"When he saw him"-Sermon for Proper 10, Luke 10:25-37:
So, I had a Good Samaritan of sorts help me out with this sermon a bit. Tony Baker, our Theologian in Residence at St. Julian’s, texted me in the middle of the night a couple of weeks ago. Though, to be fair, it was not in the middle of the night where he was. He texted me from England…and thankfully it didn’t wake me up! But, while “over the pond” visiting colleagues and doing some traveling with his family, Tony heard a lecture at Oxford University that referenced the familiar and profound parable that sits before us today…the Parable of the Good Samaritan. And, the reason Tony thought to send the text along was that he remembered that before leaving on his trip I had sort of randomly mentioned to him that in the coming weeks I would be preaching on the Good Samaritan here at St. Julian’s, and, again, the lecturer at Oxford shared something that Tony thought might help shape what I might say today about this parable. And, I so appreciated the thoughtful text as I have preached and taught on this parable many, many times over the past two decades and so any new ideas and insights are always very welcome. And, indeed, what I want to now share was sparked by the insight Tony shared in that text…and perhaps, even more so, what follows was inspired by Tony’s thoughtful decision, his choice, to send the text itself in the first place.
You see, I have kind of begun to think of Tony’s text as a genuine expression of what it might mean to be a Good Samaritan…to be a good neighbor…to be meaningfully helpful to a person in some sort of need. I certainly was not and am not lying half dead on the side of a dirt road…alone and far from help…nothing like that. But, still, Tony remembered that I did express apprehension about coming up with something new and meaningful to say…to you, the people of St. Julian’s, who I serve and care for so very much. And, he remembered all of that some week or so after our initial casual conversation and while far from home, engaged in his own work, and enjoying some well-deserved time away. Moreover, I had not expressly asked for help. Nonetheless, Tony remembered me. I was in his awareness. He thought of me. He remembered our conversation. He remembered my apprehension, and he reach out to help. And, that help was real to me…even if we might perceive it as a little thing.
And, what I am trying to describe here is simply the importance of paying attention to each other…about really listening to each other…about really seeing each other...about caring enough for one another that we know what is happening in each other’s lives. For, before we can really offer help to someone in little or large need…we must first see that need…that need must register in our awareness and in our consciousness…it has to move us in some way. We must let the life of another person invade our own hearts and minds if there is any chance at all that we might first become aware of their needs…and then respond to them in some sort of meaningful way. Thus, what really moved me when I received Tony’s text was not first and foremost the insight he shared to help my sermonizing along…but the realization that my friend was paying such close attention to what I was saying…that he cared enough for me and was listening so intently to what I was expressing…that he thought a week later and much of the world away…to offer help…help that I did not even realize I needed or had asked for.
And, in terms of the parable itself, this got me thinking about the two religious leaders who didn’t stop to assist the man lying in great need on the side of the road…leaving him to fend for himself with his very life on the line. This choice feels unthinkable…unimaginable. How could they be so cruel? Well, scholars have provided some possible reasons. As the two men where religious professionals, they were not allowed to touch dead bodies, for if they did, they would become ritualistically impure and not be able to fulfil their important religious duties wherever it was they were next headed. And, as Luke tells us, the man on the side of the road was half dead and maybe they thought he was just dead. It has also been suggested that this was a common way thieves and robbers tricked naïve travelers on lonely roads into becoming easy targets themselves…by having one of their band of rogues pretend to be badly injured and when someone stopped to help the rest of the thieves would jump out of hiding to beat and steal from the one who intended to only be helpful. Or, perhaps they felt like they were just too far from help, not traveling with any way to carry the injured person like the Samaritan who was traveling with some sort of animal, perhaps, a donkey…and therefore they could not save the man even if they wanted to…the distance left to travel and the burden just being too great. But, this is really all just speculation. And, all such suggestions, such excuses still feel to me to be entirely inadequate.
