Grace and St. George’s, 15 July, 2007
The Parable of the Good Samaritan
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’
I love preaching on the parable of the Good Samaritan, though as with any well-beloved text, it can be hard to approach it with fresh eyes, or to find ways for it to be heard with fresh ears. I owe two of the illustrations in this sermon to one of the great preachers, Thomas G. Long.
Have you ever heard of Wesley Autrey? He is a fifty-year old construction worker in New York City. One day this January of this year, he was on a subway platform with his two young daughters when a man beside him had a seizure and fell onto the tracks. Down the tracks were the lights of a train coming into the station. As Autrey said later, “I had to make a split decision”. So Wesley Autrey jumped down, and covered the man’s body, pressing him down into a one-foot trough between the tracks. Five cars passed over them, with so little clearance that the train left grease on Autrey’s knit cap. Neither man was injured, though the man with the seizure was taken to hospital and Autrey visited him there before going to work.
People like Wesley Autrey don’t come along everyday, but when they do, the question is always asked of them, why would take such risks to help a stranger?. When Autrey was asked this question, he told the media, “I don’t feel like I did something spectacular; I just saw someone who needed help. I did what I felt was right.” Autrey may not think he’s a hero, but I think that most of us would say that he is one.
Forget about jumping in front of subway trains for a moment. The fact is that many of us do far less when the risks are far less. Why is it that more people don’t give blood, when the only cost is some discomfort and an hour or less of our time? Why don’t more people take the time and spend the money to learn CPR or First Aid? Why don’t more people stop to help a stranded motorist? Would young people give time for community service if the school system did not require it of them? The phenomenon of altruism, helping another person when there is no advantage or reward at stake, is such that psychologists have devoted considerable effort to try and understand it. It’s interesting that these psychologists often use the word “samaritanism” interchangeable with “altruism”, and their results show that Good Samaritans can be as rare today as they were when Jesus first told this parable two thousand years ago.
In 1973 two psychologists did a famous study involving theological students at Princeton Seminary. Some students were asked to go to another building to give a talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan. Some students were told they had lots of time, others were told that they had to hurry between buildings. What the students did not know what that the study’s organizers had arranged for a man to lie in their path, not moving except for some coughs and groans.
How do you think these future ministers did in putting these words of Jesus into action? As you might expect, it depended on how much time the students had. The ones who had time to spare were more likely to stop and help, but those who had little time were far less likely to help. One student even stepped over the man’s body on his way to give his talk on the Good Samaritan. The organizers of the study concluded that people are far less likely to help others when there is a cost to them and they have to make a sacrifice. Other studies, done in airports on or on trains, also show what we might expect, that not everyone has it in them to be a Good Samaritan, even when it requires far less heroism than was showed by Wesley Autrey.
Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan for the benefit of a man who wants to live a godly and pious life. This man knows that God wants him to love his neighbour as much as he loves himself, but he only has one question. What exactly does that word neighbour mean? Are there exceptions? The parable gives a clear answer. If a Samaritan, whose people had no love for Jews and vice versa, could help a Jew from Jerusalem when the Jew’s own holy men would not, then there are no exceptions. Everyone is a neighbour. Anyone in need is a neighbour. Jesus ends the parable by telling the man to put it into practice. “Go and do likewise”.
The preacher Tom Long offers us some helpful advice on how to hear this familiar story with new ears. He notes that this parable is often understood as a moral example. Jesus talks about the Samaritan, and says “He cared for someone in need; I want you to imitate him. Go and do likewise." There are two problems with this approach. First, as we saw with Wesley Autrey, being a Good Samaritan is hard, which is why there are so few of them. Second, if Jesus was just giving a moral example about being helpful to strangers, why did he put all the Samaritan stuff in there? Why are the first two men pillars of the Jewish community, while the man who actually helps is a despised foreigner? As Long reminds us, the story is rather like a Christian pastor and a policeman ignoring an injured person, while a person from Al Qaeda stops and helps.
Clearly Jesus is making the point that our religious beliefs and practices do not automatically make us better people. A case in point came to my mind after Jeremy Robson and I (both history geeks) were talking about Ontario’s black communities that were founded by refugees from the underground railway. As you know, one of these communities was Wilberforce, near Clandeboye, an area known for its staunch Roman Catholic and Protestant communities. As you know, these communities had no love for one another in the 1800s, but one thing they had in common was a dislike of these black refugees. Jeremy was telling me that the whites were worried about their property values and required their new black neighbours to plant gardens and erect picket fences, with the unexpected result that the black homes often looked better than those of whites.
Clearly this example of religous people behaving badly, and others one could think of (religious sanction of killing of Tutsis in Rwanda, pro-apartheid preachers in South Africa, some white churches during the Civil Rights era in the US) show that Good Samaritanism goes against our grain as human beings. Our innate weakness, our human sin, prevents us from simply taking a moral example to heart. Tom Long points out that the story of the Good Samaritan is told BY the ultimate Good Samaritan. Jesus, himself an outcast, despised by those who should know better. Jesus knows how wounded we are by sin and by our hostility to God, and by taking us into his crucified arms, he restores us.
Some psychologists think that we are most likely to be altruistic, to be generous, when people are generous to us. In other words, being a good samaritan is not something we can pull out of ourselves by sheer moral willpower, but rather it comes from some kindness that we have ourselves received. As Christians we understand this idea because we have received the ultimate kindness of Christ’s love to us. Jesus does not ask that we be good, he merely asks us to receive his goodness and let it flow through us to our neighbour.
When I think of Christians who show this in action I think of people like Mother Theresa, but I also think of those who I can more readily understand and pattern myself on. I think of my friend Nancy, who teaches ESL to Moslem immigrants in her London neighbourhood. Now Nancy is a bible-quoting evangelical, and some Anglicans might call her a fundamentalist, but Nancy does not try to convert the women she teaches. She just helps them because she knows that they are her neighbours. I think of the different churches who run the meal program at St. John the Evangelist in London, or my fellow board members and the volunteers at the Ailsa Craig Food Bank, and I thank God that they know who their neighbours are. So let us thank God that we do not have to choose who are neighbours are, because Jesus did not choose who he would die for. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, to the end that all who believed in him might not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Let me finish today with these beautiful words of prayer from Tom Long:
When we are honest about ourselves, we know that we do not choose in our own strength to do what is right. We talk a good game about right and wrong, but we do not have the wisdom or the power in ourselves to be righteous. We lie helpless on the side of the road, and even our best moral instincts pass us by on the other side. Come to us, O God, come to us again in Jesus Christ. Lift us out of our brokenness and take us to the place of healing. Prone to wander, Lord, we feel it, prone to leave the God we love; Here's my heart, O take and seal it, Seal it for Thy courts above. Amen.