A good Samaritan walked by a man struggling with a piano. After almost 2 hours with no progress at all, the man said, “this is the most difficult time I have ever had trying to take a piano off of a truck.” The good Samaritan exclaimed, “take it off? I’ve been trying to put it back on!”
We are all very familiar with the story of the good Samaritan. This is one of the parables of Jesus that we grew up with in Sunday school. We hear the good Samaritan being referred to as the model for the way we are to help others. We know the story and what it calls us to do and to be.
This parable has its roots in 722 BC when Assyria invaded Israel, the northern kingdom, and took almost 30,000 of the Jewish aristocracy into other parts of the Assyrian empire. Eventually, intermarriage created a gap between the Samaritans and the Jews of the southern kingdom. As the Samaritans married people of other religions, their theology also experienced intermarriage. As a result, Samaritans were considered mongrels, half breeds, and viewed as being almost on the same level as gentiles. There was a very open hostility between the Jews and Samaritans. A Jewish commentary on Exodus 21 discussed the liability that one would face if their ox gored a neighbor, that if a Samaritan was involved, there was no liability. So side-by-side we have a statement that makes it very clear — a Samaritan was not considered a neighbor. Today we find it easy to categorize non-neighbors as well. We live side by side but have learned to find ways to redefine neighbor in order that we may feel comfortable. Diane Eck of Harvard University has created a way to understand the challenges and possibilities of our world religious landscape by mapping out these religious “neighborhoods.” If the world could be represented by a village of 1000 people, there would be 329 Christians and 174 Muslims. There would be 131 Hindus, 61 Buddhists, 52 animists, three Jews, 34 members of religions such as Sikhs, Janes, the Zoroastrians, and Baja a, and 216 would be without any religion. In that little village that represents our world, we would find issues drawing lines and setting boundaries before the first word is said. If nothing is said nothing can be learned. The linguistics professor was trying to teach his class about the use of negatives and positives. He stated that in English a double negative means a positive, yet in other languages, not necessarily so. A double positive can act as a negative in Chinese and Russian. However, the linguist professor stated, a double positive cannot act as a negative in English. A double positive acting as a negative is simply not found in English. From the back of the room a student exclaimed, “yeah, right.” We must live on the edge of the learning curve that comes when we encounter others who are different than we. We must learn to consider people through compassion. When we consider someone in need from a perspective of compassion, we care about them. We grieve for them, and we want to help them because we are filled with passion for their plight. When we pity someone in need, we may tend to look down upon that person from a superior perspective. There is a great difference between looking upon someone in pity and looking upon someone with compassion.
Today’s Scripture is a parable. We have been taught that parables always contain a surprise ending, or twist, that reveals a lesson that opens our eyes to greater truth than we expected. So in his familiar parable that we have heard so many times, where is the fresh lesson for us today? I believe that our situation is similar to a lawyer’s in the parable. We want to know who our neighbor is so we know to whom we are accountable. If we can identify our neighbor, we can focus upon that person, that category, that religion, that race, etc. Yet Jesus does not answer the lawyer’s question with an objective answer. Instead, Jesus tells the story of the good Samaritan and then says ”go and do likewise.” I am certain that “suggesting being like a Samaritan, even this good Samaritan, must have elicited anger. Remember, there was a long-standing hatred of Samaritans. It may have been surprising that Jesus could even finish the parable once he stated that a priest and a Levite walked by but a Samaritan stopped to help. There must have been great outburst of anger at such an idea!
In Belfast, Ireland, a Catholic priest, a Protestant minister and a Jewish rabbi were engaged in a heated theological discussion. Suddenly an angel appeared in their midst and said to them, “God sends you his blessings. Make one wish for peace and your wish will be fulfilled by the Almighty.”
The minister said, “Let every Catholic disappear from our lovely island. Then peace will reign supreme.” The priest said, “Let there not be a single Protestant left on our sacred Irish soil. That will bring peace to this island.” “And what about you, Rabbi?” said the angel. “Do you have no wish of your own?” “No,” said the rabbi. “Just attend to the wishes of these two gentlemen and I shall be well pleased.”
The professor of Islamic studies at the American University in Washington DC, Akbar S. Ahmed, wrote a book that addresses the need to pacify a global anger that exists between religious groups. He states that globalization has caused a wave of competition to envelop us to a point that we have lost what truly makes us human — compassion. His book, journey into Islam, the crisis of globalization, states that the potential is still there, though: “What lies at the core of all great world faith is clearly missing in today’s world — a sense of justice, compassion and knowledge.” Yes, it may be there, but practicing it as true neighbors seems to be a mammoth task. How do we communicate as neighbors with those who are so different from us that before we even begin to speak we know they are not our neighbor? The book, Religious Pluralism in the Academy by Robert J. Nash provides a foundation for constructing a bridge toward being a neighbor. Nash wrote, “the golden rule of moral conversation is a willingness to find the truth in what we oppose and the error in what we espouse. Before we presume to acknowledge the truth in what we espouse and error in what we oppose.”
Let us try to do that the next time that we are in an argument! I am certain our perspective would change and our anger would be tempered. When we look at the world with the attitude that we are right, and we hold the only truth, we are taking an attitude called exclusivist. Or we can take the flip side of that in the inclusivists. The pluralist would state that every perspective is correct. A relatively new approach is called the acceptance model. Paul Knitter, a Roman Catholic scholar and theologian, develops this in his book, introducing theologies of religions. The acceptance theory puts emphasis on being able to perceive and understand our differences instead of looking down upon differences with pity as something we have to accept.