But whatever the case may be, I think what I would say is not that the man lying half dead on the side of the road was just unfortunate enough to be traveling on the same day as the two most self-serving, broken-hearted clergy persons in all of Israel. Instead, likely these two clergy persons where just like the rest of us…full of conflicting feelings…fearful for their own wellbeing…carrying their own weighty matters that were taking up all of their attention. They were likely entirely focused on the demands on their own lives, their own fears, their own responsibilities, their own problems, their own sense of powerlessness, and their own ability to just survive another day by getting safely themselves to wherever it is they were going. And, all of this led to their inability to really see and pay attention to the great need of the suffering person with whom they shared the road…shared a common humanity…a person for whom they indeed had an obligation to care for. Thus, their failing to be a good neighbor to the person in need began by rendering him essentially invisible by becoming entirely lost in themselves. They were first looking inward rather than paying attention to the other standing just outside of themselves. And by rendering him invisible, essentially making him a non-person, they could avoid any ethical dilemmas, stay focused on their own task, and generally assuage their own guilt.
But, of course, there remains the Good Samaritan. The one who thankfully follows these two religious leaders. The one who really sees the suffering man lying in great need. The one who is really paying attention and becomes aware, internally aware, of this other person in a life or death moment. And such awareness, which is the place from which empathy and compassion is born, leads the Samaritan to action…to respond…to allow the love that lives within him to be other directed. For really seeing this man…this God created human…this fellow traveler lying in great distress creates the space in his heart and mind to make a conscious choice…the good and godly choice to set aside his own plans…the demands on his own life…the weighty matters he was also likely carrying…to acknowledge his own fears and move through his own conflicted feelings…such that he can and does help…even in the face of the real risk to himself that stopping to help indeed required. And, in doing so, the man lying half dead on the side of the road is really seen and acknowledged as fully human…worthy of being saved…he received the help he needs and deserves and, indeed, his life is saved.
You see, the place from which neighborliness begins…that is our ability to respond to the needs of others begins…by paying attention…by intentionally becoming aware of what others are saying to us with or without words. Thus, actually becoming a good neighbor requires us to allow the lives of others to really invade our own lives…our own hearts and minds…their hopes and dreams and needs…and then and only then can we begin the hard and good ethical work of determining how we might respond…meaningfully respond to the one we have really seen. For, empathy and compassion are born out of awareness, and only when we really begin to empathetically feel the suffering of others in our own bones…can we begin to really weigh the costs and consequences that come with our choice to participate as God’s heart and hands in the lives of others…really begin to separate our own needs from those of others…and really see those needs as important as our own…begin to see others as worthy of saving…of helping…whether in little or large ways…even when real risk is involved in making just such a choice.
Now the truth is the dilemma that Jesus places before us today in this parable is one that we are likely not to face, at least very often, in the course of our own lifetimes…and thankfully so. And, yet, Jesus still asks us, even requires us, to consider what it means to be like the Good Samaritan, that is to be a good neighbor in our day, in our own context, on our own journey. Which returns me to Tony’s text with which I began. For, as I said, what really moved me when I received Tony’s text was not first and foremost the insight he shared to help my sermonizing along…but the realization that my friend was paying such close attention to what I was saying…that he cared enough for me and was listening so intently to what I was expressing…that he thought a week later and much of the world away…to offer help…help that I did not even realize I needed or had asked for.
Friends, if we are to be good neighbors to each other, to loved ones and strangers alike, we must first pay attention to each other, to really listen to each other, to really see each other, to really know each other’s hopes, dreams and needs…to allow each other’s lives to invade our own…our own hearts and minds…for empathy and compassion are born from the awareness that really seeing and knowing each other provides. And such empathy, really feeling in our gut what others are expressing to us with or without words, sets before us the gift to choose…even when it is risky and really asks something of us…to choose to show mercy…to choose to meaningfully help each other when needed in little and large ways…to see and know one another as fully human…as God’s own beloved…entirely worthy of saving. Amen.