2nd Sunday after Epiphany
Elizabeth M. Deibert
January 20, 2013
Martin Luther King, Jr. often referred to the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). While Dr. King’s interpretation of the parable evolved over time, he maintained a consistent focus on the way the parable encourages us to cultivate compassion to for one another.
In 1964, in a sermon entitled, “Who is My Neighbor?” preached at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, King discerned a philosophy or motivating principle expressed in the actions of three sets of the parable’s characters – the robbers, the religious professionals, and the merciful stranger. He said, "Everyone within the sound of my voice today lives by one of these three philosophies." I believe the same is still true today. Let us pray silently for God’s Spirit to illumine us as we hear this familiar parable…..
25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.
"Teacher," he said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
26 He said to him, "What is written in the law? What do you read there?"
27 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 neighbor as yourself."
28 And he said to him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live."
29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"
30 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.
31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him,
he passed by on the other side.
32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him,
passed by on the other side.
33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him;
and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.
34 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.
35 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.'
36 Which of these three, do you think,
was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?"
37 He said, "The one who showed him mercy."
Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."
I was in my car searching for a parking place at Publix this week when a woman tripped over her own flip flops, and landed on the pavement. It was hard to tell whether she had sprained her ankle, skinned her knees, or broken a wrist at first. Several of us came running. It was easy to help. But we were not Good Samaritans, because Good Samaritans have to risk more than we did. When we were traveling to N. Carolina over the Christmas holidays, we came to an intersection near Ocala, where we take Hwy 301, and there are usually people there asking for money. I often hand a dollar to folks like that. You may believe you are contributing to a system of workers or to a problem of substance abuse. But the point is, my helping with a dollar or a granola bar in that circumstance is not really being a Good Samaritan either. Giving a little something is no real sacrifice. No, we have domesticated the story too much when we make those comparisons.
Let’s consider MLK’s interpretation. After all, by championing a peaceful but demanding approach to civil rights for African Americans, he made many sacrifices and finally the ultimate one – his life. King looks at the parable from the perspective of three different character groups.
First, the robbers.
Predatory behavior has bedeviled human history, and King gave a number of examples ancient and modern: slavery, colonialism, street crime, even preachers’ playing on people's religious desires in order to line their pockets. King’s fury was evident as he recited again and again the robber’s credo: "What is thine is MINE! And if you don’t give it to me, I’ll take it from you."
Second, the religious authorities.
The priest and the Levite evoke some sympathy. Not only does King understand something about religious professionals, they seem to have very ordinary motivations. The Jericho road through the Judean wilderness was known for its dangers. Are the robbers still near? Is this a trap? If they touch the man, whether he is dead or alive, they will become unclean and thus unfit for their duties at the end of their journey.
And if the man is dead already, what sense is there in stopping? All this is very understandable and makes great sense. "And so the first question that the priest asked, the first question that the Levite asked was, "If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?" (King, April 3, 1968).
We know this philosophy, this way of living. Yet King indicts this attitude of cautious self-preservation, using Biblical stories, including his favorite parable of the rich man and Lazarus. (King inherited much of his thinking on this parable from the great preacher Vernon Johns, his predecessor at Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.) It was not his wealth which sent the rich man to hell, but his failure to see the plight of his neighbor Lazarus, whom he passed by every day.
Whether unconscious or studied, indifference to the needs of our neighbors fixes a great gulf between us and our neighbor, and thus between us and God. King expressed this as the working out of a familiar idea: “What is mine is mine, and what is thine is thine.” This country was founded on the good principles of individual rights, but sometimes individualism can be taken too far.
The Peace Movie Night had many of us weeping at the end of a poignant film about the life of an Hispanic immigrant and his 14 year old son, born in the USA. The power of the film was in cultivating compassion for the struggle of this good-hearted, hard-working, well-intentioned man who was just trying to give his boy a better life. It is easy for those of who are middle class citizens of the USA to forget how hard it is for some of our neighbors, the ones who do the landscaping work in our neighborhoods and who pick our fruit and vegetables and work in our poultry plants, it is easy to forget how hard their lives can be. That tendency to think that I get mine and you get yours is sometimes lacking in compassion for those who never had a good starting place in life, but get stuck playing catch up and the American Dream seems always beyond their reach.
