Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Parable of the Good Samaritan (January 27, 2013)

Even if you never went to a Christian Sunday School, I bet you have heard the story of the Good Samaritan. It is so common, that the term “Good Samaritan” has become synonymous for someone who helps a stranger. It is an ordinary kind of phrase, with a clear meaning. But I want to suggest to you that this story is actually kind of extraordinary, if we bother to look more closely. This is the nature of parables- like a box that sometimes remains shut so we can only see the surface, and sometimes opens for us so we can see what is inside.

In the gospels that record the life and teachings of Jesus, he would often answer a question or a criticism with a parable. A parable is a kind of teaching story; the word comes from the Latin word for “comparison” and  a Greek root meaning “juxtaposition” from the root “para” which means “alongside” So when a story is laid alongside our current question or situation, there is something to be learned by the comparison. There were many gospels, or stories about the life of Jesus, written in the generations that followed Jesus’ death. But only 4 of these made it into the bible. These are called the “canonical gospels.” This story comes from the Gospel of Luke, who wrote about 90 years after Jesus was born.. The writer or writers of  Luke (if you want to be fancy you can call them the “Lukian authors”) juxtapose this parable with the question “who are our neighbors?” 

The first surprise is that the priest and the Levite do not stop to help. In fact, they cross to the other side of the street. We expect our religious leaders to, well, be leaders in living lives of compassion and justice. There is some discussion over the centuries about whether perhaps there was some religious prohibition about touching the man who was bloody and near death, or perhaps the motives were purely selfish, but the story itself  remains silent about this, so why they didn’t stop is not something for us to worry about.

The next surprise is that it is the Samaritan who does stop. Our retelling of the story by UU Religious educator Christopher Buice emphasizes the status of the Samaritan as an outcast. Probably if he had the money to pay for the hotel stay our Samaritan in the biblical story would not have been poor and dirty like the one in our children’s story, but probably was dressed like anyone else. (Although those of you who were here last week remember that the great teacher and sage Swami Vivekananda was turned away at many houses because his robes were dusty and travel worn).  Instead the social status of our Samaritan as an outsider was an ethnic one.  Samaritans were Semitic peoples who had common roots with Judaism but used  different versions of the  scriptures, and came from the north.

We want to identify with the Samaritan in this story. We know he is the hero. In answer to the question “what must we do to have eternal life” the Lukian author tells us that we must “go and do likewise.”  But how often are we really like this  good Samaritan. I don’t think I have ever helped a stranger to that extent. In this day when we fear blood-born diseases, I can’t imagine disinfecting the wounds of a stranger, then binding them. I have never taken financial responsibility for a stranger like that- paying for an indefinite stay in hotel? That can get pretty expensive. And the intimacy, the time of spending the night caring for the stranger, then promising to come back to see what more he needs on my way back through town.  The Samaritan is not “what any good person would do” but what someone really extraordinary would do. Someone very unusual.

Probably most of us are like the priest or the Levite. In hearing the story it is easy to judge them. But I know I have walked by folks holding a sign that read “hungry- need food” and turned my head away, not because I didn’t care, but because I felt torn. Sometimes I have passed a few dollars out the car window. For a little while I made up lunches each time I went to work because I knew I would pass a fellow with a sign that said “hungry” and I took him at his word. In fact, for a while when I was young I committed to helping every person I saw, but then the more I got involved the more cynical I became, I suppose some would call it “compassion fatigue”. I remember a fellow who said he needed a special kind of formula for his child so I walked with him to the grocery store, where he could not remember the ages or number of his children, and asked about the return policy on formula.  I remember a fellow who wanted money for insulin, but stopped coming by when I set up a meeting with someone from the American Diabetes association to look for ongoing sources of help with paying for insulin. Episodes like these dampened my enthusiasm and generosity for helping. Yes, sometimes I am literally the priest who walks by someone in need, and does not stop to help. 

Some biblical scholars who are interested in the historical Jesus, that is Jesus the man who lived in a certain time and place,  have looked at these texts and tried to separate out what parts of these stories might really have been uttered by Jesus, and what parts would have been added by storytellers and writers over the generations.   Often such scholars tell us the interpretations were added by later writers, and encourage us to look at the story standing on its own. Think about the question Luke situates this other alongside- “how does one enter the kingdom of heaven” and  “who are our neighbors?”  Notice that it doesn’t really match the question Jesus is said to have asked in finding the moral of the story “who was a neighbor to this man?” If we look at the story that way, Jesus is answering the question “who are our neighbors” by saying “someone who would stop and help us when we are broken, even though we are a stranger” is our neighbor. But I think that’s kind of rare, kind of special. Is no one else our neighbor? Another way of looking at this question is that in this case the Samaritan, the person who is a racial and religious minority is our neighbor, even when a respected leader in our own faith is not. In this light, the tale of the Good Samaritan is our day and age, when racial profiling still plays such a powerful role in our criminal justice system, in our immigration policy, or in our education system.  In this light the parable is about how people defy stereotypes, defy our expectations of them. We must be careful whom we include and whom we exclude. As a Universalist, this story reminds me that “everyone is our neighbor”

