For Sunday, July 10, 2016
RESPONDING TO THE TEXT
Few of Jesus’ parables are as familiar as the Good Samaritan story presented in this week’s Lectionary reading. An individual who was traveling the road out of Jerusalem was robbed, beaten, and left for dead. A priest and then a Levite each saw him, passing to the other side of the road in order to avoid him. Only the Samaritan came near to him, was moved with compassion, and made sure he was cared for.
Each character in the Good Samaritan story provides an opportunity for followers of Jesus to reflect on the character of God, the violence of the world around us, and our calling to become more fully human.
Beginning theological question:
A theological reflection always begins by asking where we see God at work in the text. The surface reading here takes notice that the Samaritan is the most God-like character.
The go-to approach:
The approach most likely taken for sermon building is to focus on the identity of the Samaritan and the question of who we consider our neighbors. This approach recognizes that Samaritans were considered outsiders, second class, or less-than-godly by the Jewish community. And so, the character in the story that exhibits the most God-like behavior is the one who is generally not thought of as the neighbor.
Pope Francis recently explained, “It is the same compassion with which God encounters each of us: He [sic.] does not ignore us. He recognizes our pain, He knows when we need help and consolation. He comes close and never abandons us.”
The great liberation theologian Dominican Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez once made the point that the heart of the parable is the question of who we identify as our neighbor. The neighbor, he argued, is a person who is not already close to us, but someone that we must leave our own context, our own lives, our own paths in order to encounter. The wounded person in this story, Gutierrez argues, is not someone who is close. We do not know whether the person is good, or kind, or godly. We only know that the person is in need. The Samaritan doesn’t decide whether the wounded person is worthy of his assistance, and there is no reason for him to believe that his care will be reciprocated. It is only when the Samaritan makes the conscious decision to leave his path and approach the wounded that the two become neighbors. Following the example of the Good Samaritan, then, Gutierrez calls for us to become a Samaritan church, a people who are not just self-referential but open and attentive to human needs, a people that willingly leave our own contexts in order to make ourselves neighbors with those in need around us.
This approach may further the cause for peace, not just by challenging us to care for the poor and hurting among us, but also by presenting a challenge to our congregations about commonly held opinions toward those seen as outsiders to our communities. For instance, one could highlight how much Christian communities could learn about godliness by imitating the kindness often shown by Muslims. (Here is the link to a story of Muslim farmers in Pakistan who put their savings together to build a church for the Christians in their neighborhood.)
A cautious reading:
Caution should be taken when using the go-to approach for this text. This text has been and continues to be read in ways that are antisemitic. This can range from a basic reading that assumes the non-Samaritan travelers represent all Jews, or from a more nuanced view that assumes that Jesus was trying to deemphasize purity laws. (For more on this, read Amy-Jill Levine’s “A Jewish Take on Jesus.”)
A deeper reading for repentance, resistance, and restoration:
The go-to approach recognizes that the God-like character in the parable is the Good Samaritan. But when read from a hermeneutic of repentance, two new interpretations can come to light.
A hermeneutic of repentance recognizes that while it is easy for the church to identify with the God-like character, honesty calls us to identify the church with the priest and the Levite. This approach takes to heart what is stated in the prayer of confession when a congregation prays together “we have not loved our neighbors, we have not heard the cry of the needy.”
First, we should ask where Jesus saw himself in the story. From a Christology of liberation, we see that Christ would have identified with the broken, wounded, abandoned individual. That is because Christ, who would later be afflicted, was able to see himself in those who were afflicted. As Simone Weil notes in her profound essay, The Love of God and Affliction, the one who has been afflicted is simultaneously near to the greatest distance from God and at the foot of the cross. (See my recent post for a reflection on this.) Indeed, we might see that the parable of the Good Samaritan is itself a foretelling of the crucifixion. As Bonhoeffer would put it, based on Christ’s teachings in Matt. 25:40, “What is nearest to God is precisely the need of one’s neighbor” (Ethics, p.136).
