Playing All the Roles on the Road to Jericho

samaritan

Preaching ideas for this week’s sermon on Luke 10:25-37

I was just 10 years old when the Gideon Society came into my classroom to present us with small pocket editions of The New Testament and Psalms. I was in grade five when this little book was given to me. Its imitation leather has held up well over the years. After I carefully wrote my name on the presentation page, I tucked it into my school bag. Several weeks later, a thunderstorm knocked out the electricity and I was caught without a book to read, so I dug out this little red book from my school bag. By candlelight, I read the Gospel of Matthew. Over the course of the next two weeks, I read Mark, Luke and John. I stopped reading somewhere in the book of Acts.

Over the course of the next few years, in the privacy of my room, I would return to this little red book and escape into the desert towns where Jesus travelled. In those days I didn’t know what a parable was, but I loved the stories that Jesus told. The stories that Jesus told have a timeless quality to them. The parables that Jesus told defy simple explanations. Each of the parables is layered with meaning. The varied meanings of each parable can take a lifetime to uncover as the stories weave in and out of our own lives. The parable about the Good Samaritan is probably one of the most familiar of all of Jesus’ parables.

I believe that the timeless quality of this story comes as a result of the way in which the reader or the hearer can identify with all of the characters in the story. While most of us would like to see ourselves as good Samaritans, I dare say that over the years each of us have managed to play all of the roles in this story.

Over the years I have often played the role of the lawyer, trying to get Jesus to explain the secrets of life as over and over again I have questioned and questioned what I must do to inherit eternal life.

I must confess that just the other day; I actually played the role of the priest. I was on my way to a meeting, when along the highway, I could see a car up ahead that had pulled over onto the shoulder. A man and a woman were standing beside the car and they tried to flag me down. But just like the priest, I had places to go and church business to attend to, besides it could have been a trap designed to get me to stop, and we’ve all been warned that it’s not safe for women to pull over for strangers. These days you never know who you can trust and even the police discourage you from stopping to help your fellow travellers. So just like the priest I passed by on the other side.

I am ashamed to tell you how many times I have played the role of the Levite. Oh, I want to be a good Samaritan. But there are just too many street people, too many requests for money, too many people sleeping out in the cold, and too many vacant faces staring up at me. It’s difficult to know how or who to help. So, a long time ago, I struck up an uneasy compromise with my conscience. Whenever I went into the city I would carry about half a dozen loonies in my pocket and I would respond to those in need until my supply was exhausted.Then when people would ask me for help, I would explain that I had no money to give. I was satisfied with this particular solution until one day while I was walking in the city with a friend from seminary, we were approached by an old man who asked us if we could spare any change. I reached into my pocket and handed over a shiny new loonie. The man thanked me kindly and we exchanged smiles. I was pleased that I was able to help and I was very surprised when my seminary friend began to lecture me. She insisted that all I was really doing by handing over a loonie was appeasing my own conscience. She went on to insist that my coin was of little or no use to the elderly gentleman. Annoyed, I asked her if she had ever heard of the good Samaritan. She insisted that the good Samaritan did more than just hand over a coin, he took the time to bandage a man’s wounds and then found him care and shelter and then made a follow up visit. I explained that I was having a hard enough time just handing over the odd coin now and then. She insisted that my time would be better spent if instead of handing out coins, I spent my time and energy trying to solve the social problems that resulted in people having to live on the streets. She quoted Martin Luther King who said that what the good Samaritan did was only a beginning and that “some day we will have to realize that the road to Jericho must be made in such a way that men and women are not constantly beaten and robbed while they are travelling along the paths of life.” We continued along the road in silence. I knew that everything that she said was true and so I sent up a silent prayer that we would not be approached by any more street people.

I still carry loonies in my pocket when I go into town. But there are so many street people and so very many problems and my meagre efforts hardly make me a good Samaritan. I’d like to believe that I’m not like the priest and the Levite who passed by their neighbour in need. But try as I might to distance myself from their apparent lack of concern for their neighbour, the sad truth is that more often than not I too am more concerned with my own business than I am with my neighbours’ need.

