11 July 2010

Pentecost VII

The Seventh Sunday After Pentecost
Proper 10

The Lectonary

Collect of the Day:  O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Homily
Today we have before us what is perhaps the most familiar story Jesus ever told: the parable of the Good Samaritan. Hearing it again might cause us to wonder, Is there anything new in this story that we haven’t already thought about or heard preached about? Hasn’t it been worn smooth?

Hasn’t the parable lost its power to teach us because we know it so well?

After all, hasn’t the parable of the Good Samaritan become a clich√© in our culture? We have Good Samaritan laws and Good Samaritan hospitals. We live with a common concept that any charitable act makes us Good Samaritans. But the parable means much more than that, of course.

Sermons on this parable often focus on those who encountered the beaten man on the road to Jericho – the two who passed by and one who stopped to help. Often preachers ask us, “Which one are you like? Which one do you want to be like?”

It would be interesting, however, to look at another character – to see how identifying with him might help us better understand what Jesus means for us to discover. Let us examine the victim – the one who was robbed, stripped, beaten, and left for dead.

For many of us, it might seem difficult or inappropriate to identify with the victim. It’s easy for most Americans to feel too privileged and blessed and lucky to equate themselves with such an unfortunate soul. Looking deeper, though, can’t we all recall times when we have suffered? Life cannot be lived without some difficulty. Some of us have been robbed of possessions when thieves broke into our homes, and others have been robbed of time and energy by those whose irresponsibility forced them to do more than their fair share.

Most of us have been treated unjustly, and all of us have been beaten down by our own sin and failures and disillusionment. We have been left half dead by the knowledge of our own limitations.

We have been stripped bare by rejection and abandonment, and we have been stripped by those who told lies about us and tried to harm our reputations. We may even have been left half dead by rivals seeking to ruin our careers or reputations. And perhaps more devastatingly, we have been left half dead by discovering that there is nothing we can do to change such conditions or relieve the pain they cause.

In greater or lesser ways, aren’t we sometimes as helpless as the victim in Jesus’ parable? Do we not also pray for mercy? Does not each of us come as a beggar to the Lord’s altar with cupped hands seeking the true bread that gives life and saves us from desolation and despair?

So while we are identifying with the victim, what do we make of it? Was the beaten man deserving of help from the Samaritan? What did he do to merit an enemy’s taking a serious risk and sacrificing his time and substance to save him, loving him with no strings attached and with no hope of gaining anything in return? Maybe nothing. Maybe the victim was undeserving. Was he not foolish to have traveled on such a dangerous road alone?

The point is, of course, that it did not matter. The Samaritan helped him unconditionally. He showed mercy as God shows mercy to his children. Are we deserving of the love and forgiveness that God gives us? It doesn’t matter, either. This is the primary message of this parable. It illustrates the truth of God’s mercy – f God’s love poured out for us unconditionally, with no strings attached. Without our being deserving, God cares for us in this extraordinary way.

If we can feel the grace that the beaten man experienced when he was helped by an enemy, we will know what God intends for all his children. Not only will we know how God cares for us when we are hurt, we will see the love that fills us in a new light. As the love continues to flow in us, it can overflow to others as we become the Good Samaritan in response.

This powerful and rich parable reminds us of the essentials of our faith. It is a foundation of Christian ethical and moral values. It includes the familiar themes, that Christians are called to:
  • avoid the faithless idolatry of those who pass by on the other side
  • take risks for the sake of the gospel
  • care for our neighbors
  • recognize that “neighbor” includes everyone, everywhere
  • affirm the calling to give ourselves away for the good of others
  • give with no strings attached
  • provide for those in need without regard for whether they are deserving or not
  • love even those different from ourselves, whom we may even despise, and whom we consider unlovable and undeserving
Through the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus takes us into the depths of God’s love. He answers the question “Who is my neighbor?” by giving us an unforgettable example of love in action. He will not let us get away with failing to put our money where our mouths are. Believing and knowing what is right is not enough. Jesus’ model story of the Good Samaritan on the road to Jericho forces us to see ourselves on the roads we travel – the roads that surround us.

Seeing from the perspective of the victim can help us move from belief to action. Jesus’ parable forces us to see that knowing the meaning of “neighbor” is not enough. We can only express adequate gratitude for what God gives us by acting toward everyone – our neighbors – as did the Good Samaritan toward the victim of robbery and beating.

-- The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of "John E. Hines: Granite on Fire" (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife, Toni, in his native home, Bastrop, Texas.