It was a dark and stormy night, or at least a very cold one; late one November years ago back while I was still a student pastor in Maine. I’d been driving north on I-95, heading home after a long day of classes at the seminary, and I’d just pulled in to a rest stop off the highway. And I’d no sooner stopped the car when there was this banging on the passenger seat window and the sound of a voice urgently yelling, “Hey! Hey! You… could you help me? Please, I need your help!”
Now, that alone pretty much jumped me out of my socks (!), but when I leaned over to roll down the window, that’s when I really got scared! For staring me in the face was this huge man who I can best describe to you as disheveled, more than a little bit haggard in appearance and well, kind of “scraggly” looking; and as I quickly peered beyond him into the darkness, I could make out the shape of a rather scraggly, broken down van filled with something of a scraggly looking family! And now this scraggly man was leaning into my car in a very imposing fashion – he was close enough that I could see and smell his breath, so he’s quite literally “in my face” – and he’s telling me about how he and his family were stranded out there in the middle of nowhere and it was getting cold and could I please give him a ride to the nearest mechanic?
Now, I’m not proud of this, but I have to confess that at this point I’m already trying to figure out how I’m going to get away from there (!), though in my own defense, it was an uncomfortable situation and I didn’t know what to do! But… though to this day I’m still not sure if it was out of compassion, guilt or abject fear, in the end I nervously agreed to give the man a ride!
Of course, as he got in my car and I pulled out of the parking lot to get back on the road, it was white-knuckle all the way; and when I asked the man where he needed to go, he just sort of grunted, which provided me no comfort whatsoever! It’s at this point that my mind was starting to create all sorts of horrible scenarios drawn from a hundred bad movies; I was absolutely sure that at any moment, scraggly man was going to pull a gun, steal my car or worse! I was done for, I knew it; this was surely going to be the last day of the rest of my life! But I just kept driving, terrified and saying absolutely nothing.
Finally, my passenger broke the silence. “So what do you do for a living?” he asked. A little surprised at the question, I answered nervously, “I’m… a minister.”
And then, this huge man heaves this incredible sigh of relief, like the weight of the world had just suddenly been lifted up off of his shoulders, and he says, “Thank GAWD! Pastor, you know I don’t mind tellin’ you I was pretty nervous. You just never know these days what kind of people are going to pick you up!”
Turns out he was as scared of me – me (!) – as I was of him! And you had to laugh, but I also have to say I felt a little ashamed! Do you know that this man wrote me a letter a week later, thanking me for my great kindness, and praising God that I happened on that rest stop when I did; when the truth of it was that instead of having compassion for his wife and his children stuck out there on a frigid Maine night, I was fearing the worst, and mostly because of the way the man looked! Oh, yes, I’d done “the right thing” – good for me (!) – but what I realized that night is that in a heartbeat I could have just as easily taken the route of the priest and the Levite and “passed by on the other side.”
Friends, it’s a sad commentary on our times that the level of compassion we show to others is so often metered and compromised out of our fear. Granted, it’s a dangerous world we live in, and out of necessity we’ve had to toughen up with the times; but the cost of that has been that all too often we’ve risked becoming distrustful, cynical, and suspicious of the motives of others. The good news, however, is that there are still those whose compassion springs forth out of faith, people who are not afraid to take the risks to care; those who do not measure the worthiness of those receiving their kindness, nor calculate the liabilities involved in intervention; they respond simply because something needs to be done. They give of themselves not because they have to do it, but because they have to do it.
When you come right down to it, it’s that kind of an attitude, and moreover, that kind of a life that’s at the heart of the Christian faith; and that, friends, is ultimately what this morning’s parable of the “Good Samaritan” is all about.
Even as we heard the story again this morning, it occurred to me that this is one of those biblical passages so familiar that it hardly needs retelling; we could all pretty much tell this story with Bibles closed and eyes shut! A man is traveling down the steep and perilous road from Jerusalem to Jericho; and he falls “into the hands of robbers,” who strip him of his clothes, beat him up and then leave him there on the side of the road, “half dead.” A priest and the Levite, both men of the religiously upright variety, come by and see the man lying there, but choose to pass by on the other side of the road so that they can avoid having to deal with him. It’s the third passer-by, the Samaritan – who, by the way, in Jesus’ time was considered by Jews not only to be racially impure and politically dangerous; a walking heresy as far as their faith was concerned – it’s the Samaritan of all people whose “heart went out” to the injured man; giving him “first aid, disinfecting and bandaging his wounds,” carrying him to safety; and even providing for his healing and his welfare, to the point of telling the local innkeeper that if his care “costs any more, put it on my bill – I’ll pay you on my way back.” (The Message)
What’s interesting about this parable is that it’s a story about violence, and yet as Jesus tells it, there’s not much said about the robbers’ brutality. It’s a story about the hypocrisy of those in power, but in reality, Jesus says precious little about the Priest and the Levite and their motives or their righteousness; in fact, it’s interesting that in this case Jesus sort of lets us draw our own conclusions! No, instead Jesus spends most of the story talking about this Samaritan stranger who stops along his own journey when he sees someone in need. Because of the three who come by, it’s only the Samaritan who takes the risk that comes with the detour; the only one who responds to the man bleeding in the ditch and, what’s more, does so extravagantly. What the Samaritan does, against all expectations, ends up bringing a different conclusion to a story that would otherwise have ended in death; and to all this, Jesus simply adds these words: “Go, and do likewise.”