Second, we recognize that repentance is the call for us to become more fully human. This requires more than a prayer of confession. We must begin asking why it is that our human condition makes it such that we would choose to pass on the other side of the road rather than to care for the one who has been abandoned. For those of us whose social location is from within the locus imperium, as Ched Myers calls it, we find it hard to identify with those who suffer because our normal way of life is rooted in the avoidance of suffering. But for those whose way of life is already rooted in suffering, it is hard not to identify with the one on the side of the road.
I’m going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It’s possible that those men were afraid. You see, the Jericho Road is a dangerous road. (That’s right) I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. (Yeah) And as soon as we got on that road I said to my wife, “I can see why Jesus used this as the setting for his parable.” It’s a winding, meandering road. (Yes) It’s really conducive for ambushing. You start out in Jerusalem, which is about twelve hundred miles, or rather, twelve hundred feet above sea level. And by the time you get down to Jericho fifteen or twenty minutes later, you’re about twenty-two feet below sea level. That’s a dangerous road. (Yes) In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the “Bloody Pass.”And you know, it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. (Go ahead) Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking (Yeah), and he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. (Oh yeah) And so the first question that the priest asked, the first question that the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” (All right)
But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” That’s the question before you tonight. (Yes) Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job?” Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?” (Yes) The question is not, “If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?” The question is, “If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?” That’s the question. [Applause]
For many of us, the repentant approach to this text is to see ourselves in the priest and the Levite, and to then put practices in place that train our imaginations so that we begin to see Christ in the afflicted. So that rather than avoiding suffering, we begin to see ourselves in those who suffer, and like the Samaritan in the story, do things that bring healing and hope and life and peace to them.
CALL TO WORSHIP
Leader: Beloved people, we have gathered here to give our hearts to God.
People: We were made in the image of God. And God’s likeness shines in all of us.
Leader: But in Christ, we find the poor and broken, those abandoned by the world.
People: May God transform our hearts for love, that we might love them as we love ourselves.
All: In so doing, let us finally learn to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
God of goodness and glory, your grace transforms our hearts and empowers us with your love. We come here together to rejoice, to worship, to love, and to serve. May our rejoicing be heard as the voices of those who are ready to hear the cries of those in need. May our worship be received as the gifts of those who are willing to offer our services to the hurting around us. May our love be the fruit of those eager to model our lives after the example of your love for us. May our service to you be in harmony with the service of peace you have called us, in Christ, to offer amidst the violence of the world around us. And may our gathering today sow seeds that bring forth your dream for our world which you have already begun in Christ, under whose name we have gathered today. Amen.
PRAYER FOR ILLUMINATION
Your love, Oh God, is active, engaged, and involved. You have made us in your image. You have shown us mercy and kindness. You have given us grace and peace. Open your word to us this morning. Teach us to be merciful, as you have been merciful to us. Teach us to love in kindness, as your kindness always leads us to repentance. Teach us to approach our enemies with grace, that we may learn to call them our neighbors. Teach us to share in your love and spread the promise of your peace. Through Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.
PRAYER OF CONFESSION
God of unending love, in our selfishness and greed we have failed to be an obedient church. We have heard your word, and yet failed to answer the cry of the needy. We know your commandments, and yet we have failed to love. We have lived in the world as if it is ours, and we have forgotten that everything we have, we have because of the grace you poured out on us. Forgive us we pray. Free us for joyful obedience. Come live in us, in those whom you have created. In Jesus’ name we pray.
WORDS OF ASSURANCE
Leader: Hear the Good News: God did not send Christ into the world to condemn us, but that the violence of the world might be interrupted by the power of God’s peace through him. As God so loved the world, and in spite of our failings, God has also loved us. In Jesus Christ, therefore, you are forgiven.
People: In the name of Jesus Christ, our Prince of Peace, you are forgiven.
All: Glory to God! Amen!