The Samaritan Option

Guest post by Rev. Bradley Gabriel, (from a sermon preached at Germantown UMC, Germantown TN)

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Over the past few years, “Researchers dropped 17,000 wallets in cities around the world because they wanted to gauge how honest people were. Of the wallets with no money inside of them, 46 percent were reported and directed back to their “owner.” Having money inside the wallets greatly increased the likelihood of their return, with 61 percent of wallets containing the equivalent of $13 returned and 72 percent of those stuffed with about $100 making their way back home. (Merrit Kennedy, NPR) 

This is great news for people who think that the whole world is full of people who don’t care about other people.  We know that is not the case.  We know that people do care about other people. This is summer.  Every summer we read stories about people who rescue swimmers in the Gulf, hikers lost in the Rockies, and children in hot cars.  The world has always been full of good people.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say that most people are good. I truly believe that most people are willing to do good things, things that help other people.  People especially are quick to help people like us. 

The rub comes, as it almost always does, when we get to the point of discussing just what people are like us.  Most people, in my experience, relate to other people in a series of concentric circles.  There is my immediate family, then close friends, acquaintances, and so on. Most of us are the same person no matter who we are talking with. Even though only a few of us change when we are in different surroundings, most of us do act slightly differently around people we don’t know very well, or at all.   Think of a beloved brother or sister needing a loan and the guy on the corner with a sign that says, “Will work for food.”  I am more likely to believe my beloved sibling than some random stranger. As one person I used to know put it, “I get along really great with my family and friends and you get along really well with your family and friends. It’s when I interact with your family and friends, or you interact with my family or friends that we back off a bit.  Sometimes more than a bit.”  

This reality of living in concentric circles was portrayed brilliantly by the actress Maggie Smith in the tv series Downton Abby. The show is set from 1912-1926 in an English Mansion with a Count and his wife and children. It’s all very English with tangled plots. The show explores the way people live in different situations. 

In one episode, an aide to the Turkish ambassador dies of a heart attack in the great English mansion. The character played by the Maggie Smith reflects the discriminating and distancing aspect of the pre-WWI English aristocracy when she says in response to one of her grandchildren mourning the death, “One can’t go to pieces at the death of every foreigner. We’d all be in a state of collapse whenever we opened a newspaper.”

Many of us can understand that attitude, to a degree.  Other people matter, certainly.  But do they impact me as much as kith and kin, mom and dad, brother and sister, people who look, speak, dress, love, vote, or act like me?  What people are, for me, people? That is the setting for today’s gospel. 

The setting is a public discussion. A religiously aware person, the one we call a lawyer, asks Jesus what to do to gain eternal life.   Jesus, as he often does, answers the question with a question.  What is in the law, the Bible?  The lawyer, the religiously aware man, answers, “You will love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. And your neighbor as yourself.”  Jesus says, “Ding, ding, ding, we have a winner.” The religiously aware person is not satisfied.  He wants to know WHO precisely he is to love.  This neighbor thing can be a bit vague. Who is, he asks Jesus pointedly, and who is not my neighbor?  

That question puts a different spin on the subject.  The question means toward whom am I allowed to be indifferent?  Remember that the opposite of love is not hate.  The religiously aware man is not asking to be allowed to hate.  If I hate someone, then I am still in a relationship with them.  The relationship is twisted and vile, but it is still there.  

If I love someone then their failures grieve me, and their successes make me happy.  If I hate someone the reverse is true.  Love or hate, I am still in a relationship with the other.  

When I am indifferent, then there is no relationship.   If I am indifferent, I don’t care if you succeed or fail.  Both are of no matter to me if I am indifferent towards you.   Indifference means that, for me, you are of no matter at all. “One can’t go to pieces at the death of every foreigner. We’d all be in a state of collapse whenever we opened a newspaper.”

The religiously aware person seems to come from a point of view that says I only have so much energy, only so many resources. I must limit who I allow into my life, into my heart. So, Jesus, he asks, towards whom may I be indifferent? 

 The religiously aware man has quoted the law of God. The law of God, channeled through Moses according to the Bible, found in Leviticus, the fourth book of the Torah, does not explicitly require the religiously aware man to love someone outside his family and friendship circle, someone not of his religion, nation, or class, the person who does not look, speak, dress, love, vote, or act like him. 

