priest were the ones pursuing purity in the parable that Jesus told, today it is the Samaritans who are focused on such matters. According to the British paper, The Guardian Unlimited (12/28/03), modern-day Samaritans are extremely zealous in maintaining the purity of their tribe, often shunning their own daughters who choose to marry outside their group. Today there are only about 600 remaining Samaritans who live in Tel Aviv and in Nablus, which is in the West Bank area. Although the Samaritans are essentially a Jewish sect, Israeli Jews tend to regard them as lower than Gentiles. They speak Hebrew, and their religion is similar to that of the neighboring Jews, although the Samaritans do not include modifications that the Jews have included during the past three thousand years, such as the festivals of Purim and Hanukkah. The present-day Samaritans find themselves truly in a “no man’s land.” In the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians they remain neutral, carrying both Palestinian and Israeli identity cards. For the past 200 years, Samaritan men have been permitted to marry outside the community because more males have been born in the community than females. Currently there are about five men for every three women.
Benjamin Franklin once fabricated a parable to illustrate the need to care for those who differ from us. In Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, Walter Isaacson explains that one night at dinner Franklin told a tale that became one of his most famous literary hoaxes. He pretended to read a passage from the Old Testament, which he claimed was the Parable Against Persecution. According to Franklin, one day Abraham gave shelter and food to a man who was 198 years old. But later that night, Abraham proceeded to throw the man out of his home when Abraham discovered that the man did not believe in his God. The parable concluded with God appearing to Abraham and asking, “Abraham, where is the stranger?” Abraham answered saying, “Lord, he would not worship Thee; neither would he call upon Thy name. Therefore have I driven him out before my face into the wilderness.” God replied, “Have I borne with him these hundred ninety and eight years, and nourished him, and clothed him, notwithstanding his rebellion against me, and couldst thou not, that art thyself a sinner, bear with him one night?”
As Jesus tried to illustrate, love cannot necessarily be commanded by detailed legal mandates. Our tendency, though, is often to legislate in extreme detail what is right and what is not. For instance, according to CNN (11/25/03), the state of Kentucky has a law that requires people to bathe at least once every twelve months. Another Kentucky law stipulates: “No female shall appear in a bathing suit on any highway within this state unless she be escorted by at least two officers or unless she be armed with a club.” The law provides, however, that an exemption applies to females who weigh less than 90 pounds or who weigh more than 200 pounds. Also, female horses are exempted from the law. Another unusual law mandates a year in prison for anyone who throws eggs or tomatoes at a public speaker. Likewise, it is unlawful to dye a baby chick, duckling, or rabbit, and offer it for sale unless six or more are for sale at the same time.
The lawyer who approached Jesus was quite possibly looking for some definitive regulations as to how love should be enacted. Instead, Jesus gave the fellow a parable that showed that regulations such as he wanted are not possible. But our tendency today is to expect to be handed detailed instructions and regulations about what we are to do. For example, according to Fareed Zakaria in The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, when the United States federal income tax began in 1914, the entire tax code was just fourteen pages long, and an individual’s return fit on a single page. Today the tax code covers more than 2,000 pages. In addition, there are 6,000 pages of regulations, and tens of thousands of pages of rulings and interpretations. The Internal Revenue Service publishes at least 480 different tax forms, along with another 280 forms that explain how to fill them out.
It is often the case that those who suffer want find themselves in situations where additional suffering comes upon them. In Growing Up Empty: How Federal Policies Are Starving America’s Children, Loretta Schwartz-Nobel cites a random sample of a low-income urban neighborhood in Chicago that found that poor families who receive welfare experienced three times the amount of physical violence as other groups in the city. The survey revealed that 60% of women living in poverty have been severely assaulted by a male partner and over a third had been threatened with death.
Sometimes you can run into trouble when you try to be a Good Samaritan. According to CBS News (1/1/04), that’s what Rico Ford, Ken Woo, and Yi Ming Lin found out. The three of them saw an old Chinese woman getting mugged on a Seattle street, so they went over to help her. But another person on the street told police that the three boys were the muggers. The witness didn’t see any other person encountering the woman. Based on that testimony, the police arrested the three boys. At first, the boys thought that things would get sorted out rather quickly when the old woman explained what had happened. Unfortunately, though, she spoke only Chinese, and it took a while to find someone who could interpret. Before that happened, though, the three young people were assigned bail, ranging from $10,000 to $25,000 each. Finally a translator arrived, and the woman verified that the three boys had helped her, not harmed her. The police then released the three of them from jail. But before the incident was over, the three Good Samaritans had run up thousands of dollars in legal fees. Their loving deed certainly came at a price.
