Now Do It
Jul 14, 2019
The story I’m about to tell you probably is being repeated frequently today in Northeast Ohio ELCA congregations. That’s because today’s Gospel lesson – the familiar story of the Good Samaritan – was the theme of the Northeastern Ohio Synod Assembly and Pastor Amy Reumann, Director of Advocacy Ministries for the ELCA, preached on it in worship.
She began by telling about her grandfather who was a Lutheran pastor and how, on two different occasions, she encountered someone who had been a member of his congregation and claimed to be able to repeat a sermon he had given word for word, even years later. While she believed her grandfather was a convincing preacher, it seemed that this claim of remembering every word of a sermon he gave was most unlikely. That is, until the message was shared with her.
The text on the Sunday in question was the story of the Good Samaritan, which we just read. After ending the reading with, “The Gospel of the Lord,” her grandfather slowly perused the congregation, paused, and then said something very close to this: “I think we all know what this means. Now, do it.” He then sat down. Obviously, people remembered that sermon.
I will confess to you that having preached on this story many times, I was sorely tempted to follow suit. And, I might have done so except that simply saying, “Do it,” leaves out a vital aspect of the story that bears repeated repeating.
This story is called, “the Good Samaritan”, and yet the word “good” is never used about the man in the story. In fact, in Jesus’ time, from a Jewish point-of-view (who were his listeners), there was no such thing as a good Samaritan. This comes up a number of times in the New Testament. There was bitter enmity between Jews and Samaritans; they practiced their faith in separate temples, read different versions of the Torah, and avoided social contact with one another whenever possible. We hear a lot about divisiveness today, but this is the real deal. So, Jesus’ choice to make the Samaritan the hero of the story is shocking to first century listeners. The Samaritan was, after all, the “other.”
Keep that in mind as we jump to the end of the story. After Jesus described how the Samaritan acknowledged the injured, half-dead man’s, felt pity, showed compassion, caring for him with his own hands, and then went the extra mile by providing for his care, using his own money, Jesus asks a question. He doesn’t ask who was treated as a neighbor, as we might expect since the lawyer’s original question was, “Who is my neighbor?” (Of course, since he was intent on justifying himself, he might have really been asking, “Who is not my neighbor? Just who do I have to love; where can I draw the line?”)
Knowing the man’s intention, Jesus switches the focus from the recipient to the giver and asks who was a neighbor? Who acted as a neighbor? The focus is not on who receives help (does he or she deserve it) but on the helper. Not wanting to even say the word Samaritan, the lawyer acknowledges that it was the one who showed mercy. In other words, the neighbor was the one who made the choice to come near, to decrease the distance between himself and the one who needed help.
It’s no small thing that the one who chose to do so was unexpected (a Samaritan?), which implies that anyone might be good and do good, regardless of political, racial, cultural or economic identities. Quoting Commentator Debie Thomas, “Jesus was calling them to put aside the history they knew, and the prejudices they nursed. He was asking them to leave room for divine and world altering surprises. (1)
A neighbor is someone who is experiencing pain, struggles, challenges and sorrow; someone who clearly has needs; someone who might even resist your assistance. And we are neighbors when we draw near to that person, when we decide to help meet a need, when we insist on assisting even the one who resists.
We live in a world with a lot of labels, good/bad; right/wrong; deserving/undeserving; wise/foolish, and we often respond to people based on those labels. How often have we heard justification for ill-treatment of another human being in statements like, “They chose it,” or “He deserves it,” or “She knew better,” or “That’s just the way it is,” or “It’s beyond me.” Like the questioner in the story, we want to justify the lack of compassion.
It seems to me that Jesus simplifies matters, empowering us to take these four steps and eliminating the need for excuses. First, Jesus says, strive to love God with your whole being and make that love your guiding principle. (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.) Second, ask yourself, “If I was that person in the ditch, or the detention center or the homeless shelter or the courtroom or the classroom or in the hospital, how would I hope to be treated? (You shall love your neighbor as yourself.) Third, remember that it’s not about who – anyone can need a neighbor or be a neighbor (even a Samaritan) – it’s about how to respond. And, finally, be compassionate; show mercy. Be a neighbor. Go and do, Jesus says.
So…I’ll join Jesus and Pastor Reumann’s grandfather in a message that is brief, but profound. “I think we know what this means. Now do it.” AMEN
(1) “Go and Do Likewise” by Debie Thomas, July 10, 2016, Journey with Jesus, www.journeywithjesus.org