July 14, 2019
The Fourth Sunday after Trinity
(Deuteronomy 30:10-14; Luke 10:25-37)
Ever left your cell phone on a bus? Your wallet in a store or restaurant? If you have, you probably can relationally remember the sense of panic.
For a lot of us, our cell phones are a microcosmic representation of our whole lives. Think about all the phone numbers and contact information, pictures, calendared appointments and text messages you have stored in there. Granted, if you back it up often on your computer or with your wireless carrier, it shouldn’t be a big deal. But, given the fact that many people are too busy to make a backup plan or find phone insurance too expensive, losing one’s phone is still the equivalent of leaving one’s life on a subway seat.
There is a story on the web of a Defense Department analyst who was on his way home when he inadvertently dropped his cell phone on a Washington, D.C., street. When he discovered that his electronic life was missing, he frantically began dialing the cell’s number from another phone. He didn’t even know what time it was because, like a lot of 21st-century people, he kept time with his phone rather than a watch.
Finally, a voice answered. “Yeah, I got your phone,” said the voice. “But what’s it worth to you?”
“Twenty bucks,” said the frantic owner. It was all the cash he had on him at the time. “My phone is my life,” he says. “If I’d needed to, I would have paid a lot more.”
What’s it worth to you? That’s certainly not the first thing you want to hear out of a “good” Samaritan. Many of us assume there’s a kind of unwritten agreement between losers and finders, and when we’re on the finding end we get a special kind of rush when we’re able to unite someone with their lost valuables. The gushing gratitude of the recipient is enough reward for most of us.
But, clearly, not all of us. Some people look at the misfortune of others as an opportunity to make a quick buck. Call them “bad Samaritans.”
Bad Samaritans are focused primarily on maximizing their reward or, in some sense, recouping something of what they believe society owes them. Take the case of Los Angeles-based writer Andrew Cohn, who was cleaning up after a backyard party and found a wallet on the ground with $40 in it. “I’d just spent $500 on the party,” says Cohn. “I figured the money was the girl’s contribution.” He kept the money and left the wallet, with ID and credit cards, on the ground.
How did Cohn justify his actions? Well, he says, “If you expect someone’s going to return your wallet with all the cash, you’re probably a little delusional.” Davy Rothbart, who edits a magazine called Found, which features photos of lost objects, agrees with Cohn. “Really good Samaritans, if they find a wallet, they return it intact,” he says. “Some people find a wallet, take the money, but return the important stuff. That’s not evil.”
So, what does that make someone such as Cohn — a semi-good Samaritan? And what if you find a wallet but really need the money right now; does that make it okay to keep it as long as you give back the “important” stuff? Is “finders-keepers” an ethical escape clause?
I’m guessing that most people sitting in church on Sunday would probably — one hopes — say “no” to all of the above. After all, we’ve been schooled in Scriptures such as the Ten Commandments and Deuteronomy 22:1-4, which instruct the Israelites on precisely what to do when they find a stray sheep or ox: You take it back to the owner with no expectation of, or provision for, any kind of reward. Whether it’s sheep or cell phones, demanding a reward from a vulnerable person is nothing less than extortion.
The lesson here would seem to be obvious, particularly when we compare the behavior of bad Samaritans to the good Samaritan in Jesus’ famous parable. When we read this passage a little more closely, however, we begin to see that the story has an even deeper dimension to it than just the ethics of helping. It really has to do with how we view people and, more specifically, whether we believe in the kindness of strangers.
Psychologists say that how you perceive strangers is a microcosm of how you perceive the world. If you believe that most people are intrinsically unethical and that they’d put the screws to you if given a chance, then you’re much more likely to put the screws to someone else if, say, you find a wallet or a cell phone or, as in Jesus’ story, if you find him or her battered on the side of the road. People who see strangers as outsiders, as enemies or as something less than themselves will default to treating them that way, rather than as equals, or, to use Jesus’ term, as “neighbors.” (It brings to mind our immigration rhetoric in our government these days.)
The key to this parable is thus the question that prompts it. A lawyer asks Jesus, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” This is a question about ultimate rewards. For a first-century Jew, “eternal life” meant the life of the age to come, the ultimate covenant blessing that was in store for God’s chosen people. The lawyer perceived himself to be a member of the covenant community who, like many of his people at the time, held clear ideas about who was within the covenant boundaries set by the Torah and who was outside — who were friends and who were strangers.
Jesus questions him about the Torah law, and the lawyer gives the right answer — the Shema from Deuteronomy 6:5, which was about love for God, and its companion piece from Leviticus 19:18 about loving one’s “neighbor” as oneself. The definition of neighbor is the sticking point for this lawyer, so he presses Jesus for a legal opinion. Luke says the lawyer wanted to “justify” himself, which is a way of saying he was concerned about defining his “neighbors” as follows: “My neighbor is a fellow Jew, i.e., someone who lives within the covenant boundaries of Judaism.”
Asking Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” was like saying, “You’re talking about our own people, right?” Like many of the people of Jesus’ day (even today), the lawyer apparently had big issues with strangers.
