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Another Good Samaritan Sermon: The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, July 10, 2022
Amos 7:7-17
Luke 10:25-37

I saw online (before the Rogers outage) someone asked if there was anything new to say about the Parable of the Good Samaritan. I don’t know if it was meant as [inquisitively:] “is there anything new to say about the Good Samaritan?” or [exasperatedly:] “is there anything NEW to say about the Good Samaritan?!” But the person said it, and you might be wondering it, too.

I think at times there will be new things to say and learn from this and other scriptures, thanks to new studies in translation, or 1st century Jewish (and Samaritan) culture, or because one generation of scholarly consensus has given way to a new generation of scholarly consensus. But to me the main point isn’t that we need to discovery new depths within the parable so that we remain engaged. The point is that the same parable speaks to us, and our experience, and our world and all of those new developments and layers (and challenges and tragedies) naturally bring newness to our reading and reflection.
[If you’re a fan of the Netflix show Stranger Things, or even if you just keep up with entertainment news, you will have heard that an over 35-year old song by Kate Bush, “Running Up that Hill” has connected with the children (or grandchildren) of the people that first heard the song in the mid-’80s, and they’ve made it more popular than it ever was before. And no one had to change the song or discover something new about it, so much as just let it do its thing within a new show.]

It seems to me that a parable that in part has to do with the tension (if not disdain) between rival parties (Samaritans and Jews) has something to say to us in our historical moment. (While in our Old Testament reading we hear about other, earlier tensions: between the northern and southern kingdoms, and between ragged prophets and comfortable rulers.) But before we go there, one way in which we might open ourselves and our world to the power of the parable is to take stock of some of our learned or inherited tendencies toward it. At the root of the question I opened with is the assumption that we know it, and exhausted it, long ago. It might, however, speak more clearly or powerfully to us if we hold our assumptions and habits gently.

And for me, and maybe you, one of my natural tendencies with this parable is to hear it and conclude that it’s all about being a better person. (Jesus, after all, says “go and do likewise,” so there is some sort of moral lesson here.) But the mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus isn’t just — or isn’t primarily — about ‘doing better,’ where the lesson is to crucify fewer people, or to do it more humanely. It has to do with the surprising way that God worked, and is working, in the world. It has to do with unexpected life coming out of the places that we thought were farthest from it.

What I’m talking about isn’t at all a new thing; it’s a very traditional Christian value we usually call ‘grace.’ We get at it when we talk about unconditional love, or being saved by Jesus, and not our own goodness. Or when we realize that we’ve been attracted to the figure of Jesus, or called by the person of Jesus, and that happens alongside other people (whether in this church or across the world) who have simultaneously been drawn and called by Jesus, too — even if we don’t always see eye-to-eye. We treat each other with grace, as a response to the grace we’ve experienced ourselves, and let God do the harder work of sifting and refining. There was an Anglican writer, Robert Farrar Capon, who was known for being unapologetically committed to the concept of grace. And he writes that “Salvation is not some felicitous state to which we can lift ourselves by our own bootstraps after the contemplation of sufficiently good examples [like the Samaritan in the parable]. It is an utterly new creation into which we are brought by our death in Jesus’ death and our resurrection in his. It comes not out of our own efforts, however well-inspired or successfully pursued, but out of the shipwreck of all human effort whatsoever.”* And he goes on to say that sure, we can see Jesus in the Samaritan, being compassionate, and doing justice. That’s part of the power of parables: playing with the characters and stepping into their shoes, and exploring their meaning. But Capon says we also should try look for Jesus in the person that got beat up and thrown in the ditch, and see in that something of his death and resurrection. Because we know that Jesus identified himself with “the least of these” and with the hungry, the naked, the suffering. Look for those themes of death and resurrection, and being lost and found. It happens in the lives of both characters: The one person experiences a sort of death: his horrible injuries; but then he’s restored. And the Samaritan, in giving up his day — his time, his attention, and his money — he dies, in a sense; he dies to himself, and to whatever his original plans had been (not to mention dying to the antagonism between their respective groups); a self-sacrifice that the priest and Levite were unwilling to make. He loses himself in this work, and the injured man is found. And in so doing, the Samaritan finds eternal, or true life.

Through all of this we do come to a moral outcome: it helps us to see and do better. But it’s a longer process, and less proscribed than just pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, or wagging your finger at someone, telling them to ‘do better.’ We remember that outside of the story, standing before Jesus is a legal expert, testing him, and hoping to justify himself. I hope that in this experience he isn’t hearing “go and do likewise” in that finger-wagging way, but as a challenge and invitation to losing himself in the parable, and being changed through it. His question, “who is my neighbour?” is not unlike Cain’s response to God, in reference to Abel, way back in Genesis: “am I my brother’s keeper?” Deep in human history and consciousness is the desire to build walls and be gatekeepers. Then we, like the lawyer before Jesus, can justify ourselves, our allegiances, and our lower our responsibilities by putting some people outside our concern. But today’s story describes something different: we all exist by the grace of God, no matter what our camp, affiliation, or allegiance. And today’s parable does something to crack open and help us understand God’s goodness and grace, and God’s challenge: to move past the desire to justify ourselves, to resist simply pulling ourselves (or others) up by the bootstraps, but to be changed by the recognition of our common neighbourliness, and in the experience of being lost and found, dead to the old, and risen to something new.

© 2022 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

* The Parables of Grace (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans, 1988, 1995), 62.