“When I’m Half-Dead”
A sermon delivered to Church for the Highlands,
July 14, 2019
This hasn’t been the best summer for convertibles or for Jeep lovers like me who like to ride with the top down. With rainstorms popping up unpredictably most every day so far, it’s too difficult to keep from getting drenched. As much as I would love to show off my Jeep tricks, like plugs in the floor to let the water out, I’d rather stay dry. There’s also the challenge of getting the hard top off by myself. It’s heavy. Too heavy for me to remove myself, although I’ve tried. When Jack is at home, I can get him to help. But he’s gone this summer and Jinny just doesn’t seem to see the importance of removing a perfectly good top from a vehicle. I don’t like asking anyone for help and try not to ask my neighbors for anything. I don’t want them to run when they see me coming. But the other day was one of those perfect Jeep days, one made for Jeeps. If you’re a Jeep owner, you know what I’m talking about. Blue sky and cool breeze in the morning which you know will lead into a starry night and sounds of cicadas, all right there with you as you drive. It’s the Jeep Life, one where you truly feel alive. I couldn’t wait to get out in it but soon realized that there wasn’t any way for me to by myself. I couldn’t really live that life without someone to help me. Without a neighbor.
The story Jesus tells in our Gospel text this morning comes to that conclusion; that no one can truly live without their neighbor. That’s what the lawyer who was asking Jesus questions needed to hear. He was proud of his religious accomplishments, doing his best to follow the law, loving God and loving neighbor. So he thought. Jesus would mess with his thinking, challenging his understanding of love for God as well as his definition of neighbor. The story Jesus tells him is the one we commonly refer to as the Good Samaritan. We know the story well, having heard it in church or school or in some cultural reference. We know it’s about a man who, unlike other passers-by, stops to help a man who has been beaten, robbed, and left to die in the street. He, a Samaritan, is the hero of the story. Our takeaway from this is that we are to be that man for people in need of help. And that’s a great lesson for us to hear.
But what if there’s more to it than that? Another take on this is one popularized by N.T. Wright, a New Testament scholar and former Bishop of Durham. He digs a little deeper into the story by placing it in the context within which Jesus was telling it and by focusing in on the need for how the half-dead man was helped by someone he would have never considered to be a neighbor. Jesus is speaking to a man who is in his own religion, one who is a specialist in the law of God for Israel. He is also telling the story surrounded by people who were living in captivity, feeling the weight of an existential threat of Rome. Jesus knew that there were some among them who wanted to overthrow Rome’s captivity with violence, just waiting for the right person to make it all happen. He also knew that some in the crowds that heard him teach were convinced that God was punishing them for their sins and impurity, especially that of the unclean and foreigners in their midst. Hence the indifference to and disdain for foreigners and the threat their impurity posed to their nation. With this kind of thinking and these kinds of thinkers in the crowd, Jesus sharpens the point of his story to be about the neighbor. That’s what the lawyer wants to hear from Jesus so that he could be justified in knowing that he has loved his neighbor. But Jesus ruins that by putting the Samaritan in the story as the hero, challenging the lawyer, and everyone else in Israel, to expand their view of who was a neighbor. The only good neighbor in the story is the Samaritan man who comes to the aid of his neighbor in need.
That’s our challenge this morning as we hear this familiar story. If we are ever truly live as God intended, we must expand our view of neighbor. G. K. Chesterton once quipped, “We make our friends; we make our enemies, but God makes our next door neighbor. … We have to love our neighbor because he is there.” How true that is. We are to see that we have neighbors beyond what we might think. Who are they? We must look around and see them — in other parts of our city, in other races, other socioeconomic groups, other sexual orientations, other nations, and in other religions. In all these places and beyond, we must see the many neighbors we have.
But we must also see the need we have for our neighbors. The man in our story, half-dead in the street, was cared for by someone he wouldn’t have considered to be a neighbor. He was a Samaritan, not a Jew. And yet his survival depended on him. And doesn’t our survival depend on our neighbors, even those we may not yet know? Think of how vulnerable we are in this hostile world, where we can just as easily be robbed, beaten, and left for dead. Think about how scary our world is with health crises, trade wars, earthquakes, hurricanes, terrorism, and isolation just to name a few. If we ever needed our neighbors it is now.
Understanding our need for neighbors should lead us to treat them the way we wanted to be treated. Jesus wanted the lawyer — and Israel — to learn to treat their neighbors as they wanted to be treated; to be good neighbors. He told of a Samaritan man who acted with compassion, mercy, and sustained care, telling the lawyer to “go and do likewise.” We are to hear those words as well. Go and do likewise, acting on our compassion in the same way with real actions of mercy.
I came across a story about neighbors in the Middle East. In his book, Jesus, the Middle-Eastern Storyteller, Gary M. Burge, Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, shares a story told to him by a theology professor who once worked in Jerusalem. The professor spoke Arabic, so he had access to the Arab Christian community. Over the course of numerous conversations, he heard the same moving story of a modern-day Good Samaritan:
Not long ago in Jerusalem’s famed Hadassh Hospital, an Israeli soldier lay dying. He had contracted AIDS as a result of his gay lifestyle and was now in the last stages of the disease’s terrible course. His father was a famous Jerusalem rabbi, and both he and the rest of his family had disowned him. He was condemned to die in his shame. The nursing staff on his floor knew his story and carefully avoided his room. Everyone was simply waiting for his life to expire.
The soldier happened to be part of a regiment that patrolled the Occupied West Bank, and his unit was known for its ferocity and war-fighting skills. The Palestinians living in occupation hated these troops. They were merciless and could be cruel. Their green berets always gave them away.
One evening the soldier went into cardiac arrest. All the usual alarms went off, but the nursing staff did not respond. Even the doctors looked the other way. Yet on the floor another man was at work — a Palestinian Christian janitor — who knew this story as well and also knew the meaning of the emergency. Incredibly, he was a man whose village had been attacked by this soldier’s unit. When the Palestinian heard the alarm and witnessed the neglect, his heart was filled with compassion. He dropped his broom, entered the soldier’s room, and attempted to resuscitate the man by giving him cardiopulmonary resuscitation. The scene was remarkable: a poor Palestinian man, a victim of this soldier’s violence, now tried to save his enemy while those who should have been doing this stood on the sidelines. …
What we’ve heard from Jesus today in his story of the Samaritan won't let us be on the sidelines. We are to work to create and maintain a world where good neighborliness is the norm and where people don’t rob and don’t pass by those in need.