Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the most familiar stories of all time. The trouble with such a familiar story is that we all know it so well that we hear it on autopilot. We know the characters almost as well as we know how we are expected to respond to this story. We can point to the priest and the Levite and explain why they acted the way they did. We can even explain how shocking it would have been to a first century Jewish audience to hear a Samaritan described as “good.” Most of us have heard this parable interpreted so many times that we already know exactly how we are expected to feel when we hear it and what we are expected to learn from it. “Love God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind and love your neighbour as yourself” and who is your neighbour, why even the lowly Samaritan, the one you would least expect is your neighbour. We know this story backwards and forwards and yet like any good story, there is always something that we can learn from it or it wouldn’t have been told as often as we have all heard it. But just in case familiarity with the story is getting in our way of hearing the radically outrageous truth to which this story points, let me tell it one more time with a slightly different twist.
Like all parables this didn’t actually happen but then again it is always happening. Last week on my way back from Chautauqua, let’s say somewhere near Buffalo, I was attacked by a band of thieves. They stole my car and left me lying by the side of the road. A bishop happened to be passing on her way to Toronto, she saw me lying there bruised and battered, but she had people waiting for her, meetings to attend, and she could not be late, after all she is a bishop and people are counting on her. So, she put her foot down on the accelerator and hurried past me. Later, a bunch of pastors who were car-pooling home from a spirituality retreat came tooling down the highway. They saw me lying by the side of the road and they considered stopping to lend a hand but they had congregations to return to, members to visit, and sermons to consider. So after much consideration the pastors decided to hurry past lest they be waylaid by my problems. Suddenly, travelling from the opposite direction came a sleek, decked out bus with the words “TRUMP Make America Great Again!” in bold letters along the side. Lo and behold it was the orange fellow himself, Donald J. Trump heading up to Buffalo to appear before a “huuuge crowd” of adoring fans. Without hesitating for a moment, the Donald appears with a first-aid kit and begins to dress my wounds. I recognized him right away, and wanted to crawl away and die, but the Donald just loads me into the back of his bus and off we go to the nearest casino, which he just happens to own. At the casino the Donald puts me up in a room fit for a queen and instructs the staff to take very good care of me. It sure wasn’t easy being helped like that, by such a loathsome, despicable man. You know that I’d have to be in a very vulnerable state to accept help from the likes of Trump and his merry band of nut-bars. Thank goodness that this didn’t actually happen. But I can’t help wondering what I might learn about my own prejudices from such an encounter, or what I might learn about his woundedness, or indeed what we both might learn about our shared humanity. (stop it now!!! I know what you’re thinking…just try to remember the Donald is human)
Over the years, I believe that I have played most of the characters in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. I suspect that most of you have as well. Most of us have at one time or another played the role of the lawyer, trying to get Jesus to explain the secrets of life to us. Most of us have at one time or another played the role of the priest when we see a broken down car on the side of the road, with its occupants standing around looking desperate for help, but we pass by, not because we are bad people, but because the rules of our society tell us that only fools would consider stopping on the side of the road to help strangers. After all it might be a trap, and surely they have a cell phone so they can call the police who will surely come soon to help them and all of you have surely played the role of the Levite. Oh, you may 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 to many vacant faces staring up at us. It’s so difficult to know how or who to help. So, we strike up uneasy compromises with to salve our consciences. We give away whatever coins we happen to have as if a few coins can really help. We go about our business failing to even bother asking how we might help, for fear that from the vacant face, we might hear a voice that demands more of us.
I know that each of us, whether we care to admit it or not, we have played the role of the robbers. We live in the wealthiest part of the world and we 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, spent hours and hours day after day in sweatshops working for indecent wages so that we can 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, and don’t forget our electronic toys. Like it or not the role of robbers is one we often play.
