The Good Samaritan: Admitting We’ve Been Beaten Up and Left in a Ditch
I will bet heavily that most of us in this room are used to casting ourselves one of two roles when we hear this story in our gospel today.
On the days when we’re feeling righteous and proud of our open-mindedness and generosity, we cast ourselves as the Good Samaritan. We think of some good deed we’ve done, especially if it’s for a stranger or for someone we don’t particularly like, and feel great.
On the days when we’re a little more in touch with our human frailty, we cast ourselves as the priest or the Levite, realizing how often we exclude others, how often we let convenience and self-interest trump service, and vow to search out opportunities to help people generously in the future.
But what about the man who was set upon by robbers and beaten and left in the ditch by the side of the road?
That’s not a position we ever want to picture ourselves in.
But what if that is part of Jesus’ point?
Besides the obvious lesson of helping our enemies, what if Jesus is asking us to admit our own vulnerability?
What if God is the Samaritan and we are the beat up person in the ditch?
God, is there anything worse than admitting we can’t handle something ourselves, that we are out of skills, out of talent, out of luck, out of options and we just can’t handle the situation without help?
It’s one of the feelings I hate most in the world.
Here Jesus is forcing us to confront the reality that we are in exactly that condition when it comes to sin and redemption and eternal life.
Because we know the end of the story, that we are redeemed by God’s love and everything’s going to work out in the end, it is all too easy for us to forget, to want to forget, how bad things really are without God’s love.
We are sinners and we are helpless, literally helpless, in the face of the kind of evil that compels people to commit domestic abuse and sexual assault and acts of terrorism.
We as human beings, the smartest and most powerful biological species on Earth, rest comfortably in the knowledge that we’re in charge, we’ve got it all together, and we’ll just participate in a relationship with God because God is a grandfatherly old sweetheart and we don’t want to hurt God’s feelings.
This parable reminds us that nothing could be farther from the truth.
There is a howling force of evil that we sometimes see within the human heart and sometimes seems to exist in the external cosmos, and there is exactly one thing standing between that evil and us: God’s overwhelming love for us.
If we were actually in charge of the world, if God let us really try to run everything by ourselves for a day and let us be exposed to the darkness without God’s sheltering presence, being robbed, beaten up and thrown into a ditch to die would be the best case scenario.
But Jesus adds an extra sprinkle of humiliation to our having to admit we need help.
God sends the Samaritan, the hated Samaritan, the enemy Samaritan, to be the one who helps.
And the man who has been robbed and beaten is in no condition to refuse the help. He cannot recoil in offended dignity when the Samaritan stoops to help him.
If he does not accept the help his enemy is offering him, he will die.
And in this country today, we seem to be lining up against one another as enemies as fast as we can.
Putting it in those terms makes the story a bit more intense doesn’t it?
It doesn’t really feel like the warm, fuzzy old familiar parable any more.
It feels uncomfortable and risky and challenging.
I don’t want help, and I sure don’t want help from that jerk!
Oh, but you need help, Jesus says, and you’re going to get it whether you want it or not from someone you can’t bear to be humiliated in front of.
Strangely, there are two types of people we can’t bear to be humiliated in front of: the people we hate and despise, and God.
More than anyone else in the world, we want to appear competent and put-together and in control in front of our enemies and in front of God.
So Jesus makes both our vessels of grace.
Bernard Brandon Scott sums it up beautifully: “The parable can be summarized as follows: to enter the kingdom one must get into the ditch and be served by one’s mortal enemy. Grace comes to those who cannot resist, who have no other alternative than to accept it. To enter the parable’s World, to get into the ditch, is to be so low that grace is the only alternative. The point may be so simple as this: only the person who needs grace can receive grace. In the Kingdom of God mercy comes only to those who have no right to expect it and who cannot resist it when it comes. Mercy always comes from the quarter from which one does not and cannot expect it. In the kingdom mercy is always a surprise.”
Grace comes to us with no strings attached.
