The Good Samaritan
Sermon Preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, November 11, 2007
It is the most natural thing for us to help one another. It is natural because we are made in the image of the All-Compassionate God. This is what defines us as human beings. We have to work very hard to subvert that natural inclination and one of the ways we do that is by making up stories.
Most ethnic or national groups have a target for their story telling. Everybody has a boogeyman. The Irish have the English, the Russians have the Chechnyans and religious fundamentalists (no matter what sect) have everybody else. It turns the world into a nice, neat, controllable place. There are people to love and people to hate, things to accept and things not to accept, places to go and places to avoid, clear delineations at all times to keep things straight and easy. The Jews told stories about Samaritans.
The Samaritans, according to the Jews in first century Palestine had it coming. They were viewed as a motley crew born of intermarriages during the time of the Assyrian conquest of the Northern Kingdom by Sargon II after which many were exiled and their lands resettled by Assyrians and other subjects of the conquering king. There are various stories of course, but at sometime there was a schism between the Northern and Southern Kingdoms before the exile and a temple was built on the Mt. Gerazim in the North where worship was held. Intermarriage with Gentiles spiced the soup quite a bit and so the Jews in the South came to despise those traitors and syncretists in the North calling them, with no little bit of guile, Samaritans. Wild stories were woven about them with the result being that Jews would have literally nothing to do with Samaritans at all!
It is significant that Jesus chose to tell his story about a good Samaritan. It no doubt riled the bigots among the crowd, but the Lord did that with regularity. He seems to have wasted no opportunity to smash honored religious and cultural icons and mess up the "nice, neat" little world built by the "respectable and pious". I believe he is still in that business, certainly in our personal lives and on even larger scales.
There was no way the Good Samaritan would have been ignorant of the animosity between his people and the Jews in the South. He had grown up knowing the rules that governed life. As usual the Lord turns everything upside down. Jesus, a Jew, tells a story that has a Samaritan as its hero! What is more, the Jews that were most powerful and respectable are used as examples of hypocrisy and unrighteousness, a priest and a Levite! The Samaritan becomes righteous and pure while the Jewish priest and Levite become wicked and foul! Funny how Jesus reveals what was honored as good and respectable to be sinful and ugly. How very daring was that? Clearly, Jesus was not much concerned about offending people.
This is a pattern for us, an example of how we are to see the stories we tell ourselves as suspect. For example, when we pass a homeless person on the street a number of feelings rise based on what we have come to believe is true about the homeless: fear, doubt, suspicion, anger, and repulsion. These are based on conditioning, but they are just feelings and, as such, they can be as easily dismissed as the myriad thoughts that invade our consciousness moment by moment. But what happens next cements those feelings and solidifies them into behavior. We start telling stories. "That homeless man is dirty, diseased, lazy, shiftless, a thief, profligate, perverted, worthless, deserving of his life and to be avoided at all costs. He would only spend what I gave him on alcohol or worse."
And how do we know all these things? We create them in our own minds, so they must be true, right? This is story telling and we do it all the time. Actually, we could not possibly know anything about the man unless we spoke to him and at length, but that would break the rules of "common sense" and "decency" and one goes there at great risk to one's own life and reputation. And besides that who has the time?
Jesus always managed to find the time.
Here's another example. You see a beautiful tree in someone's yard. It is spring; the tree is gloriously in bloom. For a moment you are struck with the power of its beauty and the scent of its flowers. You perceive clearly the reality of the tree. And then the mind starts to work. First, innocently. "That is an apple tree, genus such-and-such, native to this place or that place and the aroma is formed by the conjunction of these basic chemicals." And then comes the grasping. "How lovely that tree would look in my yard!" And then comes something worse. "I remember that Mrs. Beasley had one of those in her yard. What a mean. Old woman she was! Why once she took a switch from that tree and chased me out of her yard! I was soooo angry!" All of a sudden the tree disappears and you are left not with wonder at the tree you once saw, but with the anger you once felt at old Mrs. Beasley!
Another example: one Sunday morning at church you see Auntie Matilda (as usual). She is a beautiful woman anyway, but today she looks particularly stunning in a new suit and smart shoes. She greets you warmly. But all of that matters little because (you remember) 30 years ago she put cinnamon in the church baklava and you will never forgive her! Nothing matters more than that story you tell yourself every time you see her. An immediate reaction means that the story has become so ingrained that it hardly needs retelling. It means we have become conditioned.
Jesus saw clearly what was before him. We are called to do the same. Jesus told stories to illustrate truth, we tell stories to ourselves and end up distorting it. We need to learn to love truth and stop telling stories. They distract us from what is real.
Jesus made it a habit to get to know the sick, the poor and the despised at great risk to his own life and reputation. In fact, he was constantly hounded and eventually crucified for it. Of course he knew what would come of such behavior, but he did what he did willingly. So often parishes become the places for the "respectable, the pious, the worthy" while those who are not are discouraged from attending. That is the opposite of what Jesus wants. The Church, to be Christ's Church, must reject "respectability".
We, to be faithful to our Lord, must do the same and be willing to be despised and rejected as he was. We must be willing to not only love the despised, but be willing to admit the truth, we are in truth one with them already. You know the joke about the Dalai Lama asking the hotdog vendor on Fifth Avenue to "make me one with everything," well, the truth is, we are one with everyone and everything already, but we easily, sometimes gleefully, forget. A Rabbi once explained Jesus' words, "Love your neighbor as yourself," to a clueless preacher. "It doesn't mean you can't love your neighbor unless you first love yourself. It means your neighbor is yourself."