Last Wednesday evening I wish I had brought a camera to the pulpit with me so I could have taken a quick snapshot of everyone when I mentioned that we were going to spend some time during Lent thinking and talking about forgiveness. The expression on many faces was something like: “Really? Do we HAVE to?”
I completely understand that feeling. But forgiveness, both receiving it and giving it, is one of the most significant practices we engage in as Christians. Thankfully, though, talk about forgiveness can only begin not with our action but with God’s. We love because God first loved us. We forgive because God first forgave us. The text I just read from the gospel of Luke is about love, specifically love of neighbor, but it is also about more than having good feelings for people who live near us. All of the ways in which we treat others come down to how we love them. Ethical behavior towards others, fair business practices, harmonious communities, friendships and romantic relationships all go back to the idea of loving our neighbor. How to forgive our neighbor has no other starting place then how to love them so before we forgive we must learn to love and before we learn to love, we learn that we are loved.
A man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho and ran into some trouble along the way. Criminals found him, took everything he had, even the clothes off his back! They beat him and left him for dead in the road. Now, first, a priest comes by. Surely, this guy will help out the unfortunate traveler! But nope, he passes by, not only passing him up but crossing the road to get away from the beaten, half dead man. Then, a Levite, a man who works at the church, walked by. Of course, he would stop and help the man, right? But no, he too, passes by him on the other side of the road. So here he lays, naked, beaten, robbed, helpless in the road. Just then, a Samaritan comes by.
This is the point in our story when it might be helpful to know a little bit about Jesus’ audience. No one listening to him would have believed a Samaritan would have stopped to help anyone in distress. While Samaritans did believe in God, in YHWY, just like the Jews, they didn’t do it the “right” way. They didn’t follow all the laws and regulations and didn’t even worship in the right places!
But, surprisingly, the Samaritan stops. He cleans and cares for the wounded man, binds him up and even puts him on his own donkey and takes him to an inn. The next day the Samaritan tells the innkeeper to take care of the man and promises to pay back anything the innkeeper spends to help him out. The Samaritan did not cross the road to get away from the man he stopped and helped him.
So, after telling this story Jesus asks the lawyer who had been wondering about neighbors: “Who was the man’s neighbor?” The one who showed him mercy is the Lawyer’s reply. There you go, Jesus says, now go and do the same.
This is the answer to not only who one’s neighbor is but also an example of loving neighbors. We are to show compassion for our neighbor, regardless of whether or not they are like us or are our friends, to help someone in need, to not pass by on the other side of the road, to be good to others.
When you hear Jesus’ story about the Good Samaritan, what is the picture you see? I know that I think of some nice guy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time and was taken advantage of. He’s just walking along minding his own business. And, for no good reason, this innocent man is attacked! Beaten by criminals within an inch of his life and stripped of everything, even his dignity. Surely, he didn’t deserve this! Though I’ve never been beaten, robbed and left for dead in the middle of the street, I certainly have had bad things happen to me that I didn’t deserve. Haven’t we all? Bad things happen to good people every day. Oh, won’t someone please stop and help this poor man! Attacked out of the blue! This nice guy! Please help him! And, honestly, at some points in my life, I see myself as the Good Samaritan stopping and helping this poor man. We might all invision ourselves as the one taking care of this innocent person who has been so badly treated
I do believe that Jesus intends for us to be Good Samaritans and that God intends us to follow those greatest commandments: loving the Lord with all of our very being and loving our neighbor as ourselves. However, Jesus never tells us anything about this man lying in the road half dead. In fact a description of him is conspicuously absent. We know all kinds of things about people who encounter him. There are robbers who mistreat him, a priest and a Levite who intentionally ignore him, and a Samaritan who does all those things for him. But we know nothing about him, just that he was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. Was he a nice guy? Was he a righteous man? Was he himself a criminal? A physician? A murderer? Was he an innocent man or was he a man guilty of all kinds of crimes and sins who deserved a good beating and some kind of poetic justice was served by robbers taking money he had stolen from an innocent widow?
The story reminds me of the first time I donated blood. I was pretty nervous, of course, and I wasn’t the only first time donor there either. The woman in the chair beside me was also giving blood for the first time. She was talking to the nurse about where her blood was going to go. She wanted to know if she could specifically request where it would go. “Someone in particular?” the nurse asked. “Oh, no not really, but I just don’t want it to go to waste.” She replied. “I don’t understand….” The nurse replied. “The blood goes to whoever needs it.” “well, there are just SOME people I wouldn’t want having my blood. I mean, I wouldn’t want to be responsible for helping out some drunk driver or criminal!” “Madam,” the nurse said, “there is no way to put restrictions on who gets your blood. It goes to whoever needs it.” “So, my blood could go into some gang member’s body! I thought you used this to save babies and children and people like that—not just anybody. Oh no, I’m not going to do that! Take this thing out of me! You’re not using me to save someone who doesn’t deserve it!”
I think this woman saw her blood donation similarly to how we might see the parable of the Good Samaritan. Sometimes, that might be how we want see God’s love and grace as well, perhaps even God’s loving forgiveness as well. We don’t want to think about God forgiving, loving, giving his merciful pardon and love to just anyone, especially someone who doesn’t really deserve it. But God doesn’t follow our rules. In fact, God does not want us to follow THOSE rules either, the ones that say who does and does not “deserve” gracious love, mercy, and forgiveness.
In Jesus’ parable, any one of a hundred different things could be true about the half dead man in the road. The truth is that his righteousness, worthiness, humility, lovability, or anything else we might find redeeming in his character is not relevant here. In the parable Jesus tells, the man is shown tremendous mercy and love regardless of what he was or was not. In fact, the kind of person he was is so irrelevant to the grace he received that Jesus did not bother to even include it in his story. He received it simply because he could not have lived without it.
This is the kind of love that God shows us: gracious, merciful, forgiving and healing love, not because we deserve it but because we need it. We all need it. God finds us in the middle of the road, beaten bruised and humiliated by life, sometimes because of the damage done to us by others and by the world, and sometimes because of our own choices, our own decisions, our own mistakes and our own sin.
Much as we may want to be the Good Samaritan, it is ultimately God who does the saving and the loving and the healing and we who are in the middle of the road. And on those occasions when we are able to be Good Samaritans to others, we do so in God’s image and with the same gracious love God has first given us.