The only thing Jesus asks is that we be honest that God can bring it to us through our enemies.
And if we truly have experienced grace, we are probably becoming much less interested in labeling people as enemies or looking good and saving face in front of them.
We may even quit trying so hard to look good and save face in front of God.
Which is good, because we have work to do.
There is one more character in this parable who we haven’t talked about: the innkeeper.
I’m guessing he is a person who has already experienced the surprise of grace.
He also is a Jew, and he took a Samaritan’s money and took a Samaritan’s orders to care for this injured man.
He made a covenant with his enemy to do something good together.
He accepted a task from someone vastly different from himself and took on a ministry of healing because he was brave enough to trust this stranger who dispensed grace.
Are we as brave as he is?
God, who is so different from us, whose ways we question and rage against when we face tragedy in our lives to the point that God can feel like an enemy, wants to make a covenant with us to make us vessels of healing.
There are so many people wounded and broken on the road.
God wants to bring them to our doorstep and entrust them to our care.
When God and the people God wants us to care for come to us with unfamiliar faces, with faces that seem like enemies, will we have the courage to say yes, let the grace continue to multiply and let us be the vessels?
Only if we remember that we were once the person beaten and left to die by the side of the road, only if we remember that we were surprised by grace.
Then there will come a day when we are looking into the eyes of our enemy and we both have to lay down our weapons of pride with chagrin, and shrug and grin when we realize we have both been ambushed by God’s love.
Because we in this church actually do know what it’s like to be lying in that ditch and needing help.
Three years ago, God brought two churches and a priest together in Shelbyville and Franklin, Indiana.
And we were all feeling a bit beaten up at that point. We’d all gone through some really rough patches in our ministry.
We were broken, hurting, wondering what had happened and how things had gotten so hard.
We were weak, so weak that we had to trust a stranger for help.
We had to trust each other, as priest and congregation, to bind up one another’s wounds.
And God acted through us to do exactly that. We were each other’s Good Samaritans, and for me, at least, it’s been some of the most blessed and fulfilling work of my life.
But the Good Samaritan does not stay at the inn. When he sees that the hurt man is on the mend, he continues on with his work elsewhere.
That is how we are being called now. I am being called onward to do new work, and so are you, and we have discovered that this new work will take us to different places.
It’s a scary and exhilarating time, and we will grieve together and laugh together as we celebrate and end our common ministry.
But I don’t know about you, but I will never forget what it was like to be that beaten up person in the ditch, finding other beaten up people in the ditch, and together being rescued by God.
God has brought us healing together, and now we have a job to do, to share that healing with the world.
Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.”
And so, although we are parting as priest and parish, we cannot really be separated, because we are bound by common work.
Wherever I am, out on the road and following the call of ministry, I will know you are travelling the path of discipleship too.
As I search the countryside for the next person who lies broken and bleeding, as I kneel and pull out my bandages for the hundredth time by listening to someone’s anger, honoring someone’s tears, feeding someone’s hunger, I will know you are out there somewhere doing the same.
And you, beloved, are part of the spark in my heart that drives me onward and calls me to keep offering God’s healing love to others, and to keep learning how to receive it myself.
We found each other beaten up at the bottom of the same ditch, helpless to do anything but accept God’s healing love. And through each other, God has made us strong and ready to offering healing to the world.
But we will never forget or deny what it was like to be in that vulnerable and hurting place.
In fact, we will go there voluntarily to be with others who are in that dark valley and need a companion.
Because we have been there, we can go there again, but this time, we know there is a path forward, there is healing and life awaiting, slow and painful though its return may be.
Our very pain has become our road to joy and new life, and that is the lesson we will carry forward as we go back out onto the road.
That road is leading us in different directions, but our hearts remain bound together by this sacred journey we have taken together.
We speak the common language of grace, and every time we speak grace and listen for grace from others out on the road, we’ll hear an echo of each other’s voices.
And that little spark of faith that was coaxed to life three years ago will leap forth again, and we will find the same courage we found then: the courage to love.
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