The children of a well-to-do family decided to give their father as a birthday present a book containing their family’s history. They commissioned a professional biographer to write the book, carefully cautioning him about the family’s “black sheep”—their Uncle George had been executed in the electric chair for murder, and they felt that it would be best if the biographer left Uncle George out of the book. “No need to do that,” said the biographer. “I can report the situation in such a way that there will be no embarrassment to your father or to you. I’ll merely write that Uncle George occupied a chair of applied electronics at an important government institution. He was attached to his position by the strongest ties, and his death came as a real shock.”
How do we deal with outsiders? What do we say when we feel uneasy? Are we honest? Honesty must be our premise. The theologian Martin Marty’s book When Faiths Collide, addresses the feelings of religious intolerance, distrust, suspicion, and fear that the world shares. The world has grown smaller and as a result people of different faiths become acquainted on several levels — internationally as well as locally. Marty seems to believe that honest religious conversation on a big scale is unlikely. Yet living within community together creates opportunities for hospitality between individuals. These opportunities might help people understand and even trust each other. If the individuals can share their religious views, these small-scale interactions will create a web of cooperation among differing faiths. Yet, sometimes people seem to oversimplify conflict with a “taking it to the streets” approach. We have heard it said that the only hope for peace in the Middle East would be found if people in the streets and in the marketplace could work it out together, for that is the place where the pain and protest is found. Anyone in diplomacy quickly would point out that the rules of the street might provoke more unrest than the rules of the board room and would be even more challenging to sustain. So how do we take it to the street?
How do we turn everyone’s imagination toward the wonder of being a good neighbor? Barbara Crafton, in her article Autumn of the New York Neighbor, uses two images to demonstrate New York City’s neighborliness after 9/11— the abundance of stuffed teddy bears that arrived from around the country; and the vast supply of donated blood. The city did not know what to do with the surplus. These two images represent how much people wanted to comfort, to console, to help. She concludes her article with these words: “like so much else about us, it was better than it needed to be. But it was better than we could have imagined.”
Being able to imagine yourself as a neighbor was what Jesus was teaching in the parable of the good Samaritan. Jesus wants us to approach life with an attitude that builds people up and doesn’t tear them down. In his book, The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman describes this same approach using what he calls 11 nine or 911 imagination. Friedman explains that two major events can be used to explain the global imagination. On November 11, 1989, the Berlin wall came down. On September 11, 2001, the World Trade Center was brought down. Friedman writes that globalization and its effect upon the world is mediated metaphorically through these two events. If someone uses imagination to bring everyone up to the same level, they come from the 11 nine perspective, whether you are Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Hindu, or Buddhist. On the other hand, there are people who always try to prove that they are right, as if they are living on a small island, or in a dark cave. They live in isolation from the rest of the world and insulate themselves from the rest of the world’s complicated diversity. These are people in the 9/11 mindset.
What motivates us to be a neighbor? In five BC, Horace wrote in his epistles, “when your neighbor’s house is on fire, your own property is at stake.” The reality is we probably are motivated by fear. Of course there are other motivations that can give us the 11 nine mindset. I read a parable about a man whose home was infested by vermin. The exterminator came to fix the problem but the man sent him away because he thought the vermin would go to his neighbor’s home. So often we believe we rid ourselves of problems but they only end up next door.
Henry Nouwen in his book Sabbatical Journey writes, “when we love God with all our heart, mind, strength, and soul, we cannot do other than love our neighbor, and our very selves. It is by being fully rooted in the heart of God that we are creatively connected with our neighbor as well as with our deepest selves. In the heart of God we connect with the other human beings who live on this earth with us and who are also God’s sons and daughters. Our society thinks economically, how much love do I give God, how much to my neighbor, how much to myself?” Nouwen states that we should think in terms of giving to God first.
As we celebrate communion today, we put God first in our imagination. That is the first step toward finding peace. George Allen, a psychiatrist, worked in Europe after WWII and used his imagination to take strong steps toward helping children find peace. His job was to work with the orphans who were roaming around, homeless, begging, scrounging for food. His team provided a temporary camp for them, where there was bed, food, warmth, and care. The main problem was that it was very difficult for these children to fall asleep. Then one night, by accident, they discovered if they gave the children a piece of bread when they prayed with them at night, and let the children hold the bread in their hands as they were dozing off, they fell asleep immediately. The children felt that they would still have something when they awoke. There would still be something to eat and someone to love them. That was true in those orphan camps in Europe and it is true today for you and for me, as we share with the world this bread of Christ.
When we take communion we hold the bread in our hands that can be the instrument of God’s peace in the world. Communion helps us to learn to communicate with others with compassion, not with pity, because communion represents the compassion of Christ. When we hold this bread and cup in our hands, we receive courage to minister physically and spiritually, and the openness to accept others honestly. We try to reconcile the differences we see in others by being challenged with honesty. Those who are suffering and hurting, those who are discouraged, defeated, and depressed, we encounter with new strength. Instead of looking to define who our neighbor is, we must act as neighbors. Speaking the language of love, the language of compassion, is how we do this. That is God’s language and it transcends all of our diversity. This is how we establish the Kingdom of God!