Now, these days we read the parable of the Good Samaritan as a “feel good,” inspirational, “chicken soup of the soul” kind of story; even the name “Good Samaritan” has become synonymous with anyone who does good deeds! It’s a story that’s become regarded, dare I say, as the quintessential warm and fuzzy fable from the Bible! Look a bit more closely, however, and what you find out is that the story Jesus tells here is in fact anything but warm and fuzzy!
Remember, first of all, that this particular story comes in response to a very serious question posed by a lawyer and “religious scholar” (for those two things were one and the same in those days) who, we’re told, was seeking to “test” Jesus. “’Teacher,’ he asked, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’” And remember also that when Jesus answered that eternal life was about loving God and loving neighbor, “looking for a loophole,” immediately the lawyer asks, “And who is my neighbor?” Needless to say, a story about a priest, a Levite and a Samaritan was not what he expected (or wanted) for an answer.
You see, what the lawyer didn’t understand is the same thing that you and I so often fail to grasp: that loving one’s neighbor is not so much about who they are, but rather about who we are in the sight of God! True compassion, you see, is extravagant; it’s costly, because it allows for interruption, it involves some risk-taking, it assumes that one is going to see, to hear, to touch, and maybe even surrender. Real compassion, the kind that simultaneously loves God and loves neighbor, involves the giving of our whole selves to those in need. This was precisely the kind of discipleship demonstrated by, irony of ironies, the lowly Samaritan; and in a worldly culture in which fear and ignorance has always had the power to pull us away from one another, this is still the way of life to which Jesus calls you and me today.
Does this mean that we should jump into potentially dangerous situations without fully knowing the consequences? No… at least not necessarily (!) …but what it surely means is that you and I who would be disciples of Jesus Christ need to free ourselves of those fears within ourselves which keep us from true compassion. You know, on countless occasions over the years as a pastor, people have come to me and have said things like, for instance, “I would have like to have called, or visited so and so when they were in the hospital, or sick at home, of struggling with their grief or their addiction or their divorce or whatever… but I was afraid I would have made it worse.” Or they’ll say, “I wanted to give something to them, to offer some assistance, or simply to hold their hand and say a prayer with them, but I was afraid they’d be offended by that.” Or this, “I’m sorry, but you know, I’m not really good in those kind of situations; I don’t know what to say to people like that, so I’d really rather not get involved.” People tell me all these things and more… and you know what the worst part of it is? These things are rarely said to me as an excuse; it’s usually something spoken after the fact… as a regret.
What we so often miss is that every single day of our lives brings new opportunities to be “Good Samaritans;” situations in which we can offer compassion to those who are wounded and bleeding: from the body, perhaps, but just as likely from the soul. We can be the kind of neighbor that Jesus is calling us to be in this story: it can happen both in something as simple as offering a listening ear and shoulder to cry on; or maybe it’ll involve taking the riskier stance of standing in solidarity with those who have been unjustly wronged or hurt. The point is that for us to truly live – that is, for us to inherit eternal life – we need to be means acting faithfully in the midst of these opportunities that arise; and that, says Jesus, means that we’re to bring mercy, and compassion and love. Friends, contrary to so much of what we’re told in this world, it is never wrong, or useless, or weak to be kind. Compassion is nothing less than extending God’s grace to a hurting world, and you and I cannot ever let an opportunity to do that go by.
Yes, compassion can be costly; but you know the old saying that “you get what you pay for.” Shallow concern and empty promises ultimately mean very little and gain even less; but to give of ourselves extravagantly, to risk something of our own hearts in the process; this has a way of changing hearts and lives in ways that we can’t even begin to measure. And make no mistake, it changes us as well: the very act of being the good neighbor helps us to grow spiritually; it bolsters us and directs us in the way we should go; and it anchors us to solid ground in a world that is every and always seeking to shake us to our knees.
As the story goes, it was the Samaritan, of all people (!), who showed mercy and offered kindness. The question is, is that our story? I hope and pray that it is; that when our opportunity arises this week we’ll not be afraid, that we won’t hesitate… and that by God’s grace, we might just do the same as the Samaritan did, and more.
And as we do, may our thanks be to God.
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2014 Rev. Michael W. Lowry