I said before that over the years at one time or another we all find ourselves playing each of the characters in this parable. But what about the robbers who strip and beat the man and leave him half dead. I wish it were not so. But those of us who live in the developed nations of the world cannot deny that much of our wealth is snatched from the hands of the impoverished people of this world. Every time we go into a discount store and buy a cheap outfit, we know that our neighbours in China, or India spent hours and hours day after day in sweatshops working for indecent wages so that we could have our bargains. Men, women, and children have been stripped, beaten, and left half dead toiling away so that we can enjoy cheap coffee, bananas, clothes, shoes, electronics, and don’t forget our toys.  Like it or not the role of robbers comes easier to us than we’d care to admit.

The road to Jericho is always with us. The road to Jericho is any place where people are robbed; where people are robbed of their dignity, robbed of their love, robbed of their food and clothing, robbed of their value as human beings. The road to Jericho is any place where there is suffering and oppression. It isn’t easy to hold on to the role of the good Samaritan. These days one hardly knows were to begin.

So where is the good news in this story. Where’s the grace for us. Well I have to admit that what I know about grace I did not learn from playing the role of the lawyer, the priest, the Levite, a robber, or even a good Samaritan. No, I learned more about grace at those moments when I have been the vulnerable one lying on the side of the road. Lying vulnerable on the side of the road you can’t afford to be picky about who helps you, even if it is a social outcast or an enemy like the Samaritan was to that helpless man in Jesus’ tale.  It has been said that Samaritans were considered the scum of the earth by Jesus’ Jewish brothers and sisters. In Jesus’ day a Jew would never consider speaking to a Samaritan, let alone asking a Samaritan for help. Samaritans were lowlifes.  Samaritans were the enemy. Samaritans were loathed and to be avoided at all costs. Lying helpless on the side of the road you can’t afford to be picky about who helps you.

It was almost thirty years ago now, but I remember it like it was yesterday; 1976 and I was eighteen years old and backpacking around Europe on $15.00 a day. It was the first time I had ever been in Germany. I’ve always been a bit of a history buff, so travelling in Germany gave me the opportunity to see so many of the places I’d only read about. But despite all the reading I’d done about Germany nothing prepared me for that first trip.Something happened to me that I’m almost ashamed to admit. I kept looking at people; German people who were then in their fifties, sixties and seventies and I just could help myself, I couldn’t help wondering what they had been doing thirty years earlier during the war. I’d see these men and I couldn’t help subtracting the years and imagining what they had done. Were they soldiers and if they were what kind of soldiers were they? Sitting on buses and trains, I would look out at the men and wonder?

It was crazy and it was unfair but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t help seeing the uniforms. The uniforms from those grainy black and white films and I couldn’t help wondering what my travelling companions had done during the war.

One day, I arrived very late in the town of Heidelberg. I’d gotten directions from the train station to the youth hostel and so I boarded a tram that was to take me to the outskirts of the city. In the seat opposite me was man who must have been in his sixties. My mind began to wonder. I counted back the years. He would have been in his thirties. Assuming he was healthy he must have been in the military. Which branch? What corps? Where was he stationed? What did he do? Did he know?

As I speculated the tram screeched along the unfamiliar streets unloading passengers until all at once it stopped and everybody got off. The operator indicated that I too must get off. But I didn’t know were I was.In broken German I tried to ask where the “Jugendherbergewas. I reached into my traveller’s waistband to get out my map and where I should have felt the bulge of my wallet, there was nothing. Frantically I realized that I’d been robbed. My wallet was gone from my waistband. The operator became more insistent, so I reluctantly got off the bus. Standing there on the side of the road, in the dark, desperately searching my pockets, I couldn’t stifle my tears.

A hand gently touched my elbow, “Are you lost?”

