The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews
14 July 2013
The summer after my freshman year I worked for a non-profit called Alabama Rural Ministry. As are many summer camp type job experiences, it was one of the best, worst, and most transformative experiences of my college years. ARM is a non-profit in Alabama about mission camps and plugging youth and anyone else who desires into a meaningful way to serve. There are two sites that run, and one of them is only in the summer. ARM offers day camp for children in the communities it serves and home repair for people whose homes are in need of repair.
Youth groups, adult groups, whoever, come in and assist something of a skeleton staff each week during the summer. Some youth go to the day camp, others go to a construction site. The summer I served, our theme was “Love: the Unspoken Message.” We used the Prayer Attributed to St. Francis as a focusing prayer, and we used the story of the Good Samaritan as our focus text. St. Francis is said to have said, “Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use word.”
Hearing this text, doing the same activities around it each week, doing the same foot washing, and hearing some awful examples of how we might be neighbors desensitized me to this text. It’s one that is read often enough and you’ve probably heard it myriad times. You may have heard the message boiled down to what seems self-explanatory from just the text, Juses’ admonition to “Go and do likewise.” Go do like the Samaritan did, go help your neighbors.
You may have heard it spun a variety of ways like why the priest needed to not touch the man because he would have become ritually unclean and wouldn’t have been able to serve the greater good. You may have been left with the question “How do you not help your neighbors? Who are those people you avoid when really you should be doing this great, generous kindness to?”
Now, that is certainly a valid tack to take on this text. It’s certainly worth pointing out that Jesus is baiting the elder of the law by having a Levite and a priest pass the man by, and then one of those awful Samaritans, someone outside of Judaism who surely couldn’t do anything right, help the man out. The elder of the law can’t even bring himself to say that the Samaritan was the man’s neighbor. The elder of the law can probably barely bring himself to say, “the one who had mercy on him.”
If you’ll look in your inserts, let’s look at the question and answer exchange a little more closely. The elder asks how to get into heaven, Jesus gives him an answer, and the man says he’s done that. Then the man says, “But who is my neighbor?”
In typical Jesus form, he doesn’t actually answer the question, he tells a story. Let’s pay attention to the end, though. Jesus says, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The elder of the law then replied, “The one who showed him mercy.” So if we take all of that story and back and forth it reduces to “Who is my neighbor?” with the answer not being “The person in need I help,” but “the person who helps me when I am in need.”
Do you see that? The man asks who his neighbor is. Jesus asks who the neighbor was. The lawyer answers the one who showed mercy. So instead of “We should all be helping our neighbors and not avoiding the panhandlers on the street” — which is certainly true — this text invites us to ask who the people who are helpful to us when we’re beaten and broken down. It asks us to think about those people who are our neighbors not because we reach out a hand of privilege to help them, but because they are with us and care for us when we are in need.
Taylor Burton-Edwards breaks down how clearly the Samaritan man was the beaten man’s neighbor by highlighting nine distinctive actions of the Samaritan man:
1. He came near.
2. He was moved with compassion.
3. He went to him.
4. He bandaged the wounds.
5. He poured oil (a soothing agent) and wine (antiseptic) on the wounds.
6. He put him on his animal.
7. He brought him to an inn.
8. He took care of him at the inn. All of this was what we (and Robert Lupton, in the book noted above) might refer to as "triage." These were things this man could not do for himself in his condition. So the Samaritan did.
When he had to leave, he gave the innkeeper money to keep caring for him, promising to pay more if needed when he returned. This is a bit of triage, but also something more. The Samaritan wasn’t promising to come back right away and keep fixing everything for the man. Instead, he was making it possible for this man to have some kind of community, and supporting the basic support networks of that community, to get him back on his feet again.
Burton-Edwards points out that this is not ministry to, but ministry with. This is the bureaucracy of the incarnation — God coming to us and being in ministry with us in the person of Jesus. In this story on being neighborly, Jesus is inviting us to let ourselves be vulnerable to others’ help and to others’ hurt. On the cross Jesus modeled for us the ultimate vulnerability — not reacting to those crucifying him, but this was a culmination of his ministry of vulnerability where he shared his life with others. He didn’t have to give anyone enough information for them to betray him, but he did anyway.
To follow that example, to be in ministry with people, we have to get to know them, like Jesus the God-man living with humanity. Vulnerability — like Jesus voluntarily showed on the Cross or like the beaten man had forced on him — is not something that is valued in our culture today. Instead fear and self-preservation are often motivating factors.
We learned last night, as Andrew Cohen at TheAtlantic said, “you can go looking for trouble in Florida, with a gun and a great deal of racial bias, and you can find that trouble, and you can act upon that trouble in a way that leaves a young man dead, and none of it guarantees that you will be convicted of a crime.”
We don’t have to go to Florida to see that white privilege is a real thing. Friday night saw the premier of Fruitvale Station here in Oakland and around the Bay Area, a reminder that two white police officers held a young black man down and shot him at point blank range. This event from my senior year of college was much closer to home for those of you who lived here then and live here now.
Nor do we need to look only at Florida to see how vulnerability and interacting with one another work with and against one another — while not convicted of murder, that police officer was convicted of something. We may see through a glass dimly, but the Kingdom of God has come near
We see in the Cross, and in today’s gospel text, that it doesn’t come near in violence, self-preservation, or self-defense. It doesn’t come near in turf wars, in drive-bys, or pre-planned gun fights. And it certainly doesn’t draw near in fear or retaliation — fear of the Samaritan for not being good enough, so bad as to not be named; fear of the black boy who’d bought a pack of Skittles, or violent retaliation against a broken justice system that privileges people from charges to trials to verdicts to sentencing.
No, beloved, the Kingdom of God has drawn near in people who make themselves vulnerable to be in ministry with those around them, to assess needs from a built relationship and meet them as they are able, not because they are better than.
The Kingdom of God draws near as you help the Food Co-op, in helping the work of Senior Resources at St. Paul’s. Two instances where not only do people — you — show mercy to vulnerable, marginalized people, but those serving show vulnerability by letting themselves know the margins, by leaving their places of comfort to places of disease and discomfort. The Kingdom of God draws near when you stand at sites of shootings in this city and say that they are not okay — and when you work with perpetrators and victims for peace with justice.
The man in today’s gospel text was beaten to that place, and the one who helped him was dismissed because of his race. Jesus admonishes the elder of the law to go and do likewise, but only after he tells him that his neighbor is the one who opened himself to vulnerability. To whom are you being a neighbor in that way?