What do we do with stories that is so well known that it only has one meaning?
First off, the story of Martha and Mary, the that has far too often been used to shame women for doing too much, or taking charge, or being hospitable. Let’s just get past all that and decide that maybe Jesus was trying to calm Martha down from a panic attack and get her to stop judging her sister. Maybe it was about the judgement and anger of Martha and not about the work or the learning. There is a time for work and there is a time for learning and listening. Be present in the moment, whatever you’re doing. We’ll come back to that…. but that’s not our focus.
See, we know the story of The Good Samaritan. it is part of our legal lives, it’s a metaphor that we use in our lives. we use it to describe good people who do nice things.
The thing about parables and the bible, they are rarely as simple as we want them to be. Or maybe, they are more like ogres or onions, filled with layers.
We are on a journey this lent, we’re traveling with Jesus who has turned his face toward Jerusalem. So, let’s start with the road.
The road between Jerusalem and Jericho winds its way around mountains, making it seem a bit precarious. But it was only made worse by those thieves and bandits waiting for those who pass through.
The Temple in Jerusalem was build on a high place, so someone is always going up to Jerusalem or down from Jerusalem, no matter where they are coming from or where they are going. Jericho was an ancient city even in Jesus’ time, but it had been settled at this time had been settled by the Priests, the elite, they were wealthy, Jericho was their suitcase community.
The way Jesus was telling this story: It was not uncommon for folks to tell a story with three people, the first 2 failing and the third succeeding. And those listening would have known who the three people. A Priest, a Levite, an Israelite; like Luke, Leia, and Hans; or Ron, Harry, and Herminie; or Larry, Curly, and Osama Bin Laden. Hearing Jesus make the third person the Samaritan was like that. The listener KNEW what was coming next and yet, Jesus threw the most unexpected and perceived evil wrench in it.
And that catches you up on the story, that settles you into the place those who were first listening would know. So, with all that information, with all that background, we journey on.
My guess is, like how I would respond when hearing this story, that when you hear about a priest and Levite really about people of power, people in authority, people who should know better than abandoning people. They were wealthy enough to be riding home, not necessarily walking. The priest was heading down from Jerusalem, Jerusalem, heading home, not worried about being ritually clean, and not sure who the man, naked, unconscious, beat on the side of the road, not knowing how that man was, not knowing if he was part of their tribe, but also, knowing the call of the law and the prophets to care for those in need. So the question is… why didn’t they stop?
And so, we could think about the priest and the Levite as being powerful and neglectful and just evil, but, one of the things that we can do is participate in intentional imagination. There’s an Ignatian Contemplation practice, inviting the person reading scripture to place themselves as a character, and consider your senses, thoughts, actions, feelings, and wants as each character. Can you put yourself in the place of the priest or the Levite? the man on the road or the Samaritan? Even the thieves and bandits? What has brought you there? What do you see, smell, feel? What do you hope for? What made you do what you did?
I listen to a lot more true crime than one ought to, and there is this thing that happened years ago, someone was hitchhiking and the driver hurt the hitchhiker, or the hitchhiker hurt the driver, it doesn’t really matter because it might have happened once, ever, or it happened 100 times every day, we know that this is true, and we know that it’s scary out there, and so, no one will pick up anyone again. You never know what people will be like because we heard that story that one time…
Some of you stop when there is a person in a car in need on the side of the road, but I know why I don’t.
In one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s last sermons, given at Riverside Church and titled Beyond Vietnam was one of his most controversial and he preached about this very story. He suggested that the reason the priest and the Levite didn’t stop wasn’t because of busy-ness, cleanliness, disgust, but because of fear. They saw the man on the side of the road and asked the most reasonable question: what will happen to me if I stop?
Maybe, the priest and the Levite thought that the bandits and the thieves were still there, hiding around the next corner, maybe they thought that they would come back later with more people, safety first. Or, they would talk to the Romans about increasing the guards on that particular road, making it safer.
I heard this telling of the Good Samaritan: someone lies on the side of the road, beaten, robbed, left for dead. A priest walks by and offers last rites. A pastor sees and goes to their church to teach a bible study on the problems of poverty, the musician or late night host plans a concert fundraiser, the left wing activist marches for better policy and the right wing activist advocates for lower taxes to trickling down. and the injured person on the side of the road parishes.
Dr King goes on to suggest that the Samaritan asked a different question. The Samaritan on the other hand, despite everything we’d expect from someone who is like “him” asked the question: what will happen to him if I don’t stop? It’s not a question that comes without risk. It came with clear risks to the Samaritan, he could see in the body of the man he picked up what the risk to his life would be because there were bandits and thieves on that road. And, as an outsider in a Jewish city, he could risk a lynching like response from the powerful in Jericho, maybe they would accuse him of hurting the man.
When Dr. King preached, there were bandits and thieves, he was speaking up for the poor, and against war, and it came at a risk. It cost him his life. That’s rarely the cost we have to pay. He knew what the risks were, he knew the kinds of people waiting at the next bend in the road, he did not left fear stop him. He asked the question, if I don’t stop and advocate for, work for the poor, what will happen to them. Dr King would go on to say that there’s a Jericho road in every city of our country, which i really think is true, but there some even in our smaller rural towns. People who have been placed on the edges of society, forgotten, neglected, abused. There are those who have been driven from their homes, from schools, from being our neighbors because they were so violated, be it for the color of their skin, their religion, who they love or the gender they express. These aren’t the scary Jericho Roads of the city, sometimes these are the emotional ones, of “nice” people, being funny or protecting their children.
What we do have in Jesus’ story of the Samaritan is a call to give, a call to hospitality, a call to generosity in the face of fear, with no expectations, just because our call is to love.
We can see this in the saving of sea turtles off the coast of Texas so they don’t die in the cold. The turtles can’t give anything in return, the water is cold even for the people in kayaks trying to get them out of the gulf, there were no guarantees.
Twice a week, the national office of the UCC has been offering webinars for whomever. A couple of weeks ago they had an conversation with Rev Adam Erikson of Clackamas United Church of Christ in Clackamus, OR, which, is part of greater Portland, is also just a small town who’s politics are split pretty much in half. And they’ve taken to their marquee, asking the question, who are we walking past silently because of fear? What are we afraid of? What will happen to them if we don’t stop? So they made their front sign say the words of welcome and advocacy for those who might be feeling alone, wounded, beat up, abandoned on the side and margins of society. Yes there have been some negative responses, but the people that have found a place, a community, a welcome, that is who we serve. And when we look for where Jesus that is where we’ll find him, on the edges, on the sides, in the ditches and loving them to safety, showing us how it can be done.
There is a time for learning, for sitting at the feet of Jesus like Mary did. It’s what we do Sunday mornings and Wednesday Nights and Tuesday mornings when we have Bible study and when we gather for conversations on current events, we learn from each other and from God. It’s what we do when we learn not just about our neighbors but from them. But it wasn’t that Mary was doing the only thing she could, it was that she was doing what she needed to do in that moment. She participated in the movement of the spirit that led to settle in and learn, but the call of Jesus isn’t just learning, it’s being a neighbor, it’s seeing the person on the edge, and risking dirty looks, nasty letters, snide words, name calling, risk a bit of the edge of the road, a bit of the ditch, so that they find safety, community, and home. Are we willing to risk a little, so that others might gain abundant living? There is a time to ask, what will happen to them if we do nothing? And then stopping, taking a risk, and in the face of whatever fear you have, guiding them safely from the side of the road, to the heart of our community.
So stop for a moment, search your heart, your community, your conversations with God, who stands at the edges, who lies in the ditch of this Jericho road? How can we love our neighbors today?