Today’s gospel lesson is one of the most beloved of Jesus’ teachings. I would guess that for us here today, this is not the first time we have heard it. The “Good Samaritan” is a well-known idiom in the English language and most people understand it for its meaning even if they do not understand its reference to this particular passage from Luke.
So for those of us who know this text, how do we listen to it today and how do we gain from it, when its meaning is so well known?
The lawyer in this gospel was also one who knew his scripture well. The passage began by him asking Jesus, “What must I do to achieve eternal life?” As was Jesus’ style, Jesus replied by asking a question of the man, “What is written in the law?” The lawyer answered quickly, drawing both on Deuteronomy and Leviticus, “Love the Lord your God with all heart, and all your soul, all your strength and all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself”. He knew the correct words to say but then by asking Jesus his next question, “Who is my neighbor?” he demonstrated that he really did not have a complete understanding of the words he had memorized.
So even as well-known as this passage may be for us, we need to hear these stories again and again. As a favorite collect says, we need to hear them, to read, mark and inwardly digest them because their message taken as a whole is what living a Christian life is all about.
My question then this morning is for you to reflect on what being a neighbor means to you. Specifically think about who has been a neighbor to you? What person or persons have taught you how to act as neighbor? Where have you seen a Good Samaritan in your midst? How do you put yourself into this morning’s gospel?
For some of us that answer might be Fred Rogers, Mr. Rogers to many. One of my favorite quotes from him says, “We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say, ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’ Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.” For generations Fred Rogers showed many of us what the actions of a true neighbor are. His answer, of those who see a need and who respond to it, is a reflection of what Jesus tells us in this parable about the Samaritan man.
When Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan in answer to the lawyer’s question, who is my neighbor, he changes the word neighbor from a noun to a verb. Neighbor is what you do for one who is in need, rather than who they are or who you are. Being a neighbor is when you allow God’s love to be put into action through you. The source of the love is from God and the action of the love is through people. You are God’s agent when you show mercy to another. This is how to neighbor—an action, a verb.
Some years ago I spent several days on the island of Iona with my mother. We stayed in a small guest house and as chance would have it, the others staying in that house were a group of Episcopalians from the U.S. We had not planned it that way however it did much to enrich our experience. We had meals with the group and so would hear of their plans for the day and were able to tag along for many of them. A highlight of that trip for me was serving as deacon in a mass in a small stone chapel that was said, to have been standing since the 1100’s.
The group leader was an Episcopal priest and in addition to seeing the historical sites their time was structured around the daily office, daily Eucharist and scripture reflection. In each reflection the priest encouraged them to find the places in scripture that applied to what was happening in their lives. This had been an ongoing theme in their travels throughout Scotland and Ireland.
The group was mostly older and as the inn was small I had opportunity to watch them and experience their interactions. Most were friendly and genial towards each other. It appeared that some knew each other from before the trip so sometimes smaller clusters would be evident within the larger group.
Again most were a happy lot, except for one woman, named Bettie. She was not in sync with the others at all. She had something negative to say about everything and to anyone who would try to talk with her. She also was very loud with her complaints. Most in the large group had quickly learned to avoid her and definitely would not ask her to do anything such as move her chair slightly so another could come in to the circle. Her food was never quite right and she also let everyone know that. She was both crotchety and unpleasant. People did their best to avoid her.
On one day the main event was a six-mile hike up hills and down. There were some easier spots and some more difficult spots in that walk. Sheep are basically allowed to roam freely on the island so in addition to rough terrain there also might be some large unexpected guests along the way.
In one of the rougher areas Bettie got her ankle caught between some rocks and did not just stumble; she fell all the way flat down on the ground. At that point the group had spread out on the trail in groups of 2 or 3. Remember she had alienated most of the others already and those who were nearest to her did not seem to notice she had gone down.
An older man named Wes did see what had happened and hurried to her, offering his arm to get her up. Then after he helped her up, he continued holding her up and walked her all the way back to the inn, (a distance of about 2 ½ miles at that point) leaving the group to continue its journey. Wes not only helped Bettie through the rough terrain, he talked with her and listened to her for that entire return trip.
That evening Wes told me this story and he said that he did not even think about what he was doing at the time. He had seen her go down and just knew she needed help to get up. (Remember Mr. Roger’s definition of a neighbor, those who see a need and respond to it?)
After finishing his story, Wes looked at me and his eyes became very clear. He quietly said, “I am the good Samaritan.” Very reflectively he repeated, almost in a whisper, “Me, I am the Good Samaritan.” He realized that Jesus had used him to help this rather unlikable woman.
Now perhaps Wes was able to achieve this realization because of the priest’s daily reflections on finding ourselves in scriptural stories, or perhaps it was through the experience of being on a pilgrimage or whatever. Regardless, Wes was the Good Shephard in that moment.
Now, this would be a good story if it ended here, but it didn’t end here.
The next morning the group was doing a shorter, easier walk. Bettie had recovered enough to be with them. She was very quiet that morning, nodding to others, but not saying much.
About the middle of the hike a father with two small girls walked towards the group. He seemed somewhat dazed and worn out. He had that parental look of “I’ve had it!” The girls were arguing over a bucket and the dad just didn’t have the energy left to deal with the escalating bickering.
Bettie stepped away from the group and went over to the girls. Before her fall, I am sure that Bettie would have definitely told the father to do something about the noise or would have reprimanded the girls loudly herself. Instead, Bettie went to the girls and told them that the bucket was a magic bucket and needed to be held very carefully. She asked them both to be still and hold the magic bucket together while she counted to ten. And then they should take turns by carrying it quietly and gently. The girls were caught up by her story and immediately stopped fussing and did what she asked. The father gave Bettie a grateful nod and they moved on.
Later when Bettie related the event to me she said that she saw the father needed help and since Wes had helped her the day before she knew that this was her chance to be the one to help that day. She was grateful to Wes for what he had done and so she was doing unto others what had been done to her. Bettie did not call herself the Good Samaritan but was able upon reflection to place her actions with this family into a scriptural context.
For those few days in Iona, both Bettie and Wes were able to see how Jesus acted through them. They were God’s agents in showing his love and they recognized it. Now admittedly, this was one brief moment in their lives. I do not know what happened to them in the time since. My hope is that their reflections continued. And that multiple times they were able to see connections in their lives with biblical passages. This is also my hope for you who are here today.
Going back to my original questions regarding this gospel, “Who has been a neighbor to you? Where have you seen a Good Samaritan in your midst?”
Thinking about our answers can help us to recognize these well-known Biblical stories as a part of our lives today and enrich our understanding as we inwardly digest these scriptures.
The question Jesus answers in this morning’s gospel is not so much who is my neighbor, but rather what it means to be a neighbor. Rather than defining a person’s characteristics, Jesus, in this parable speaks of action, of doing. In this lesson, He gives us the model of what Christian love is. The source of the Love is from God and the action of the Love is through people.
Let us pray,
Oh Lord, open our eyes to see the Good Samaritan who draws near, who walks with us, who talks with us, and who shows us your presence for another day. But even more Lord, help us to keep open the doors of our hearts and minds so that we may be the Good Samaritan to draw near to those in need, to walk with them, to talk with them, and to show them your presence for another day.
Jesus said, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him and to us “Go and do likewise.”