Finally, we consider the character of the unlikely good neighbor. You know the lawyer wanted Jesus to define who is the neighbor whom I must love as I love myself. But Jesus turned that question on its head by defining what it means to be a good neighbor. He does so using the example of a generous, merciful act done by one not ordinarily trusted, one seen as unclean, unworthy.
Of course, the parable makes clear that the Samaritan, the one who does not pass by, the one who risks himself and gives of himself, is the true neighbor of the wounded traveler. King, noting that the merciful stranger was of a different race, or at least was of a less respectable, less trusted ethnic group than the wounded traveler, also notes that he lives by a different principle from that of the robber or the passersby. This Samaritan, this good neighbor has somehow come to know that "What is mine is thine." The Samaritan understands that "all humanity is tied together." Neither predators nor passersby can be safe in a world where misery, famine, plague, and hatred are the scourge of millions. These ills are contagious, you know...
"[The one] who lives by this philosophy lives in the kingdom [of heaven] NOW!", not in some distant day to come. This is the witness of Jesus, "who said in his own life 'what is mine is thine, I’ll give it to you, you don’t have to beg me for it.'
This is why the cross is more than some meaningless drama taking place on the stage of history. In a real sense, it is a telescope through which we look out into the long vista of eternity and see the love of God breaking forth in the night.... It is God saying 'I will reach out and bridge the gulf that separates me from you.'"
For King, the Samaritan neighbor has flipped the implicit question asked by the passersby (what will happen to me if I help?) and acts on the question "what will happen to the wounded stranger if I don’t help?" It is this, and his effective action to render aid, take the wounded traveler to safety, and subsidize his treatment that makes the Samaritan a good neighbor.
But there is one more point that King makes about this parable that is worth our time. We might call it the “Good Neighbor” philosophy, or a God’s eye view.
King said of his trip to the Holy Lands, "I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. And as soon as we got on that road I said to my wife, 'I can see why Jesus used this as the setting for his parable.' It's a winding, meandering road. It's really conducive for ambushing. [The road descends nearly 3000 feet in elevation over only 20 miles between Jerusalem and Jericho.] That's a dangerous road. In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the 'Bloody Pass'" (King, April 3, 1968). King understood dangerous roads, like the one from Selma to Montgomery, like all the paths to economic health, civil rights, and justice for those who are on the margins of society. And his Christian faith led him to challenge the social relationships and assumptions about social structure which separated people from each other.
"A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring" (King, April 4, 1967).
There are many ways to improve the Jericho Road. One is to send Good Samaritans down it to rescue those in trouble. Another might be better policing to protect travelers. Another might fund a public works project to straighten out some of the most dangerous spots. And still another might be the transformation of society such that fewer people are tempted to become robbers. But it all begins by having God change our minds about who is valuable in this world.
The calling to be a good neighbor can mean a personal and collective effort at transforming a society such that compassion is cultivated in all people for all people -- the people who are different from you, the people who scare you, the people who look down on you, the people who challenge your way of thinking. At a church named Peace, I hope we will always make an extra effort in a polarized culture to creatively cultivate compassion which crosses over the chasms of our differences so that we may truly care for others by suffering with them. Thank you for all your acts of compassion toward the Deibert family in the last two weeks. We are grateful to have such good neighbors, people who share with us the love of Christ.
Let us now pray as we sing the folk song from Ghana, a country on the east coast of Africa, not far from Mali and Algeria, where prayers for peace are needed. Jesu, Jesu, Fill us with your love, show us how to serve the neighbors we have from you.
All the references to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s perspective on this parable are borrowed from Paul Bellan-Boyer at http://citycalledheaven.org/2010/07/martin-luther-king-and-good-samaritan.html