Eighth Sunday after Pentecost - Year C
Guilt or Grateful
In the retelling of any story, things differ greatly depending upon the character with whom we identify. Typically, we refer to this reading from Luke 10 as the Parable of the Good Samaritan. It could just as easily be called the parable of the man who fell among robbers; or the parable of the preoccupied Priest; or the ritualistically pure Levite. In naming the story, we might be suggesting with whom it is that we want others to identify.
The “good Samaritan” is the one to whom the Church most often points. He becomes the model of Christian goodness and compassion. He is the model of what it means to care for others. He is the neighbor, assured of eternal life. Telling the story, with him as the focal point, makes it easy for a preacher to wrap things up neatly by saying, “Go and do likewise.”
And, we should – go and do likewise. We need to set aside our own agendas, fears, and apprehension long enough to be concerned about the other. It is important that we ask and do the thing which preserves life. If some story about an outcast doing the right thing can guilt us into do it too, so be it.
But I do wonder if guilt is the only, or even best, motivator. What happens if we see the story from the perspective of the man who is beaten? How do we experience the story when we identify not with the persons who have a choice of whether or not they will respond, but when we are the one who is lying in the ditch, dying.
With a little encouragement, I think we might be able to see the similarities between that poor, bloody individual and ourselves.
This man falls victim to the evil plot of others. He does nothing to deserve what happens to him. He is going down to Jericho, from Jerusalem. He falls, Jesus tells us, into the hands of robbers. Maybe he could have been more street smart; maybe he should have been packing a weapon; maybe he should have recognized the trap before it is sprung and made a McGuiver style escape. Maybe. But Jesus says that he “fell” into the hands of robbers - a phrase which could allow us to understand that he was not deserving of what happen, he is merely its victim. He didn’t deserve what happens to him.
Among us, there are those who do deserve what they get – there are some. But many more – most in fact – don’t. Evil happens. Bad things occur. And while some will find elaborate ways to construct a theory of just retribution, seldom do such attempts at logic hold water. I thought of Bob Bock, whose care-taking of Ruth was cut short by the mysterious sequence of events which took his life. Or what of Judy Morrison and her continuing problems with the leg; cared for by Roger, still recovering from his own heart surgery. Marylyn Thompson, whose fall caused so many problems, first it was the bruise to the head, then the constant pain from injuries to her lower back. It would be inconsiderate of me to name the examples of emotional distress or chemical addition – shared with me in pastoral care conversations – but you are aware of these and understand how dark it can be and you know that such suffering is surely undeserved.
We are the man who fell among robbers. We are the one who lies in the ditch, hoping someone will notice us and take pity on us.
This is the interpretation of the story favored by Augustine and Martin Luther. In re-telling this parable, Luther identified the Good Samaritan with Jesus and assigned the other roles accordingly. With such an interpretation, those in the ditch can take heart. There is hope; there is reason to believe that we will be noticed. Christ has seen us and will come to us, bind up our wounds, and provide for our care.
As undeservedly as is the calamity which befell us, so also is there no reason to take credit for the rescue which follows. The man does nothing to deserve it. It simply comes his way. The good Samaritan (Jesus) finds us.
I think this may be a helpful way to understand the story. The lengths to which we will go in order to preserve the notion of things happening for a reason and as a result of what one deserves also come into play when we move into discussions of those who receive aid. All too often we continue the mistaken notion that those who receive assistance did something or do something which makes them rise to the top. The parable of Luke 10 instructs us that this simply is not the case.
If receiving mercy depends upon doing the right thing then it would have been the priest or the Levite who would have responded to this man. A parable is short, by design, and many details are left to one’s imagination. The assumption is safe that the man who fell among robbers is himself a member of the Temple, of the people of Yahweh. He may have been known, in his pre-victim existence, by the Priest or the Levite. Jesus dispels the notion that we are wounded because we deserve it and he breaks the impression that we are aided because we deserve it by making the one who reaches out to the man a lowly, despised Samaritan.
Samaritans were half-breeds. Despised by the Jews, they were considered unclean and unworthy of entering the Temple. There is at least the possibility that the man who lies in the ditch shared the racist attitudes of Jesus’ hearers – that he might have also recoiled at the notion of being touched by someone who is an infidel.
And yet, this is the man who comes to his aid. This is the messenger of God who does the right thing.
Lying in the ditch, bleeding to death, all our prejudices are open for re-evaluation. Lying in the ditch, bleeding to death, we cannot afford to hold on to the mistaken notion that everyone gets what they deserve. Lying there, we understand what grace is all about.
God comes to us; God sends his messengers to us without merit or action on our part. God reaches out to us and cares for us, regardless of our ability to reach out to Him.
For most of our lives, we are like the Priest or the Levite – we are the ones capable of deciding what course of action will be taken. But isn’t it comforting to know that when things are beyond our control and we become the helpless victim lying in the ditch that God’s grace is there in plentiful supply.