July 5, 2016

Who is the Samaritan?

            The Gospel lesson for this coming Sunday is Luke’s story of the Good Samaritan, surely one of the most beloved and instructive narratives in all of Scripture.  The richness of this text is hard to capture in a sermon, much less a little essay like this.

Modersohn-Becker, Paula, 1876-1907. Good Samaritan, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

            Starting with a conversation between Jesus and a lawyer about how to inherit eternal life, it moves from loving God to loving neighbor.  The pivot question is: “And who is my neighbor?”
            Often the preacher wants to name the neighbor, especially as he or she thinks about those outside the orbit of comfort for a particular congregation.  For some it is race; for others it is religious identity; for others it is sexual orientation; and, for others it is political affiliation, although it is wise to tread lightly where church and state are often drawn too closely together.

Gogh, Vincent van, 1853-1890. Good Samaritan, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

I once was the guest preacher in a rural Kentucky church, following two other guest preachers.  Somehow each of the “pulpit supply” ministers had chosen to preach from Luke 10:25-37, including the third one.  I learned this when one wry deacon inquired: “And who is the Samaritan in your sermon?”
Actually, the Gospels do a rather remarkable job of rehabilitating Samaritans.  John’s Gospel portrays the “Samaritan woman” of chapter 4 as a theologically astute interlocutor of Jesus, and the present story renders the Samaritan as one to emulate for his merciful action to the one who had been assaulted. Yet we know that there had been centuries of bad blood between Jews and Samaritans, and the reasons are many and complicated.
Arthur McGill made the interesting suggestion that it would be helpful to regard Jesus as the Samaritan (see his book Suffering: A Test of Theological Method).  Jesus is the despised one, the “other” whom we struggle to embrace.  McGill goes further and suggests that all of us are the wounded one, left in the ditch to die.  Before any of us can move to love the neighbor fully, we must receive the tending that Jesus offers.

McGill perceptively notes that we strong and decent people read the parable as an exhortation to love and serve the neighbor.  The “other” is the needy one; we are capable of serving out of our abundance, usually out of self-interest that does not require much sacrifice.  This parable reminds us “that the one who truly serves us and is our neighbor, who saves our life and therefore draws forth our love, does not wear a very reassuring appearance.”  Truly. He was despised and rejected.
Our self-giving arises out of the compassionate action of Jesus, and we must learn to rest in our need.  That way we will not “love” others in a dominative way that shores up our hopes for eternal life rather than expressing our solidarity with the broken.  We are broken, too, after all.

Molly T. Marshall

Central prepares compassionate persons who seek God, shape churches, and serve humanity.

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