Much as in dream interpretation, I believe that parables lend themselves to many layers of interpretation. We have focused so far on this parable as a model for good behavior we have considered the social justice implications of inclusion and exclusion. Now I want to think about the theological implications of this parable. James Breech is one of those biblical scholars who want to listen carefully to what Jesus is saying and not saying, and to tease this apart from what the author Lukian Author wants to say. To Breech, the Good Samaritan is not the main character in this story, the man going down a road who fell among robbers is the main character.  This is the story of a man who is going about his travels and unexpectedly encounters meaningless violence. Breech points out that the  robbers “stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.” And notes that  robbers do  not need to beat you and leave you as dead just to take your valuables, especially when they outnumber you. This, he affirms, is clearly meaningless violence. Evil. We hear about these things all the time in the news, right? In our hearts right now, for example, we have those horrible shootings in Newtown.   For  Breech this story not so much about how do we accrue merit by doing good deeds so that we can get into the kingdom of heaven, it is about how we can live knowing that such violence exists in the world.

Then, one after another, the next two men going down that road see the man  who was set on by robbers and  “passed by on the other side.” They see the forces of death, and they move away from it. They give the man up for dead, or as Breech says  “Their responses show that for them death is something to be avoided, that of them the effects of death are something that they are unwilling or unable to address with their own activity... In other words, their avoidance … implicitly recognizes [death] as the force which is ultimate in human life.” [Breech p. 176] SO Breech is saying that these two other men, and to him it doesn’t matter who they are, to him Luke was just coloring in the details that Jesus left plain, these other two men feel powerless in the face of death. They feel that the forces of life are so scarce that it is all we can do just to survive in this world. They represent “those who take survival and success as dominant criteria for judging situations.”

And the Good Samaritan, he is not the hero of the story. To Breech this story is not about an act of charity for a victim of violence, this story is about looking in the face of death and seeing life. Breech points out that the man who stops to help does not become friends with the man, does not cancel his own journey to stay and make sure he is healed; he simply is getting this man who went down a road back on his own journey.  Moreover, to Breech, helping is not an end in and of itself, it is an expression of life’s vital force. The Samaritan had such an abundance of life’s vital force that he saw life in the man others left for dead, and wanted to return the man to his journey.

To Breach, the point of the story is not the virtue of the Good Samaritan, or his eternal reward, nor even the success of his endeavor. He points out that Jesus is silent about whether or not the fellow who was set on by robbers survives. He proposes that this story, as with all of Jesus’ parables, shows us a radical way of looking at life -- one where death is not the “force that is ultimate in life” but that life itself is “charged with superabundant vitality, the power that sustains those who are human.”  This story  is about looking in the face of death, and seeing life, a “superabundant vitality” that sustains us even in the face of evil.

After the service today, we are going to have a chance to talk about those times when we find ourselves walking down the road, and see death, hardship, evil, How do we find life in that? How do we return those who have been stopped on their journey back onto their own story.  This story offers not only, as Luke suggests, a vision of reaching out a helping hand to those who need it most, even if they are strangers to us, but it also it reminds us that when we bind up the wounds of one who has been beset by robbers, that we are not the hero of that story, it is the story of the man journeying down the road, and our job is to return them to their story.  Some would say that this is how we build the kingdom of heaven right here among us.

Beech is suggesting something even more radical than that. In another passage of Luke: “Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.’” [Luke 17:20-21] Breech is suggesting that the Kingdom of God can be found right here in this moment, it is found in that very “superabundant vitality” in the act of the Good Samaritan, it can be found even in the face of death. This view of Jesus’ theology sounds almost like Buddhism, where a certain quality of presence, of attention, of cuing in to what is ultimate is available to us at all times if we would but look.

Finally, Jesus parable makes that radical suggestion that even when we ourselves are journeying down a road, and beset by robbers, whether that is physical violence or the death of a loved one, or an illness that sends us to the ICU, death is not the ultimate force in our lives.  It is that abundant vitality that is present all around us as we journey down the road.

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