November 20, 2016 Luke 10: 25-37
On my second trip to the Holy Land, we took a two hour walk in the desert above the Wadi Kelt, where water once flowed and is now a trickle at best. It is near a road that once connected Jerusalem and Jericho through desolate, forbidding terrain.
In the 5th century 3,000 monks lived in the caves dotting the hillside, but in Jesus’ time you were traveling through “no mans land.” It was along this route that the good Samaritan rescued the injured man lying along the side of the road. Scholars debate whether this story is based in historical fact, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s the message that spoke to his listeners then, and speaks to us today. It comes from Luke 10: 25-37:
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ 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.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ 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. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.
But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 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. 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.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’
In order to understand the scriptures, you have to understand the culture of the people they were written for, and the land they referred to. One interpretation of this story (and there are many) comes from a book by Kenneth Bailey entitled “Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes.”
The lawyer, a specialist in religious law, knew the correct answer, but wanted some clarification: ‘And who is my neighbor?’ Jesus doesn’t tell him. Instead he tells a story.
Robbers have stripped and beaten this poor man, presumed to be a Jew and left him unconscious on the side of the road. “Then, as now, various ethnic communities in the Middle East are identified by their clothes, their language or their accent.... With these three ethnic class markers it was easy to distinguish ‘them from us.’”
Both a Priest and a Levite pass by the unconscious man - crossing to the other side of the road - and do nothing! Heartless, you might say. But that’s not the whole story. Bailey tells us the temple in Jerusalem was served by three classes of people: at the top were a hereditary guild of wealthy priests, members of a prestigious and elite class in Jewish society. Those listening to the story assumed that the priest would have been riding, not walking, and could have easily transported the man to help. Why didn’t he?
He had a special problem. The wounded man was unconscious and naked. The priest had no way of telling if he was a law abiding fellow Jew, who he would have been responsible to reach out and help, or an Egyptian, Greek, Syrian or Phoenician, in which case, the priest was not responsible under the law to do anything.
Even more important, the wounded man could have been dead. If so, the priest who approached him would become ceremonially defiled, and would need to return to Jerusalem and undergo a week-long process of ceremonial purification.
He would have been obliged to rend his robes, and in doing so would have violated laws against the destruction of valuable property. You see, if you understand the laws and customs of the time, the story is not as simple or heartless as it appears.
The Levites functioned in the temple as assistants to the priests. This one probably knew that a priest, possibly his boss, was ahead of him on the road. Since the priest had set a precedent, the Levite could pass by with an easy conscience. The Levite wouldn’t dare think he understood the law better than the priest.
The listeners of this story were most likely expecting the next person coming down the road, the hero of the story, to be a Jewish layman. But no, instead it’s a hated Samaritan who is moved with compassion. This twist in the story would have been shocking to Jesus’ listeners, especially the lawyer.
The Samaritan risks his life by transporting the wounded man to an inn within Jewish territory. There are no archeological remains to indicate that there was an inn in the midst of the wilderness between Jerusalem and Jericho, so he would have been taking him into town. A Samaritan wouldn’t be safe in a Jewish town, especially with a wounded Jew over the back of his riding animal.
What’s more, at that time, people could be sold into slavery if they could not pay their debts. The injured man had nothing. The Samaritan gave the inn keeper two denarii, which would have covered the bill for at least a week, or possibly two. He promised to come back and settle up later, risking his own life twice.
We don’t know how the story ends, but we do know the question Jesus put to the lawyer: ‘Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” Notice, he didn’t answer the lawyers question, “And who is my neighbor?” Instead he asked him, “who was a neighbor to the injured man?” And the lawyer, despite being a specialist in religious law, had to admit, “The one who showed him mercy.” Compassion trumps the law. The priest and the levite cannot discover their duty solely by examining their code books.
Using this story, Jesus attacks the religious and racial attitudes of his community. Your neighbor is anyone in need, regardless of language, religion or ethnicity. And you are ethically bound to meet those needs by being a neighbor. That is what it means to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. It’s the main tenant of all three Abrahamic traditions. It sounds so simple, but it’s proven over the centuries to be so difficult to put into practice.
The story of the Good Samaritan followed me around the Holy Land. Jesus was speaking to First Century Palestine, but it could just as easily be to those living there today. It needs to be heard by those on all sides of the conflict, and by those of us sitting in the comfort of this sanctuary.
It followed me to a wall that divides villages in half, separating relatives and friends, and farmers from their land.
If he were hear today, I think Jesus would be telling the story of the Good Samaritan, and asking the people of Israel and Palestine to take a good look at themselves and how they’re treating their neighbors. He would be asking the same of us in this country. How are we treating refugees fleeing terrorists in war torn countries? How are we treating those in the inner cities and rural America living below the poverty line, or on the streets?
How can you be a neighbor when a 30 foot wall separates you from one another, either in Israel/Palestine or here along the Southern border of the US?
One day in Bethlehem I was speaking to a young Palestinian Christian woman named Hibba. I asked if she associated with any Jewish people. She said no, that was impossible. They are not allowed to come into Bethlehem and she had to get a permit to travel into Israeli territory, and they are difficult to obtain. She explained how they are virtually prisoners in their own town, surrounded by a wall, settlements, and settlers only highways.
On the sign leading into the checkpoint between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, it reads: “Entrance to Palestine and authority territories. No passage for Israeli citizens.”
