25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 He answered, “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.” 28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” 29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
In the winter of 2007, an astonishing thing happened in New York City. A construction worker named Wesley Autrey was standing on a subway platform with his two young daughters, ages four and six, waiting on a train. Suddenly another man on the platform, apparently suffering from a seizure, stumbled and fell off the platform down onto the subway tracks. Just at that moment the headlights of a rapidly approaching train appeared in the subway tunnel. Acting quickly, and with no thought for himself, Wesley Autrey jumped down onto the tracks and he pressed the man into the hollowed-out space between the rails and spread his own body over him to protect him as the train passed over the two of them. The train cleared Wesley by mere inches, coming close enough to leave grease marks on his knit cap.
Almost immediately, and for good reason, Wesley Autrey became a national hero. People were deeply moved by his selflessness, and they marveled at his bravery. What Wesley had done was a remarkable deed of concern for another person. He had no obvious reason to help this stranger. He didn’t know the man. He had his young daughters to think about. What he did was at severe risk to his own life. But a human being was in desperate need, and Wesley saw it and, moved with compassion, did what he could to save him. “The Subway Superman”-that’s what the press called him, the “Harlem Hero.” But the headline in one newspaper described Wesley Autrey in biblical terms. It read, “Good Samaritan Saves Man on Subway Tracks.”
This is a remarkable story, but when you think about it, to hear someone referred to as a Good Samaritan is not all that uncommon in our culture. Whether it is the person who stops for someone stranded on the highway or someone who chases down a purse thief, we all seem to have heard at least one story of a modern day Good Samaritan.
The parable of the Good Samaritan is certainly one of the most well-know stories from the Bible. Virtually everyone knows it, or at least knows what it means to be a Good Samaritan. In fact, I would venture to say that we know this parable too well. Sometimes, when you become comfortable with a story, you can take it for granted. You can forget the details that make is so great to begin with. And the story can lose its punch. I think that is what’s happened with this story. It has lost its punch. It’s shock value. And I think, it has lost the heart of its message.
Preachers will often turn this story into a moralistic tale about how we simply ought to go and help people. “Will you be a Good Samaritan today?” they ask. It becomes about how we should be polite and nice, and if someone seems in need of help, well then, we ought to help. But the problem is…we all already know this. We all are readily aware of what we should and shouldn’t do. So I am not sure this story is simply about getting someone to be better a person and to do more good.
Thomas Long, a famous preacher, makes a good point. If this story were really about simply being good and taking care of people, Jesus would have told the story differently. He would have left out all of the business about the Samaritan. He would have simply said, “A guy was lying in the ditch and three men passed by. The first two didn’t do a thing and the third one did. Which one was the neighbor to the man in the ditch? That’s right, the third one. Be like him.” No need to say anything about the Samaritan at all and we can all go home.
But Jesus doesn’t tell us the story that way, does he?
Just after Jesus tells the lawyer that the way to life is to love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and your neighbor as yourself, the lawyer asks Jesus another question, “But who is my neighbor?” It seems like the lawyer is trying to qualify the law. As if what the lawyer is really asking is, “Who isn’t my neighbor? Who don’t I have to love?” We do that, don’t we? Sometime we want to know the minimum amount of love we are asked to give.
And so Jesus tells him story about a man on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. The man is given no race, no religion, no regional distinction, and no indication of occupation, which means he could be any of us. And on this road to Jericho, the man is stripped beaten and left for dead. Then by chance, along comes a priest, an expert in the law of the Scriptures. The priest sees the half dead man, and crosses to the other side of the road. Along comes a Levite, another expert in the law, who also sees the half dead man, and then crosses to the other side of the road, leaving him there. And then….Jesus says, came a Samaritan. If you listen closely enough, you can hear everyone’s back straighten and their jaws clench. Along comes a Samaritan – the enemy of the Jews, the hated, unclean one. The ending of Jesus’ story is clear. The Samaritan would be the one to help, the one to truly see the man in the ditch. And not only would he help, but he would go above and beyond the call, by paying for this man’s lodging and other expenses, and even coming back to check on him. A Samaritan becomes the hero of the story. There is no way around it. And yet, to combine hero and Samaritan would be like mixing oil with water. They don’t go together. It shatters the Jews moral universe because suddenly that which was bad is now good.
And then Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which of the three was a neighbor?” The lawyer couldn’t muster the word Samaritan out of his mouth, so he resorted to, “The one who showed him mercy.” The lawyer asked a question that would build walls – “Tell me who my neighbor is. Define it for me, give me parameters.” And in response, Jesus told a story that tore down all the walls. A story in which the enemy becomes the hero, a story in which those listening are forced to see a different landscape. A different view…a reality without walls.
So, do you know who your Samaritan is? Can you name the person or type of person whom you would never in your life want to receive help from? The person you would never want to help? And can you see them as a beloved child of God.
Can you see the people in this room, in this community as children of God and as your neighbor, whom you are called to love? The single mother living on welfare. The handsome man driving the Mercedes. The boring science teacher. The latino man working here illegally so he can send money home to his family. The woman in the rusted out 2-door sedan with bumper stickers that prove she is a socialist. Or the man in the truck with decals all about guns and loving America. Or the Muslim woman in her headdress who is weak in the knees from fasting during the month of Ramadan.
Can you see them? Can you see them as children of God?
But you see, I don’t think our eyesight is something easily changed. The kind of seeing Jesus asks of us can’t be changed with a new pair glasses. Rather it calls for a whole new set of eyes. And sometimes the only thing that can give us just such a transplant is an experience in our own life of gracious and unexpected love.
For example, there is the story of Jack Casey. When looking at his life, Jack Casey had little reason to be a Good Samaritan. Casey was raised in a tough home, the child of an alcoholic father. He once said, “All my father ever taught me is that I didn’t want to grow up to be like him.”
But something happened to Jack when he was a child that changed his life, changed his heart. He was having surgery one day, and he was frightened. He remembers the surgical nurse standing there and compassionately reassuring him. “Don’t worry,” she said to Jack. “I’ll be here right beside you no matter what happens.” And when Jack woke up again, she was true to her word and still there.
Years later, Jack Casey became a paramedic. One day he was sent to the scene of a highway accident. A man was pinned upside down in his pickup truck, and as Jack was trying to get him out of the wreckage, gasoline was dripping down on both of them. The rescuers were using power tools to cut the metal, so one spark could have caused everything to go up in flames. The driver was frightened, crying out how scared he was of dying. Jack remembered what had happened to him long ago on the operating table, how that nurse had spoken tenderly to him and stayed with him, and he said and did the same thing for the truck driver, “Look, don’t worry,” he said, “I’m right here with you, I’m not going anywhere.” When I said that, Jack remembered later, I was reminded of how that nurse had said the same thing and she never left me. Days later, the rescued truck driver said to Jack, “You know, you were an idiot, the thing could have exploded and we’d both have been burned up!”
“I just couldn’t leave you,” Jack said.
My prayer today is that each one of us might have just such an experience. An experience of being loved by an unlikely stranger when we’ve been beaten and stripped and robbed by this world, so that when we are walking on the dangerous road of life and we come across a stranger who is broken down and broken hearted, we too might be able to proclaim to them…”I just couldn’t leave you.”