Episcopal Diocese of Virginia
The Episcopal Church »  |  The Diocese of Virginia

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 14, 2013

Phyllis was having trouble with her math. Because I was considered a good math student, my teacher asked me to help her. After several sessions in class, it became clear that she needed extra help. So I volunteered to come to her home after school and tutor her. I was expecting a house like mine – a two story “regular” house, the kind all my friends lived in. But instead I found a run down house with an overgrown yard, not at all the kind of place I had ever visited before. I was a little afraid of going in there. But I did, and I helped Phyllis with her math. My mother was proud of me for helping someone who really needed it. She or my dad told me some basics about economic differences.

Jesus tells a parable about someone who helped a person in great need, someone very different than he was. He is led to the story by a question from a lawyer, someone who studied and interpreted the scriptures. We are told that the lawyer wanted to test Jesus, to see whether an untrained teacher could come up with the answer he already knows. “What must I do to inherit eternal life”, he asks. But Jesus turns the tables on him by asking him the question instead of giving an answer, something he often does. The lawyer is then obliged to give the answer, and he and Jesus agree. The passage in Deuteronomy 6:5 about loving God with your heart and soul and mind and strength and the one in Leviticus 19:18 about loving your neighbor as yourself are the basis on which people live eternally with God.

We all know these passages and agree with them too. Contemporary society may not be in agreement with the “love God” part, but they are certainly in large part in agreement with what they think “love your neighbor” means, which is to do something nice for someone.

But Jesus has so much more in mind when he answers the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” How far do I have to extend my love to be justified, to be right with God? It is probable that the lawyer felt that love of neighbor was limited to love of his tribe, his people, his clan, the most important division in the Hebrew Scriptures. Even though Leviticus 19:33-34 talks about loving the stranger in your land, it is still confined to “where I live and work”.

We all know the basics of the story. A man going down theJerusalemtoJerichoroad had been stripped, beaten, robbed and left for dead. TheJerusalemtoJerichoroad is a dangerous wilderness road about 17 miles long. It was a prime place for bandits to hang out. The man was almost certainly Jewish as it was a Judean road. The people listening to Jesus probably thought he deserved what he got for making a solo trip on it. 

While he was lying there, two members of the Jewish religious establishment passed by – a priest and a Levite. They noticed the man, but did not stop. They crossed over to the other side of the road and went on their way. Much has been made of these people needing to stay away from what could have been a dead body because they needed to be ritually pure to serve in the temple. They did, but by following what was the tradition, they missed an opportunity to obey the law, which often happened inIsrael.

The crowd listening to the story would have expected a lay Israelite to be the next one to come along and help the man, but instead Jesus introduces a Samaritan, a person despised by the Jews. The Samaritans despised the Jews too. They considered themselves Jewish, but they only accepted the Torah. They had a different place of worship. They had refused to help in rebuildingJerusalem. There were also acts of destruction and defilement of the other tribe’s place of worship. The Samaritans were so hated by the Jews that earlier James and John had wanted to rain fire down on the Samaritan village for not welcoming Jesus. It is probable that the man in the ditch hated Samaritans as much as the rest of the Jews did.

But the man in the ditch was in no position to put up a fight when the Samaritan, who had compassion on him, helped him. He poured oil and wine on the wounds to cleanse them and dull the pain. He put him on his animal and brought him to an innkeeper. He gave the innkeeper money to take care of the man and promised more on his return if it was needed. Helping the man required time, energy and money and changed the Samaritan’s schedule. He could have seen the man as a burden, but he saw him as a neighbor.

The story is very clear. Jesus asks the lawyer who was neighbor to the man. The lawyer, gritting his teeth, can’t utter the word Samaritan, so he says it was the one who showed him mercy. Jesus tells him and us to go and do likewise. Love is doing for others, not just feeling compassion and not helping. Love is even doing for your enemies.

Obviously Samaritans don’t mean much to us today, but we have other enemies. A Jewish enemy today would be a member of a Palestinian terrorist group and vice versa. And for us, enemies could be many people. The cover of “The Upper Room”, a devotional book like our “Forward Day by Day”, shows a black man in the role of Samaritan and a white man as the one in need. Would we have helped a Muslim in dire straits in the days after 9/11? What about a gay couple and conservative Christians or anti-immigration proponents and illegal immigrants? We are called to help unreservedly when people are in need. Even the priest and the Levite, the ones we would judge as “the bad guys” in the story, are deserving of our help. God created them too, and just because they did not show compassion does not mean we should follow their example.

Being a good Samaritan involves risk. The Samaritan was in unfamiliar territory. If he stopped, the bandits might return to attack him. But he didn’t let that stop him. I heard a story once about a girl out running on her high school track when a man came and asked her to help him find his dog. She started to do that, and he tried to attack her. She got away only because she was a track star. Of course that is an extreme example, but there are many times we are frightened by mentally ill homeless people on the street or other persons who are so different from us. But we are not to let fear stop us either. We are to love our neighbor.

The story Jesus tells focuses on the Samaritan, but what about the helpless man? Can we put ourselves in the position of being the person who is in need of help? I remember my sister nearly carrying me home when I was so sick with pneumonia I could hardly breathe. I remember all the people that helped me when I had my hip replaced and I am so grateful. But sometimes, we can refuse help because of our prejudices. In the television show, “The Jeffersons”, the main character, a black man, is finally convinced by his wife to give blood for someone having surgery. It turns out the patient is a white man, and when told that he was getting a black man’s blood angrily refused it.

In addition to being the Samaritan and the needy person, we have also been the priest and the Levite. We have all had opportunities to help and have not done so. Thankfully, we are forgiven and given many opportunities to receive eternal life by showing compassion and mercy to our neighbors, even our enemies.

In his story, Jesus urges the breaking down of barriers that divide humanity – race, creed, socioeconomic status, sexual preference – and encourages the building of bridges by showing compassion to those in need. We do that at St. John’s with our fair trade coffee sales to help microbusinesses in other countries, the work we do with AFAC, our bagged lunch program for the Bailey’s Crossroads Shelter, our Christmas gift project and many individual efforts.

We love God through loving our neighbor, the stranger, even our enemy. Let us make a commitment to “do” love, so we can experience eternal life with God here and now.

AMEN

     - Rev. Ann Barker