On a wall in Yad Vashim, the holocaust museum, are printed these words: “The Jews will be concentrated in a closed Ghetto...Guards will be posted...the streets will be closed with barriers and by other means.” This was an order to create a ghetto in Lodz during WW 11. This is what has happened across Israel and Palestine today - with walls, checkpoints and refugee camps.
The Samaritan risked his life to enter a Jewish town. The week before I arrived in Israel, Palestinian refugees risked their lives crossing the border from Syria into a Druze village we visited in the Golan Heights. Twelve of them paid the ultimate price. They died for crossing a border. Hundreds of Mexicans have died crossing the border into the Arizonan desert, in search of a better life.
A young man in the Israeli army we met on my first visit was stationed outside of Gaza. He was told if any Palestinians crossed the red line, shoot them. We asked if anyone had come across. He said yes. We asked what he did. He told them to go back.
What would Jesus have to say?
Both sides are wounded and both are guilty of wounding the other, and neither appear to want to give up their martyr syndrome. Another wall in Yad Vashim contains the words of a holocaust survivor: “Gradually we rejoined the cycle of life, but we never recovered.”
A young Israeli woman who works for three human rights organizations took us on a house demolition tour. She chose to go to prison instead of serving in the army. It’s mandatory there when you graduated from high school. Her grandmother told her if all the young people acted like her there would be the holocaust all over again. Both sides have to get past their pain, their fears, and their past in order to live together and move forward.
Our guide had been raised in a settlement by Zionist parents and we asked her what had changed her. She said, befriending a Palestinian woman her age, who told her what happened to her father while in an Israeli prison.
There are times when laws have to be broken. There are times when you have to put your well being on the line to do what you know in your heart is the right thing to do. The Samaritan knew that. There are times when you have to lift your voice, like Jesus, and speak out, even when it’s not the politically correct thing to do - even when people don’t want to hear it.
The priest and the Levite saw the man lying on the side of the road, not as a child of God. They saw him as a threat to their well being, to their way of life and livelihood. I see that happening in this land we call Holy today. I see it happening here in the U.S., where it has risen to the surface, rearing its ugly head during this election cycle.
I want you to think about this: Who is that wounded person, or persons, here in the US today? Who is it that passes them by, crossing to the other side, pretending they don’t exist? Who stops to help? Who is standing up for the helpless? Who are you in this story?
What can stop this vicious cycle of pain and retribution we witness in so many parts of the world? I wish I had the answers. People ask me, “Where do you see hope?” Walking in that country, you are constantly looking for signs. This was one of them: “We know hope. Rejoice Palestine. We are all God’s children.”
I see it in the young people, like the Jewish and Palestinian and American participants in Hands of Peace and Kids for Peace, teenagers who travel to the U.S. each summer from the Holy Land, to learn about each other, and then return home, transformed.
I see it in the work of people like Rabbi Ron Kronish and Issa Jabber, the mayor of Abu Gosh, a small Palestinian village near Jerusalem, who for years have been promoting inter-religious dialogue between Palestinians and Jews in the Holy Land as a form of peace building. They are helping to build bridges between two peoples, instead of walls.
One thing I do know, the walls have to come down, between towns and between individuals. There is no other way to be a neighbor. It’s amazing how fear can evaporate once you get to know someone face to face.
One afternoon, while visiting the Disciples Greek Orthodox Church near Capernaum, a men’s seminary choir arrived from St. Petersburg to sing evening vespers. We stood there, transfixed, some of us moved to tears, enveloped by the sound of their glorious voices. It was the most spiritual experience I had the entire month.
Afterwards I thought about how, when I was a child during the cold war, the Soviet Union was called the evil empire. These men were not alive then, but if they had been, their choir could not have existed. Here they were, transporting us to a little bit of heaven halfway across the world. It gives me hope that change for the good can happen - that walls can come down.
It also made me aware that even in this divided and divisive country, filled with injustices against humanity, God is still present. One can rise above it all and experience the divine.
This week I couldn’t help but think about the walls we are erecting in this country;
gated communities that separate the 1% from the rest of us;
the walls our government has built across our southern border to keep our neighbors from crossing over in search of a better life and livelihood;
the invisible walls built out of anger, fear and prejudice, or a sense of privilege and righteousness, walls that prevent us from getting to know our neighbors who may look or sound different, have a different sexual orientation, or practice a different faith tradition;
walls that keep those of different political persuasions from crossing the aisle to meet and talk and listen;
walls that half of our governors have erected who refuse to accept Syrian refugees.
We have a lot of walls that need to be torn down. How do we begin? What would Jesus tell us to do? It was written on a patch of wall separating the West Bank from Israel for all of us who speak English to take notice.
The answer came to me this week on election day from Kenneth L. Samuel’s Still Speaking Devotional:
“Given the bitter wrangling of this past election cycle, love for one another is still our most pressing need.
That love places our common concerns above all partisan rivalries.
Love for one another places those who are concerned about porous borders at the same table with those who are concerned about global warming…. and moves them to respond to each other in respectful ways.
Love for one another means that those who've been adversely affected by economic globalization and those who've been adversely affected by unregulated capitalism have to hear and heed each other's concerns.
Love for one another causes those who worry about the national debt to find common solutions with those who worry about college debt.
Love for one another is still the most pressing mandate of anyone elected.”
But it requires us to build bridges and meet in the middle, face to face, listening to each other, and seeing God in one another. That is my prayer for the future as we move forward. May it be so.