We’re traveling through “a parable universe” this Lenten season. And I invoke the memorable Mr. Rogers’ song in my sermon title today – “Won’t you be my neighbor?” – because I think it’s important we not overly complicate a parable from Jesus that is, at its heart, profoundly simple. Even little ones can understand one of the most important rules in life is simple kindness. A young child hearing this Bible story in Sunday School can grasp its biggest takeaway lesson without too much trouble: Be good to others. Show compassion. Help those who need help.
Of course, the unexpected hero is an interesting twist. The Samaritan assumed a human connection with the unfortunate man lying in the ditch, no matter that it was across social boundaries and cultural differences. No matter that the person he helped, under other circumstances, might not have wanted him anywhere near. He assumed it was important to act kindly, and worth the risk to do so.
Speaking of assumptions, I remember one time we were doing one of those food drives down at the QFC grocery store at the bottom of the hill, and some of our Magnolia neighbors had a marvelous response when we thanked them for their generous donations: “Of course!” they said. “Of course.” The assumption being that simple acts of kindness like this are – of course! – what we’d all want to do.
But I suspect it’s not the Samaritan’s “of course” to the need he finds before him, or his instant identification of the man in the ditch as his neighbor, or even his being an unexpected source of great kindness, that we adults struggle with each time we encounter this story. The point is simple enough. It’s the implementation of Jesus’ lesson that gets a little tricky.
Bruce van Blair, in his commentary on the gospel of Luke, presents the problem this way:
"Who is my neighbor? I have been listening to the church’s answer to this question my whole life, and I have yet to make any sense out of its answer. The church just keeps saying, “Everybody – all the time.” [But] there are too many people, too many needs. No one individual can respond to it all. So we are forever guilty, sad, remorseful that we have not done more. And even if we give everything, it relieves none of this guilt or sadness because we [still] have not healed the world’s need."
To bring his point home further, van Blair retells the story of the Samaritan this way:
"He was going down the road when he came upon a poor man, bloody and beaten, off by the side. Having compassion, he gathered him up and started carrying him down the road. A quarter of a mile later he came upon another man, also beaten and left for dead. So he laid down the first man and picked up the second, and staggered on for several hundred yards. Then he returned and picked up the first man and carried him to where he had put down the other. Looking on down the road he could now see many beaten forms of unfortunate travelers…So he staggered back and forth, carrying now one, now another, until he himself became utterly exhausted.... His water was gone, his food used up, his money already distributed among the beaten forms lying about. And now he himself lay helpless, hoping some person would come down the road with resolution enough to save at least one of them."
The sheer number of people needing help is unquestionably overwhelming. It actually makes the priest and the Levite’s choices a bit more understandable, doesn’t it? When we put ourselves on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, and consider all of the dangers and liabilities and financial implications and the fact that if we stopped for every bleedin’ guy in the road, we’d never get anywhere, and, and, and…
Hold on. Take a deep breath.
Remember our sermon a few weeks ago about finding our particular piece of the broader task of repairing the world?
Bring back that simplest of lessons from today’s text: kindness.
And perhaps cue the Mr. Rogers song again.
As van Blair puts it, “we can get bound up in the technicalities until everything is hopeless. Or we can take whatever opportunities we find to do whatever good we are capable of… The story is simple: Go find somebody to care about... Then do it!”
Over and over in the gospels we find Jesus reminding people that saying the right words, knowing the right answers, believing the right beliefs isn’t all there is to it. Jesus doesn’t just invite us to think good thoughts. He asks us to do good deeds. He doesn’t just ask us to believe in him. He asks us to follow him.
To be fair, he asks a lot. You don’t have to read far in the gospels to learn the bar is actually set quite high, for how disciples of Jesus should behave. But God knows we’re not perfect. We’re called to be faithful in and through our weaknesses.
And again, while faithful discipleship in every area of our lives is a tough calling, maybe some things really are as simple as they sound. Like today’s invitation, through this parable in Luke 10, simply to show kindness and compassion, to someone.
