In the Ditch
Today’s gospel is probably the best known of all of Jesus’ parables.
We call it the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Even for those who are not Christians or a churchgoers,
this story is a familiar one.
Interestingly, the reading we hear today is not just the parable.
The reading starts with a lawyer asking Jesus a question.
It’s a question that we all might want to ask Jesus if we were to meet him
So Jesus, what is life really about?
What do I need to do
to be saved,
to go to heaven,
to live a good and holy life?
What is really important?
What should my priorities be?
Jesus doesn’t answer immediately.
He turns the table
and asks the lawyer a question.
One midrash story says that someone once asked Jesus,
“Why do you always answer a question with another question?”
And Jesus responded, “Why not?”
So in good rabbinical tradition,
Jesus asks the lawyer,
“What do you think?
You know the law.
What do you read there?”
And the lawyer responds,
“Well, the law says,
‘You shall love the Lord your God
with all your heart, and with all your soul,
and with all your mind;
and your neighbor as yourself.’
“Bingo!” says Jesus.
“You got it right.
Now just do it. Go and do likewise.”
“Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait!” says the lawyer.
“WHO is my neighbor?”
Who is my neighbor?
That is really the question in this gospel reading today.
It is a question we struggle with still.
Who qualifies to be loved?
How far do my responsibilities go to my neighbor?
But once again,
Jesus does not give an answer.
This time Jesus tells a story.
“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho…”
Jerusalem sits on the highest elevation in Palestine.
Jericho is down by the Dead Sea at the lowest place on this planet.
The road between the two was quite dangerous,
Narrow, winding, with desert on both sides.
It was an easy place for robbers to hide and then attack someone,
rob them, and slip back off into the desert.
None of Jesus’ listeners would have been surprised
to hear that someone got robbed
on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho.
Then along comes a priest.
This was not an Episcopal priest.
This was a Priest from the Temple.
This was someone who held a very high and powerful position.
The priest sees the man—stripped, half-dead, lying by the side of the road.
The priest does not stop.
He passes by.
He does not even cross the road to see about the man.
He just keeps going.
Then along comes a Levite.
Levites also served in the Temple.
They weren’t as high up as the Priest
But they had important responsibilities.
The Levite sees the man
And he too passes by.
The Priest—symbol of all that was religious—passes by.
The Levite—symbol of a high position in society—passes by.
Then along comes a Samaritan.
To understand Samaritans in first century Palestine
is to know that they were considered “half-breeds.”
It was not so much about place or geography,
as about race and culture and religion.
When a Jewish person married a non-Jewish person,
their children were labeled Samaritans.
Samaritans were ostracized.
They were shunned.
Samaritans were not the kind of people
you wanted to associate with in that day and time.
Yet who is it that stops to help?
Who is it that bandages the wounds?
Who is it that puts the injured man on his own animal,
Takes him to an inn, and pays for it all out of his own pocket?
The Priest? Nope.
The Levite? No.
The Samaritan? Yes.
The fact that it was a Samaritan who stopped to help,
The fact that it was the Samaritan who saw the man in the ditch
As his neighbor—
These were, indeed, shocking facts—
not just to the lawyer
but to anyone listening that day to this parable.
Even today it is a shocking story.
Who is our neighbor?
Who are we to love as much as we love ourselves?
Are we really called to love people we see in the ditch?
This gospel was the gospel reading of the first sermon I ever preached.
I was doing my chaplaincy at Wake Forest University Medical Center
In the summer of 2001,
And we had a chapel service twice a week.
I was on the schedule to preach.
So as I begin to work on my sermon
I asked my husband Tom,
“Who are you in this story?”
And he immediately responded—I’m the man in the ditch.
I was stunned.
What? I asked.
I’m the guy in the ditch.
Now you see, I had always seen myself as the Good Samaritan.
The person who would stop and help.
The person who would go out of the way
To offer compassion, mercy.
But my husband made a powerful point.
Until we can see ourselves as the person in the ditch,
the person who is shunned, and ostracized
and essentially shut out from society,
we are probably not going to be able to truly offer compassion, mercy,
Years ago our son Jody and his wife Natalie decided—
this was long before they had children—
that they wanted to live in Hawaii.
Not just visit Hawaii, but live there.
So they moved.
They did not really have enough financial resources
for a major move like that,
but they had hope and confidence and they were young.
That was a good thing because they also did not have jobs
When they moved.
They both have extensive work experience in outdoor leadership programs,
working in camps and leading backpacks, teaching horseback riding, and such.
They assumed that getting a job of that sort would be easy in Hawaii.
So after many dead ends and money running out,
they both got jobs in a restaurant--
our son cooking and our daughter-in-law waitressing.
It was an eye-opening experience for both of them,
living and working in Hawaii.
In one phone conversation with our son,
he was very distressed
at the way some of the native Hawaiians
treated him and Natalie.
“I’ve never done anything to them, Mom.
They throw rocks at us when we ride by on our bikes.
They call us ‘haole’.
(which is really just a Hawaiian word that means “white person”—
though it can certainly be said in a tone of voice
that makes it an insult).
Our son continued,
“The Hawaiians I work with at the restaurant
do not want to be our friends—they make it very clear.
They hardly speak to us.
They think I have taken a job away from someone
who deserves it more.
We’re hard workers. We’re nice people.
But they don’t care.”
It was painful to listen to my adult son experiencing prejudice first hand,
That is a very uncommon experience for any of us with white skin.
But I also felt that in the long run,
it could be a good experience.
Until we are the ones in the ditch,
it is really hard to understand why loving our neighbor really matters.
If we really open our eyes,
we will see that much of the world lies half-dead on the road.
We have our many comforts, our good life—
And this parable today calls us to look at all our abundance
And blessings and to ask ourselves,
Who is my neighbor?
What am I called to do?
What am I called to give?
How am I called to love?
Love God. I think that is the easy part.
Love our neighbor.
That is much more challenging.
But it is the challenge we are called to face.
It is the road we are called to cross.
Jesus is giving a heavy message to us this morning—
If a Samaritan can cross the road and have pity,
have mercy, have compassion,
Why can’t you?
Why can’t we?