There are occasions when it seems that there is no one around who can help, and there are other times when assistance is abundantly available. According to CBS News (12/31/03), 67-year-old Dorothy Fletcher was on her way to her daughter’s wedding. But on her flight from Philadelphia to Florida, she suddenly felt chest pains and doubled over in her seat. When the flight attendant came over, they determined that she was having a heart attack. As the pilot began to make a decent for an emergency landing, Dorothy knew that it would be at least a half hour before she saw the inside of a hospital. And with a heart attack, she knew that much could happen in a half hour. The flight attendant then picked up the microphone, announced to the other passengers what was happening, and asked if there happened to be a doctor on the plane. Immediately 15 hands went up. And they weren’t the hands of podiatrists or dentists. All fifteen hands were cardiologists. They were on their way to a conference in Florida. So Dorothy Fletcher ended up receiving more medical attention on that plane than most people would ever hope to receive in a hospital. As a result of their attention, after spending three days in a hospital, Dorothy Fletcher was found to be in good health and was still able to make it for her daughter’s wedding.
Are there some people in the world who are not worthy of our care and attention. That’s what controversial Princeton professor Peter Singer says. In Being the Body, Charles Colson and Ellen Vaughn note that while Singer advocates euthanasia for those who are at the end of life, so that resources can be diverted to healthier people, Singer does not live by his own words. His own mother lives in a nursing home and is stricken with Alzheimer’s disease, yet he does not actively seek her immediate demise. Likewise, Singer declares that everyone should live on $30,000 a year and give away anything left over to those in need. The problem is that he himself does not do what he teaches others to do.
Occasionally we hesitate to minister to other people for fear that their stated need might not be legitimate. Such was the case with an Illinois couple that was convicted of defrauding a community by claiming that their daughter had cancer, when in fact she did not. According to a UPI story (9/25/03), a county judge sentenced the mother to 6 ½ years in prison and the father to 4 years and 11 months. Police said that the mother shaved her 7-year-old daughter’s head, gave her sleeping pills so that it would look like she was undergoing chemotherapy, and even put her in counseling to prepare for her own death. The mother was convicted on felony charges of endangering children, grand theft, and eight counts of theft. The father pleaded guilty to one count of endangering children. Authorities say the community contributed more than $31,000 to the family to help with the child’s supposed medical care.
The number of people in the world who need love is staggering. According to the BBC (10/6/03), the United Nations estimates that out of the 6 billion people in the world who will live in cities in the year 2050, 3.5 billion of them will be slum dwellers. Currently about one billion people, or approximately one-sixth of the world’s population, live in slums. Of all people who live in urban areas today, 31.6% in the world live in slums, 6.2% in Europe live in slums, and 71.9% in sub-Saharan African live in slums.
The injured man by the side of the road was essentially invisible to the priest and the Levite. In The Other America, Michael Harrington comments on how a similar situation continues in American society even today. He writes, “The millions who are poor in the United States tend to become increasingly invisible. Here is a great mass of people yet it takes an effort of the intellect and will even to see them.”
Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)
Leader: We come before God, thanking Him for the gift of faith.
People: God has made known to us His love.
Leader: We are commanded to live lives worthy of the Lord.
People: We are to bear fruit in our works and grow in the knowledge of God.
All: Let us worship the Lord.
Lord God, we know you have commanded us to love you with all of our heart, soul, strength, and mind. But we confess that often we give our hearts away to whatever is popular at the time, we fill our souls with everything except your Word, and we dedicate our strength and mind to getting ahead in the world. Forgive us when we see others’ needs yet do not help. Forgive us when we pass by our neighbors who are hurting or in sorrow. Cleanse us from our sins, and restore us to you. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
We dedicate these gifts to you, O Lord. Use them for your Kingdom. Use us, too, for your glory. Transform and renew us so that we may be committed to your will and your ways. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
Loving and Merciful God, we thank you for your creation. You have created the world, and everything that is in it. You lovingly formed us in our mothers’ wombs, nurtured and guided us, and brought us to this place today. Hear our prayers.
For our broken and imperfect world, we pray to you. We pray for places in our world embroiled in war and strife, for people unable to walk around on the streets for fear of terrorism, gunfire, or bombs. We pray for the children who can’t play on the playgrounds, or who have no playgrounds to play on.
For our broken nation, we pray to you. We pray for those who are out of work, who are unable to work, and those who struggle to feed their families. Open our eyes to the needs around us, and give us the wisdom to reach out and help others.
For our congregation, we pray to you. Comfort those here today who are sick or hurting in mind, body, or spirit. Be with those who are grieving. Show us how to be ministers in this church and in the world. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen