Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit
The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 10C)
July 14, 2019
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
One of my favorite television sitcoms growing up was Seinfeld. If you never watched the show, it was basically a show about nothing. There were no ongoing plots or recurring themes. You could easily pick up in the middle of a season and completely understand what was going on. There were four main characters in the show: Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer, and each week, audiences would watch as this group of friends somehow became involved in the funniest and most preposterous situations that you could imagine.
The show’s series finale aired on May 14, 1998. In the finale, Jerry and George are getting ready to produce their own television show with the NBC network. Jerry is given access to the network’s private plane to fly from New York to California to begin working on the show, but before leaving, the four friends decide to fly to Paris for one last celebration together. During the flight, Kramer starts jumping up and down on the plane in order to get water out of his ears (I told you it’s a show about nothing), and when he does, he accidentally falls into the cockpit of the plane, causing the pilots to lose control and forcing them to make an emergency landing.
They land in a small town in Massachusetts. While they’re waiting for the plane to be repaired, they witness a man being robbed and carjacked in the town square, and rather than doing anything to help the man, they stand back and crack jokes about what’s happening. Later, a police officer arrives at the scene of the crime and charges the four friends with a violation of a new town ordinance called the “Good Samaritan Law,” which requires anyone to help or assist another person who’s in danger as long as it’s reasonable to do so. Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer are shocked when they hear this news and then arrested and taken to the city jail where they wait to go on trial for their crime.
This episode of Seinfeld is a classic example of how television shows and movies often depict the “Good Samaritan” as a charitable “do-gooder,” a stranger who shows up just in “the nick of time” to help someone who’s in trouble. The four main characters in Seinfeld are anything but charitable “do-gooders,” but the idea of a “Good Samaritan Law” implies that a “Good Samaritan” is someone who comes to the aid of those in need. In our culture, the term has become synonymous with someone who performs random acts of kindness for strangers, someone who puts the well-being of others before their own. You can probably think of other examples as well, either characters from other television shows or movies or even people you know who might fall into this category.
Performing random acts of kindness for strangers and offering help to those in need is something I think we’re all called upon to do from time to time, especially when the circumstances present themselves. It’s one of the ways we live out our baptismal vow to “seek and serve Christ in all persons,” loving our neighbors as ourselves. As Christians, I think we should come to the aid of those who need our help when we’re able to do so, but I also think we’re called upon to do more. The term “Good Samaritan” has become a cliché in our society, and the parable that we just heard in our Gospel lesson for this morning is often interpreted as a mandate to help the stranger in need. But, if we stop there, if we just skim the surface of the page without any other thought, we risk missing out on an even deeper and significant meaning.
Listen to the parable again, this time from the Common Englishtranslation of the Bible:
“‘A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. Now it just so happened that a priest was also going down the same road. When he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. Likewise, a Levite came by that spot, saw the injured man, and crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.’”
While it’s not clearly stated in the Gospel, it’s implied that the injured man in the story is a Jew. It’s unlikely that anyone else would’ve been traveling the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Jesus doesn’t explain why the first two men who encounter him on the road, the priest and the Levite, refuse to help. The intent here is not to explain why. The intent is to shock the audience. Jesus does this by turning the tables. The two characters whom the audience would expect to help the injured man in the story refuse to do so. It’s the third character, the Samaritan, who decides to help the stranger in need. For audiences in first century Palestine, the reveal of the Samaritan as the hero in Jesus’ story would’ve been scandalous, to say the least. Samaritans were the enemies of the Jews, and Jews were the enemies of the Samaritans. Under normal circumstances, the Samaritan in Jesus’ parable would’ve had nothing to do with the injured, Jewish man.
The final question that Jesus asks in our Gospel lesson further demonstrates the power and scandalous nature of the parable. He asks the lawyer, “‘What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?’” The lawyer knows the correct answer, but because of the hatred that exists between the two groups, he’s unwilling to even say the word “Samaritan.” Instead, he says, The one who showed him mercy.”
The parable of the Good Samaritan is more than a simple morality tale, teaching us to do good deeds for those in need. It also teaches us that we can learn compassion and mercy from even the most unexpected places. Amy-Jill Levine, author of the book, The Misunderstood Jew, once wrote, “To understand the parable [of the Good Samaritan] in theological terms, we need to be able to see the image of God in everyone, not just members of our group. To hear this parable in contemporary terms, we should think of ourselves as the person in the ditch, and then ask, “Is there anyone, from any group, about whom we’d rather die than acknowledge, ‘She offered help’ or ‘He showed compassion’?” More, is there any group whose members might rather die than help us? If so, then we know how to find the modern equivalent for the Samaritan.”
Reading the parable in this light, I can’t help but think about the current state of politics in our country and the deep divisions that exist among us. Think about it for a moment. For some, even mentioning the name of one political party or the other stirs up feelings of hatred and discontent. Somehow, we’ve made enemies out of each other because we happen to have different ideas or opinions on the way our government should operate. We’ve turned each side into the modern-day equivalent of the Samaritan, unwilling to acknowledge the good in the other. How many times in recent memory have you heard a politician on one side of the aisle complement the other side or admit that the other side had a good idea? You can probably count the number of times on one hand, if any.
Of course, politics is just one example out of a long list of things that might divide us and prevent us from seeing the good in the other, but the way of love, the way of Jesus, teaches us to walk a better path. We can learn a lot about how to love our neighbors as ourselves by reading the parable of the Good Samaritan and acknowledging the fact that even those with whom we disagree can teach us how to show compassion and mercy to those in need. We can learn a lot about how to love our neighbors as ourselves by working to break down the barriers that divide us. This is the path we’ve been called to walk as followers of Jesus Christ. It is the path that leads to eternal life. Amen.