The road to Jericho is always with us and the role we are least equipped to play is the role of the Good Samaritan. I suspect that the reason that this parable is so well known is that it speaks to our lives in such a way that we can all learn something from this story and over the years most of us have gleamed some wisdom from this parable. Today, I’d like to suggest that perhaps there’s something we can learn from this story, not just as individuals but also as the church. The way I see it, Christianity lies battered and bruised at the side of its very own road to Jericho. The good news is that of all the roles in the parable of the Good Samaritan, the role that I believe we may learn the most from is the role of the vulnerable person who lies wounded. When we are vulnerable, when we are at our lowest, we can’t afford to be choosy about which Good Samaritan we are willing to accept help from. Powerful may look attractive, but vulnerability can strip us of our defenses and help us to see beyond our prejudices. For years the church has stood on its high horse and insisted that it knows best. Our tried and true traditions have become our sacred cows and all too often we have failed to open ourselves to the wisdom that is on offer in the world. As a result, we have lost touch with the very world we are called to serve and for the most part the world has judged us to be irrelevant. If you don’t believe me, just look around the next time you happen to be in church, there’s a whole generation missing from the pews. While too many church-goers cling to carefully held beliefs, the world is moving on without the church. Indeed, the church is not the only one lying bruised and battered by the side of the road to Jericho. Jesus himself has been bruised and battered by our carefully crafted theologies, creeds and traditions and lies wounded by the side of the road with injuries so severe that Jesus is scarcely recognizable.
For the last few hundred years, the Church has insisted upon articulating the Jesus story in words and images that have kept Jesus locked in the first, third, and if he’s lucky the sixteenth centuries. It’s a long, long way from the Road to Jericho to the pathway Jupiter. But just this week a space craft entered Jupiter’s orbit and next month we expect to see photographs from this distant part of our solar-system. We already have photographic evidence of billions and billions of stars, untold numbers of planets and yet we continue to articulate the experience of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth as if Adam and Eve actually emerged on earth without benefit of evolution. That these two mythical creatures somehow managed to tick off the Creator of ALL that is and ever shall be, to such an extent that this angry God kicked them out of paradise and cursed their descendants as humanity fell from grace into a state of sin, so objectionable that we can only be saved by the blood sacrifice of a first century itinerant Jewish Rabbi who just happened to be the perfect person who was willing to die to appease his tribal god, and unless we are willing to believe that this Jewish Rabbi is actually God, we are doomed to spend all of eternity in the fiery pits of hell and never make it up onto a fluffy cloud where celestial beings perpetually sing God’s praises. And we wonder why a generation is largely lost to the church.
We know full well that the earth is billions of years old. We know what’s up in the sky and we know what’s down below and yet we insist that God sit up on “his” thrown only to pass judgment upon us, as we look to Jesus to save us. But salvation is not about saving us from the wrath of a maniacal creator. Salvation is about setting us free. Free from our primitive notions of a three-tiered universe. Free from our fear of an all-powerful king god sitting in judgment upon us and manipulating the affairs of mortals at our whim. Free from ancient theologies about the fall, original sin, and sacrificial atonement, free from strict adherence to the law and free from a literal understanding of the ancient writings of our ancestors. Salvation is freedom from fear, and freedom to live and love and be all that our Creator created us to be. It’s long past time for Christianity to stop insisting that the final word on Jesus has been spoken and that language and ideas of one century are to hold for all time. It’s time for Christianity to accept its responsibility to use the images, language and stories available to it in this century to articulate the Jesus experience. It’s time to begin to explore the basic insights of Jesus of Nazareth within the framework of the wisdom and knowledge that has been acquired over 20 centuries.