It was the man whose military service I had been trying to piece together. His English was impeccable. I told him I’d been robbed and I needed to get to the youth hostel because they would only hold my room until ten. I showed him the point on the map that I was trying to reach. He carefully explained that I’d long since missed my stop and that there was no way I could reach the Hostel before ten. Once again he gently touched my elbow and offered to help me in whatever way he could.

I couldn’t think straight. Who was this guy? Was he planning to hurt me?  I am ashamed to admit that a terrible though crossed my mind: What if he was some kind of Nazi? I was afraid.  I was lost. I was alone. I had been robbed.  I was vulnerable.

He smiled and told me his name was Carl. He lived just down the street. Perhaps I would come with him to his house and his wife would make us coffee and we could figure out what to do. I told him that I didn’t know him and that I was afraid. Why would he, a perfect stranger, want to help me? He nodded and told me that his grandson was about my age and that he was off in America travelling and that he hoped that if his grandson got into any trouble there might be a stranger there who would help his grandson.

I went with Carl to his house and while his wife Ruth made coffee, I found my wallet. I must have tucked it into my backpack before I left the station. Over dinner Carl and Ruth told me about their lives and I told them about my life. Later over snaps Carl and Ruth talked about the war. Carl’s family and my family were enemies back then. Carl said they were terrible days. Carl was in the army.  He spent most of the war in France. That’s were he met Ruth. She worked for an officer; it wasn’t clear to me what she did.

It seemed important to them that they tell me that they both knew what was going on. They explained that most people didn’t like to talk about it, but they wanted to make sure that their grandchildren knew everything that they knew so that it could never happen again. Over the years they’d lost friends over their willingness to talk about it, but they kept saying it mustn’t happen again.

Their guest room was so comfortable compared to the hostels I’d been staying in. Over breakfast they asked me about my family.I told them about my Irish grandparents and my Welsh Gran. I remembered some stories about bombs falling in Belfast and Birmingham. Carl told me that at one point during the war he was in charge of  security at an airfield where no doubt they had launched the planes that my Gran tried to shoot down. We talked about the war and we talked about the pain on both sides. We talked as enemies and strangers who have now become friends and neighbours. 

Two years later in a Tavern in Boston Massachusetts,  I met Carl and Ruth’s grandson Werner. We talked about the connections between our families. Our grandparents had been enemies. His grandparents were good Samaritans to me. Werner and I are friends. In my own vulnerability I encountered the grace of strangers who became neighbours.

As I read the parable of the good Samaritan over and over again, I realize that over the years I have played the part the priest, the Levite, the robbers, and from time to time, all though not often enough, I have even tried my hand at being the good Samaritan. But I have to say that I have learned more about grace on those occasions when I have been vulnerable and laying at the side of the road and in need of help.

When we are vulnerable it is easier somehow to let ourselves be touched by those who in other circumstances we might fear or call our enemies. When we are vulnerable we are willing to be touched by those who under other circumstances we might judge to be the untouchables. When we are vulnerable we are better able to recognize those that the world has judged to be the untouchables as our neighbours. When we recognize our neighbours we are better able to love them. But, I suppose more often than not, I have played the part of the lawyer who stands up to test Jesus.  More often than not we are the ones’ asking Jesus what must we do to inherit eternal life? Just like the lawyer we know the answer to our own question, “We are to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, with all our souls, and with all our strength, and with all our minds; and we are to love our neighbours as we love ourselves.” Jesus agrees with us and says, “do this, and you will live.”

Interestingly enough Jesus does not say do this and you will have eternal life. Jesus simply says do this and you shall live. Living in close proximity to others leaves us with all sorts of questions about how it is that we shall live together. All too often the roles we choose play in life insulate us from those we encounter along the way. But from time to time we are blessed with moments of vulnerability when we can see the ones we fear as our neighbours.  I suspect that it is our vulnerability which teaches us the grace we need to open ourselves to the possibility of embracing the role of the Good Samaritan. 

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