The Parable of The Good Samaritan
Luke chapter 10, verses 30 - 37 Jesus said: "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. `Look after him,' he said, `and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.' "Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?" The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him." Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise."
Here's a question for you - which character in the Parable of the Good Samaritan do you identify with most? Not the character that appeals to you most, but the one you identify with most, the one in whom you see more than a bit of yourself, the one whose life experience seems to bear more than a passing resemblance to your own? Is it the robbers, the victim, the priest, the Levite or the Samaritan?
God forbid that any of us should identify with the marauders, those who, at every opportunity on the journey of life, rob their victims of their dignity, innocence, livelihood or self-worth, stripping every last vestige of their humanity from them and leaving them half-dead.
It may be that some of us can identify with the victim of that brutal mugging on the Jerusalem/Jericho road. Certainly most of Jesus' 1st century Jewish audience would identify with the man in the ditch. Why? Because Israel always seemed to find herself beaten up by one marauding nation after another - Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans. Poor little Israel, a chronic victim, always beaten up and left in a ditch half-dead. It may be that some of us here this morning identify with the man in the ditch - not because we have been victims of a brutal mugging, but because we have found ourselves the victims of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. We have found ourselves beaten, battered, bruised and buffeted by the brute circumstances of life, and our broken hearts cry out for understanding, compassion, tenderness, the healing balm of Gilead.
I daresay most of us here this morning would identify, albeit reluctantly, with the priest and the Levite - the representatives of organized religion. I ask you - which minister, which elder has not bypassed human need in the form of beggars squatting on Lothian Road and Shandwick Place while en route to a committee meeting at '121'? Which minister, which elder has not been successful in eliminating them from his or her field of vision as he or she walked past? I know I have - to my eternal shame.
Moreover, as a church we pass by on the other side when we spend an inordinate amount of time contemplating our own ecclesiastical navel, when we allow churchy matters, the 'nuts and bolts' of church life, to soak up so much of our time, our efforts and our energies, to the detriment of human need. We pass by on the other side when the survival of the ecclesiastical institution is given priority over the redemption of clamant human need.
However, it may be that, without being presumptuous, some of you can identify with the Samaritan. Quietly and unobtrusively you sit in compassionate solidarity with those in pain and sorrow, you listen to their heartache, you bandage their wounds and heal their brokenness, you go the second mile on their behalf.
I wonder - would you have second thoughts about identifying with the Samaritan if you knew that in Jesus' day the Samaritans were regarded as objects of vitriolic hatred, treated as heretical outcasts, beyond the pale, religious and racial pariahs, human vermin, the most despised and rejected of people. Imagine, then, the shock and horror pulsing through Jesus' audience when he portrays the Samaritan as his most unlikely hero. To that bigoted and prejudiced audience the very idea of a good Samaritan was inconceivable, preposterous, outrageous. Yet Jesus, almost deliberately, invites scandal and infamy by portraying the Samaritan as the epitomy of neighbourly compassion.
Certainly we can do no other than marvel at the compassion of the Samaritan. Compassion, as epitomized by the Samaritan, is much more than 'doing things' for a person in need. It means looking into another soul and listening to the pain. It means experiencing some of the pain yourself. Compassion is seeking to take some of the cross from the back of another person and feeling the weight on your own shoulders. Love unpins authentic compassion. This is an intertwining of the head and the heart that embraces the brokenness of the other. Incidentally, the Greek word for 'compassion' is much stronger than the English - it means intestines, bowels, entrails - it means an impulse that wells up from one's very entrails, a gut reaction.
However the compassion of the Samaritan was much more than a gut reaction. It was a compassion that welled up out of his own pain and sense of rejection. Instead of wallowing in self-pity or giving in to despair or becoming incandescent with bitter rage, the Samaritan had somehow allowed grace to transform his suffering and sense of rejection into something much higher - heroic compassion. Of all the things I would like to do with my remaining days and nights, I can think of nothing finer than becoming someone who chooses to take his wounds, his suffering, his rejection and allow grace to transpose them into awareness, sensitivity and compassion.
Yes, we can all become bitter, angry people with a huge chip on our shoulder - but there is always this alternative - to be like the Samaritan and allow grace to transform our wounds into a consuming passion to bless and to help - to allow grace to enable us to become 'wounded healers'.
What this parable is saying is that mercy wells up from the places we least expect. What this parable is saying is that the grace of God sometimes comes to us through the most unlikely people; moreover, grace always comes as a surprise - which is why Inland Revenue officials and prostitutes understand the grace-filled nuances of the Kingdom of God better than ministers, theologians and college professors. What this parable is saying is that heroic holiness is often to be found in those deemed to be outcasts, those even deemed to be beyond redemption, that God's ministering angels are often to be recruited from the fringes, the margins of life.
Allow me to tell you the story of Father Mychal Judge whose death certificate No. 00001 marked him as the first registered victim of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York on September 11th 2001.
Father Mychal Judge died in the lobby of the North Tower after being hit by falling debris. Some say he had taken off his helmet as he gave the last rites to a fallen fire-fighter. Those who knew Mychal Judge say that he died the way he had lived. He had been a Franciscan priest for 40 years and his life had been filled with grass-roots ministry to the homeless, refugees, alcoholics, people with AIDS, and New York City's fire-fighters and their families. He was, perhaps, the city's most recognized and beloved Catholic priest with an unwavering dedication to putting himself at the centre of human anguish.
For years he had walked the streets of Manhattan in his brown Franciscan habit, blessing everything that moved and bringing compassion, faith and earthy humour into situations of desperation and brokenness. People turned to him when the Church had failed them. He was always ready to bend the rules, offer a hug and a blessing and show people what the love of God was really like. In the early days of the AIDS epidemic one man recalled how, when his partner was dying, Father Judge came to give him communion. After the ritual the dying man anxiously whispered, 'Do you think God is angry with me?' Mychal responded by taking the man in his arms, cuddling him, rocking him against his chest, then kissing him.
On September 15th 2001 some 3000 people packed St Francis of Assisi church for his funeral, while crowds in the street outside watched on television screens. Inside, former President Bill Clinton remembered how Father Judge 'lit up the White House' at a prayer breakfast. One of the fire-fighters who had come to the church still covered with grime from Ground Zero, simply said, 'I just think God wanted somebody to lead the guys to heaven.'
However, something more needs to be said. Father Judge's commitment to being close to people in their brokenness and his astonishing tenderness, were forged in a heart weathered by his own struggle to believe that he himself was embraced and blessed by God. Mychal Judge, you see, was gay. Does that fact, does that quirk of nature, nullify 40 years of heroic self-sacrificing compassion? Surely not!
When all's said and done, when we find ourselves in the ditch, battered and bruised by the brute facts of life, does it really matter if God's ministering angel happens to be a Samaritan, or gay, or Muslim, or black as the ace of spades, or one of 'them', whoever 'them' might be? What we need in that moment is someone who will come alongside us in compassionate solidarity, listen to our heartache, bandage our wounds and apply the balm of Gilead.
When all's said and done, let the story of Father Mychal Judge be a salutary reminder to us that mercy springs up in the most unexpected places, that grace is often expressed through the most unlikely people, that holiness is sometimes to be found in those whom religion damns, but whom God favours.
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