Jewish teachings were clear, one could not mistreat one’s enemy, but love was not mandated. Proverbs 25:21 insists, “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink.”  Saint Paul quotes that verse in Rom 12:20. Jesus will insist that we love our enemies.  The law, the word of God, the command of the Most Holy requires only that we not be indifferent.  We are instructed to provide, at a minimum, the essentials of life even for people we don’t like.  God directs that we may not be indifferent towards anyone. 

Jesus drives this point home with the story of the good Samaritan. A traveler is going from Jerusalem to Jericho.  Notice that Jesus doesn’t say that the man was traveling any old road.  It was the road from Jerusalem to Jericho.  Everybody knew that was a dangerous road. It is well documented that thieves hid in caves along the road.  To go along this road, by yourself, is as dangerous as wearing Vanderbilt colors to Neyland Stadium in Knoxville when Vanderbilt is playing UT. A mistake I made once.  It is as dangerous as walking in some sections of town late on a Saturday night with money sticking out of your pocket.  It is dangerous. It is as dangerous as walking from El Salvador in Central America to the El Paso in Texas. 

The man, to the surprise of no one hearing the story, is attacked by robbers. He is beaten to within an inch of his life. Stripped naked for his clothes.  All his possessions are stolen. The Greek word is “traumata” from which we get the word trauma. The listeners are drawn in. They know this story.  The pain and loss are well known.  The stories of powerless people caught in something that robs them of all that should identify us, establish our dignity, is a story well known. The lawyer had asked about eternal life.  How do I get the promise of “pie in the sky by and by when you die,” as the old song has it? “Eternal life”, responds Jesus, “Better you should ask about life here and now.”  

Here and now the story is not a lesson in better policing techniques nor the dangers of traveling alone. The story is not a warning to not do stupid things.    

The story Jesus tells is a lesson in a question he poses or us.  “Who was a neighbor to the man in need?” For the religiously aware man, for any who claim to follow the law of Moses, for any who claim to follow Jesus, the question “who is my neighbor?” is a polite way of asking, “Who is not my neighbor “Whose lack of food or shelter can I ignore?” “Toward whom can I be indifferent?”  Jesus says, “No one.” Everyone deserves that love—local or alien, Jews or gentile—everyone even people who do not look, speak, dress, love, vote, or act like me. (Copied from another source)

This is a difficult teaching.  Many good people pass by the opportunity to help the person in need.

I’ve preached on this story off and on for 30 plus years. Normally I take the direction that we are the people in need. That is because we are in need, in need of help to close the gap between us and God at the very least. Usually we need concrete help as well, a reference for a job, a business introduction, a loan to bridge a cash shortfall, a doctor, lawyer, the United States army to storm the beaches of Normandy 75 years ago, someone who can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. 

Today, though, we have resources needed by someone else. According to the office of the Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security, the detention facilities for children along our southern border face “”dangerous overcrowding.” 

In a strongly worded report, the Inspector General said the prolonged detention of migrants without (their words) proper food, hygiene or laundry facilities requires “immediate attention and action.”…  A similar report notes “Outbreaks of scabies, shingles and chickenpox were spreading among the hundreds of children and adults who were being held in cramped cells.”

Let me be the first to confess that I have no easy answer to this problem, it is complex, tangled, and baffling.  Let me also acknowledge that some of you will say that “He’s getting ready to ask us to do something political!” In my defense let me say, well, yes, I am.  That is because every moral act is political. Moral acts claim that some acts are more in keeping with the teaching of Jesus than other acts are. It’s a matter of right and wrong. 

What I am not asking you to do is assign blame, determine who started it, or think that I want to open the borders of the country everywhere.  This has been a long time in developing and will be a long time in resolving.

In response to what I have read, I wrote to our local US Representative and both of our US Senators, asking them to address the immediate needs. Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn responded, writing in part “the situation has escalated into a crisis.”  The Senator notes that we are a country of immigrants and laws and that she voted to allocate “roughly $4.5 billion for care, safety and security at the southern border.”  

So, I am asking you to consider contacting your representative and our two Senators and ask them, in their role as servants, to continue to address the physical conditions in which the children are being held. If your spirituality informs you that we are fine with the centers alone, there is no criticism.  I have failed to respond to needs more times than a gracious God should be comfortable with. I think that we can do more, though.

We are Christ followers.  We can’t solve all the problems today, this month, or even this year.  We can, though, take a stand and say that children, at least, need care and comfort and support when they are in need.  We can sort the rest out later. There is no judgment if you can’t do this.  

But once there was a man going from Jerusalem to Jericho. In his trauma, in his time of need someone was his neighbor.