Our task is to begin to understand Jesus and his message in the context of the Spirit of God that is actively present in all places and all times in a universe that has existed for some 14 billion years. Our task is to begin to imagine the Spirit of God coming to expression, in great bursts of wisdom and insight, not only within the Jewish religion but also in other religions around the world. Our task is to begin to imagine the Divine with the conviction that there is one God, one Spirit, yet many cultural and religious expressions that give God different names, different understandings, different formulations of belief, different institutional systems of religion. Our task is to begin to articulate the Jesus experience as people who believe that in Christ the Spirit of God is revealed in a wonderful human expression and then in a global context, to articulate what it is in the message and life of Jesus that offers insight and good news to the questions human beings ask about life and its connectedness to the realm of the sacred.
Jesus spent the bulk of his ministry proclaiming that the reign of God was at hand. Jesus called people to believe the good news. Jesus believed that so many of his contemporaries were trapped in their beliefs about God and were looking for their experience of God in the wrong place. Jesus insisted that there were clear, unmistakable signs of God’s presence amongst us; when people act or see others act in ways that are good, truthful, loving, forgiving, just and merciful they should realize these are the sings of God’s Spirit present and active in the world. Jesus urged people to see the connection: live in love and you live in God. Jesus identified, and wanted his sisters and brothers to identify, basic human interactions such as visiting one another, clothing the poor, caring for the needy, being ready to forgive, feeding children, over-coming cultural prejudices, respecting women, loving one’s neighbours as oneself, and being wholeheartedly generous as the rule of God. Jesus preached that the poor in spirit have a special insight into God’s reign. Jesus most likely experienced a capacity for generosity and sharing among the poor in Nazareth, an experience that deepened his conviction that the reign of God belonged to the poor in a special way. Jesus made it clear that there was no easy path to ushering in God’s reign. It demands purity of heart, a commitment to peace readiness to forgive, generosity, the endurance of persecution, truly being neighbour to those in need, moving beyond concern for one’s self, being ready to take the hard road. Jesus called for followers with large, loving, generous hearts. This should be the heart of the Gospel message Christianity shares with the world today.
The good news is that in everyday, decent human interaction all people encounter the sacred, the Spirit of God at work. All people, not just Christians, are people in and through whom the Spirit acts so that God’s reign might be established. All people are God’s people. If we can begin to see the actions of decent human beings as the visible expressions of God’s presence among us, we will no longer be trapped in the fear of God. If we are fearful, our images of and ideas about God need changing.
Jesus by his use of images and parables, calls us to conversion in the way we think and act, wanting us to be set free from images, ideas, and religious practices that bind and enslave us into fear of God rather than help us to embrace God’s presence in our lives. The extraordinary impact of Jesus’ actions and preaching on his followers moved them to articulate their basic religious convictions about life and God in new and compelling ways.
The foundational religious insight and Conviction of Christianity became this: “when we live in love, we live in God and God lives in us.” In an age of disbelief and cynicism this Good News has so much to offer the world. But the wisdom of Christianity lies bruised and battered on the side of the road. Discarded by millions. Passed by, by so many. Rejected by generations. Perhaps Christianity is finally vulnerable enough to accept the help from the world it’s own Churches have railed against for centuries. Perhaps Christianity is vulnerable enough to accept the help of the world God loves. Perhaps Christianity is vulnerable enough to enter into dialogue, and begin to accept the wisdom of the world as together we heal from the violence that plagues our roads.
I have to say that I have learned more about God’s grace on those occasions when I have been vulnerable and wounded at the side of the road and in need help. For 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 our neighbours.
It is my prayer that in her current vulnerability the church might finally realize Christ’s vision and begin a dialogue with the world God loves as we begin to articulate together our experiences of the Spirit of God active in our midst. This is an exciting time to be in the church. The church is battered and bruised and in need of healing. We don’t know if the church will survive. But we are a resurrection people and we know that out of our vulnerability new life will spring forth. So we need not fear, because through you and me, and all of those who are willing to recognize our neighbours, whoever they may be, healing will happen. Healing or death. Neither are to be feared. For even in death there is hope. For we are a resurrection people and Christ will live and breathe and have being in, with, through, and beyond us, now and forever.