Archive for giving

The Parable of the Half-dead Wretch

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on July 10, 2016 by timtrue


Luke 10:25-37

Ah, yes, the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  This is comfort food for the soul.  We’ve heard it hundreds of times, sure, just like so many other parables of Jesus; but this one never gets old.  It’s the perfect picture of the love God calls us to believe in and act on.  It’s memorable.

And so it works on us like this—true story:

One night I was driving home from a class I was taking at Moorpark College.  I was nineteen years old, still living with my parents, still trying to decide what to major in, still trying to figure out a lot of things.

I was new to the Christian faith.  I hadn’t yet been baptized; hadn’t yet really even begun attending church regularly.

But even by then I’d heard this parable.  And it stuck with me.

So, there I was, driving home from a class that had ended at 10pm, down the two-lane backroad between Moorpark and Camarillo—it was late, I was tired, eyes a little blurry; it was black outside, no moon, no streetlights, only stars—when up ahead a sudden glare illuminated the tops of the trees.

I couldn’t see where the glare had come from, for there were railroad tracks between me and it, and the tracks were elevated a little, on a levee, meaning the source of the glare was below my line of sight.

In any event, now my attention was riveted; now I was wide awake.  So I drove on, crossing over the railroad tracks, slowing down a little as I approached, and rounding a blind turn.  And then and there, all at once, I saw the cause.

To the right of the road, in a turnout, was an upside down car; a human body lay some thirty feet from it, unmoving; and, some fifty feet from both, illuminating the scene, a fire burned at the base of a telephone pole.

Now, I wish I could say I stopped and rushed to the aid of the victim.  But I didn’t—kind of like the priest and the Levite from the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

Instead, as I drove by, looking out my passenger window in shock and awe, all at once a million thoughts began to collide in my head, you know, a kind of inner dialog, or inner argument rather.  It went something like this:

Dang!  Poor guy.  I wonder if he’s okay.  How could he not have seen the telephone pole anyway?  I wonder if he’s drunk.  Yeah, that’s probably it.  Ah, serves him right then.  Oh, but that’s harsh, Tim.  What if he’s badly hurt?  What if he dies because of you, because you didn’t stop and help him?  I don’t want to read that in tomorrow’s paper.  Ugh, guilt forever!  What should I do?  Well, I’m already well beyond him.  Maybe I should just keep driving to the nearest police station and let them know what happened.  No, too far.  Maybe I should drive to the ER.  Yeah, that’s closer.  Oh, but even that’s still a few miles away.  Really, I should just turn around.  But I don’t know this guy.  It was his own fault, after all.  Oh, but this is exactly what that Parable of the Good Samaritan is all about!  Dang you, Jesus.  Now I’ve got to turn around!  If I’m a Christian at all, now I’ve just got to go help this poor soul.  Lord, you’re testing me, aren’t you?

And so that’s what I did: turn around.  All the way back to the scene of the accident I worried about what in the world I would do alone on the side of the road with a corpse, or, perhaps worse, a mangled, half-dead person.

But, as providence would have it, in the few minutes it had taken for this inner dialog to take place and for me to turn around and return to the scene, two police cars and an ambulance had arrived.

So I turned around again.  And I drove home.

By the way, there was nothing in the paper about it the next day, or the day after, at least as far as I saw.  I never did find out who the person was, or what happened.

But, more to my point, the Parable of the Good Samaritan is memorable.  It comes up every three years in our lectionary.  And it comes up every time, at least in my mind, I don’t love my neighbor as I ought to.

And so, because this is such a memorable parable, my work is done here.  We are to love our neighbor just like the Good Samaritan loved his neighbor.  Sermon over.  Time for me to take my seat and get on with the rest of the service.  Right?

Um, well, actually, no.  While it is true that we are called as Christians to love our neighbor as the Samaritan loved the man who’d been beaten and left by the side of the road half-dead, that’s actually not the point of this parable.

You see, whenever we hear this parable we tend to put ourselves in the shoes of the Samaritan.  And I’m not just talking about me here.  We do this as humans, as a culture.  We name some of our churches after the Good Samaritan; we even name automobile clubs after Good Sam.

But Jesus’ original hearers would not have identified most closely with the Samaritan.  And for that reason, I don’t think we should identify most closely with him either.

Well then, with which character would Jesus’ hearers have identified most closely?  With whom should we identify most closely?

Just prior to Jesus telling this parable, recall, the scriptures tell us that a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.

A lawyer.  Other versions read expert in the law, which is perhaps a better translation.  Others say scribe.  Better still is the German schriftgelehrter, which translates, roughly, scholar of literature, or, in this context, scholar of the scriptures.  So, here was a bona fide Old Testament Professor standing up to test Jesus.

And he asks a question to which he already knows the answer: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

I wonder, what kind of mockery was in this lawyer’s tone of voice when he addressed Jesus as teacher.  Really, if I were in a seminary classroom with my Old Testament professor and she stood up and looked at me and said, “Okay, Tim, teacher, you tell me what the Old Testament teaches us,” I’m sure her address to me as teacher would be dripping with sarcasm.  Was it the same when this schriftgelehrter stood up and addressed Jesus?