Notice, the Samaritan didn't set off from Jerusalem to Jericho looking for someone who'd been robbed and beaten and needed help, though that would have been an admirable thing too, and many good people have gone out on just those kinds of quests. Here in this particular story, our hero simply helped a guy in need, right in front of him. As Mother Theresa liked to say: “Help one person at a time, and always start with the person nearest you.”
In some cases, the person nearest us could quite literally be a beaten and broken person on the side of the road. So it’s certainly worth considering what sort of help we can offer in those situations. If we don’t feel comfortable giving out cash, can we give food or water? A blanket? A gift card to somewhere they can sit with a hot cup of coffee? Help with some phone calls to find shelter for the night?
And in some cases, the person nearest us needing help could look entirely different. Could be well dressed and perfectly coiffed and driving a nice car, but hiding the fact …that she’s just lost her job… or that he’s treated cruelly at home … or that her child is terribly sick and she is hoping against hope that the doctors are wrong. Or the person next to us could be the waitress everyone else has been dumping on all evening, the custodian at work whose name no one has bothered to learn, or the bag boy at the supermarket who’s being bullied at school.
In some cases, it might be someone we wouldn’t normally encounter, whether because of race or religion or socioeconomic status. And in the “parable universe” into which we’ve been invited by today’s text, remember - those strangers could also be the ones helping us out of a bad situation.
I mentioned last week that part of the beauty of parables is that a story can be about several things all at once?
How does the story of the Good Samaritan impact us, not only when we imagine ourselves as the pious folks leaving the guy in the ditch (already deeply convicting!)… or when we picture ourselves as the Samaritan (are we brave enough to do what he did?) … but when we take a third pass through the story, and picture ourselves as the ones lying beaten by the side the road? What would it feel like to receive grace upon grace, to be the beneficiary of the most incredibly kind and compassionate treatment from someone who couldn’t be more different from us? And who do you picture in your mind’s eye as that Samaritan coming to your rescue? Is it someone from the other side of the tracks, income-wise? Is it someone from another racial group, another religion, another country? Is it someone whose bumper stickers make it blindingly clear that you disagree passionately about everything under the sun? What would it feel like for that person suddenly to be neighbor to you, and lift you out of that ditch, and give you a ride to the hospital, and wait with you in the ER while you’re bandaged up, and then find you a safe place to spend the night, and pay for it, and keep checking in to be sure you’re ok? What would it feel like to receive that much kindness from a stranger?
Finally, since we’re considering whether a broad range of lessons could be contained in a single parable… I’ve always heard the parable of the Good Samaritan as a story about individuals – an individual who is in need, an individual who steps up to help. But a fellow pastor shared recently that he was deeply convicted by a friend of his who asked: "Shouldn't we do something about the state of the road between Jerusalem and Jericho, if folks traveling there are being robbed and beaten and left to die? In addition to helping the individual neighbor, shouldn't we also be concerned about repairing the road?" He was speaking metaphorically, of course. It wasn’t potholes that had him concerned. It was systemic injustice, the kinds of economic and political and social realities that leave some people especially vulnerable as they make their way along life’s journey.
I wonder if Jesus enjoyed speaking in parables because each story allows us to ask a whole range of questions like these.
And I wonder how you and I most need to hear the story of the Good Samaritan today.
We’ve said that our Lenten assignment this year is to watch for signs of God’s kingdom, to keep on the lookout for little parables or lessons from God as we go about our everyday lives. In the Lenten devotional some of us have been reading together, Walter Brueggemann reminds us that Lent should be a “departure from … anxious anti-neighborliness” and a movement toward “fearless neighborliness.”
I wonder whether you or I might find ourselves stumbling across a Good Samaritan parable this week. I wonder, too, where we ourselves might be called to practice a fearless neighborliness that would make both Mr. Rogers, and Jesus himself, enormously pleased?
 Bruce van Blair, The Believer’s Road: A Journey Through Luke, p. 113.
 Van Blair, p. 114.
 A Way Other Than Our Own: Devotions for Lent, p. 5