Jesus responds with this story, one that has become so familiar to us that we miss the scandalous implications of it for people such as the lawyer. A man is on his way down the wilderness road from Jerusalem to Jericho, which implies that he is a Jew, when he gets set upon by robbers who beat him and leave him for dead. A priest and a Levite, who should be obvious “neighbors” to their fellow Jew, both pass by on the opposite side of the road and refuse to help. The implication is they were on the same side, but exaggerated their lack of concern by crossing to the other side of the road to pass by. Maybe they had good reasons; for example, their involvement with a battered body might make them ritually unclean to work in the temple. Although Jesus doesn’t elaborate on their reasons for not wanting to get involved, the fact that these two are representatives of the Torah and its covenant rituals and boundaries is very significant. The priest and the Levite — and, by association, the Torah and the sacrificial system — fail to act in order to save one of their own.
Who does stop to help? A Samaritan, a stranger and an enemy of Israel. To most first-century Jews, “good Samaritan” would have been a laughable contradiction, as these half-breed people with their own temple were considered pariahs. However, this Samaritan stops, renders aid and takes care of the Jewish victim’s expenses. He does what the victim’s “own people” would not do for him.
Although we most often read and preach this story from the perspective of the Samaritan who helps, Jesus hammers home the point from the perspective of the victim in answering the lawyer’s question with a question of his own. “Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers' victim?” The stunning answer was, of course, that the Jew in the ditch discovered that the Samaritan was his neighbor and that the others — those geographically, ethnically and religiously similar — were not.
“Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The lawyer’s question was the same as that of the rich young man in Luke 18:18-25, and Jesus’ answer is essentially the same: You must learn a new way to be God’s covenant people and a new way of understanding God’s kingdom. And, for starters, you must redefine your definition of “neighbor” to include the stranger and the outsider. Jesus would live that out by spending time with the outcasts and, interestingly, the tax collectors who made their living essentially by extortion! Following Jesus means we are called to “go and do likewise.” We are called to see others not as good or bad Samaritans but as people who deserve our presence and our help. We are to go into the world with the same radical love of Jesus!
God’s people are never to play “finders-keepers,” nor are they to see themselves as being more deserving or better than anyone else. When it comes to the kindness of strangers, we tend to get what we expect. If we’re kind and helpful to people we don’t know or who are in trouble, in every circumstance, then we’re more likely to see that kindness returned. Even if we don’t receive reciprocal care and help, we know that God has called us to love the stranger regardless. That’s what it means to be God’s people.
Things do have a way of coming back around to justice eventually. Take Andrew Cohn who found the wallet while cleaning up after a party, for example. A few hours after he replaced the now cash-poor wallet back on the ground, the owner knocked on his door. Cohn opened the door to find a drop-dead gorgeous woman standing on his porch. Although she was sad her money was gone, she was glad to have her wallet and credit cards back. She was so glad, thought Cohn, that maybe she’d agree to go out with him.
Problem is, he didn’t get her number, and a mutual friend wouldn’t give it to him. The friend’s reason? “You can’t ask out a girl if you just took her money.”
Maybe this guy will someday get a life, find eternal life and be a good neighbor.
Let us pray.
That the trend of increasing “bad neighbors” be reversed and outpaced by “good neighbors” in a world so desperately in need of them. We pray to the Lord.
That the Church and the media recognize and lift up the loving deeds of all people of good will. We pray to the Lord.
That we spread, teach and live in example of the radical love that Jesus showed to all, sinner and saint alike, and asks us each to now show toward all whom we meet. We pray to the Lord.
That God will help us recognize our neighbor in the refugee, the homeless person, and in the members of other cultures, and inspire us in responding to their needs. We pray to the Lord.
That wars and divisions cease as people look on each other with empathy. We pray to the Lord.
That the victims of crimes and all those who feel forgotten and abandoned experience the love of God and the care of their fellow human beings. We pray to the Lord.
We pray for the volunteers in our communities who commit themselves to the care and welfare of those who are less well off in our society – the sick, the poor, the homeless, the suicidal and the lonely. We pray to the Lord that he give them the energy and commitment to continue in this work and that he justly rewards them when he welcomes them into his kingdom. We pray to the Lord.
We pray for those who misunderstand, misrepresent or are hostile to the church of Christ. We pray that they come to an understanding that Jesus requires just one commitment from his church, that they love one another and their neighbor as themselves, not to come expecting perfection amongst imperfect people. We pray to the Lord.
We pray for our priests, particularly those who suffer abuse and hostility. We pray that all who proclaim the message of Christ experience an end to prejudice and intolerance in our society. We pray to the Lord.
For all who seek comfort that they may find it in God’s healing word; and that God may hear the intentions found in our parish prayer list. We pray to the Lord.
We bow our heads and remember in silence our own personal intentions and the intentions of those who have asked for our prayers (pause). We pray to the Lord.
Merciful God, throughout history you have showered your mercy upon your people. Help us to follow the example of the Good Samaritan in our struggles from day to day. Merciful Savior, daily we are given opportunities to be a good Samaritan — to show kindness, to express praise, to offer encouragement, to affirm the worth of our fellow human beings. And daily we fail to be the heart and hands of Jesus Christ. We avoid making eye contact with a homeless person, we are impatient with the slow movement of the elderly, we tune out the curious questions of young children. We make excuses for our rude driving, our short tempers and our self- indulgences. We fail to see that in doing these things, we are leaving those in need stranded along the roadside, refusing to reach out with compassion and bind their wounds. We stand convicted of our attitudes of self-importance and disregard. Forgive us, Lord, we pray, and remove our sin from us so we may walk in newness of life. Help us to be examples of the radical love of Jesus! We ask all these things through Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You+++
++ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor - St. Francis Chapel
San Diego, CA