Whatever the case, Jesus is unfazed.  He turns the question back on the lawyer—“What is written in the law?”—who then eloquently sums up the law: love the Lord your God; and love your neighbor.

But then, seeking to justify himself, this lawyer clarifies: “Yes, teacher, I understand what the law says.  I am an expert in it, after all.  But tell me, good teacher, who, exactly, is my neighbor?”

Now, for perspective, the Jewish law had specifics about this.  Specifically, Jewish scriptural specifics specified that certain sapient species were simply specious; and therefore Jewish scriptural specifics stated that good sons of Shem shouldn’t associate with such specifically specious albeit sapient species.

In other words—in plain, non-lawyer talk—anyone who did not descend directly from Noah’s son Shem was suspect, most definitely not to be considered a neighbor.

Yes, sadly, racism is nothing new.  And racism based on religion is nothing new.

Still unfazed by this prejudiced law-expert before him, Jesus then tells this parable, the so-called Parable of the Good Samaritan.  But there’s something in it I think we often miss.

Right at the end of it—after we hear about the poor wretch who is beat up and left for half-dead; after the priest and the Levite avoid the half-dead man; and after a man of a different race, the Samaritan, helps the poor wretch—after all this—Jesus answers the lawyer’s question.

His question, remember, was, Who, exactly, is my neighbor?

And so Jesus comes to the end of his story and says that the Samaritan is the neighbor to the half-dead man.  The Samaritan, good lawyer, is your neighbor.

Do you see?  It’s not the way we usually understand it.  We usually put ourselves in the place of the Samaritan.  We drive down a road, late at night, with darkness everywhere around us; and we see a sudden flash ahead.  We then come upon a scene of a gruesome accident: someone is half-dead on the side of the road.  And we think, “I’ve got to help this person.  I’ve got to be like the Good Samaritan.”

And all this is well and true and good: we should indeed help the poor soul.

But the lawyer asks, Who is my neighbor; and Jesus answers, Your neighbor is the Samaritan.  Good lawyer, you are in fact that half-dead man on the side of the road, in desperate need of aid.

Tradition calls this story the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

Instead, maybe we should call it the Parable of the Half-dead Wretch.

To identify with the man in the ditch, then, brings up at least two very good questions for us to consider.

First, am I able to receive help from others?

We live in a culture that gives us many opportunities to help others.  Why, just last week we collected food to distribute to the needy in our community; and we’ll do it again on the first Sunday of next month.  The church and other worthy charities depend on us for survival.  And how many of us like to be available for a friend or family member seeking counsel?  We like to help.  And so we should.

But turn it around.  Do we like to receive help?  Do we like to make ourselves vulnerable to another person, a friend or maybe even a stranger, and ask for their help?  We might have to.  But are we comfortable doing so?

How about if we don’t even ask?  What if someone, a stranger, simply offers help to us?  Is it easy to receive it willingly?  Do we receive it maybe reluctantly?  Do we reject it outright, in principle maybe, or out of pride?

Receiving help from others is difficult, isn’t it?  Our readiness to offer help but reluctance to receive it suggests that this attitude isn’t just personal but cultural.  This attitude was there in the lawyer who stood up to test Jesus; and it’s here in a lot of modern-day evangelical (and not-so-evangelical) Christianity.  It’s called superiority.

When someone asks me for help and I’m quick to offer it, is this because it puts me in a superior position?  Someone needs me.  Someone is dependent on me.  And this makes me feel good about myself.

Now, I’m not saying that someone’s attitude is one of superiority every time he or she offers help to a neighbor.  The Samaritan, surely, wasn’t affected by an attitude of superiority.

But it works the other way too.  The man in the ditch, the half-dead wretch, was utterly dependent on his neighbor to help him.  And who was this but the lawyer to whom Jesus addressed the parable?  He was the one in utter need of help.  Yet his attitude was all about superiority.

There is a way to love a neighbor who is in need; and there’s a way to be loved.  It’s called service, not superiority.

But I said two questions.  The first, whether we’re able to receive help from others, makes us uncomfortable.

The second—well, it’s even more uncomfortable: What if the person helping me is someone I despise?

What if the person helping me disagrees with me on a hot political issue, something like gun control?  What if that person aligns with an opposing political party?  What if that person has embarrassed or even insulted me in front of others?  What if that person hasn’t been to church in a while, or went away with that other group?  What if that person is actually of a different faith, or of no faith at all?  In fact, what if the single person I despise worst of all souls in this world ends up being the very person who saves my life—who pulls my half-dead body out of a ditch and makes sure I receive proper medical attention and even pays for it?  Would I rather have died?

But then that’s just Jesus’ point.

What must we do to inherit eternal life?  We allow ourselves to receive it in whatever form it comes.