January 2024

SERMON: Stopping by the side of the Road

The Good Samaritan story revisited with a modern answer to the question: "Who is my neighbor?"

Sometimes we make the story of the Good Samaritan too complicated and too hard. We compare ourselves to others who seem to do much more, and have loftier goals and aspirations.

Let’s look for a moment at the Good Samaritan in our Biblical story. A Samaritan is a shocking image for those who listened to Jesus’ parable. He belonged to a race considered to be inferior, a race that was utterly despised by Jews. The Samaritans were a people of mixed Assyrian-Jewish blood who lived in the territory between Judea and Galilee and practiced what was considered to be a debased form of Jewish religion. Over the centuries a bitter hostility had developed between the two peoples. Jews had destroyed the Samaritan temples in Samaria, and in turn Samaritans had desecrated the Jewish temple in Jerusalem by scattering human bones in the sacred spaces. Jews publicly cursed Samaritans in the synagogues and prayed to God they would have no share in eternal life. A Jew would not believe the testimony of a Samaritan or accept any service from a Samaritan. The man in Jesus’ parable was the least expected to show compassion in the circumstances, for why would a half-breed stranger risk his life for a man who might have treated him as the scum of the earth? And yet, it was a Samaritan that Jesus described as the faithful person in his story.

But there were people who arrived on the scene before the Samaritan, and saw that the man beside the road was obviously in dire straits. He had been attacked by robbers and stripped of his clothes. He was beaten by the robbers who ran away after committing their heinous crime.

Then a Priest came by, and when he saw the man, he quickly side stepped to the other side of the road, probably not wanting to dirty his clerical robes or get involved in such an undignified sight. Afterall, the clergy must keep up their appearances!

Then came along a Levite. Levites were the temple keepers, the keepers of the law, the rule abiders. The Levite probably immediately assessed that this situation as being too tricky to fit into a fist tight rule or law. This was far too messy for the Levite’s righteous mind and way of doing things. It was much easier just to go to the other side of the road.

In Jesus’ parable, the Samaritan was going about his daily business, probably thinking of all the things he had to do when he sees the injured person who is in need of help. The person is by the side of the road, probably half naked and covered in bloody body fluids and caked on dirt. He must have looked similar to our daily news images of injured and bombed people in the middle east we view each day on the news. This sight was not for the faint of heart. Other people are just passing by and going about their business, and like the Priest and the Levite, they couldn’t be bothered with offering assistance, wanting to discreetly avert their eyes and move on with their daily routines.

What is different about the Good Samaritan is that he stopped. Most of us don’t stop. We hate it when our schedules are interrupted. We don’t like it when someone in the grocery line ahead of us is checking what seems to be a warehouse of food or when we are just shy of making it through a yellow light. We don’t like it when we are asked to put down the newspaper, turn off the television, interrupt a business call or when we fear that the items on our daily list will not be neatly checked off just as we had planned. But the Samaritan stopped. There was something that he felt was worth his attention at that time at that very moment. Blessed are those who are willing to stop.

Please notice, too, the Good Samaritan did not use a crisis as a time for evangelism, and he did not use religious language, instead he offered concrete and specific help. Grief and crisis are not times for religiosity. It is not a time to hide behind religious truisms. We all know the rage that William Sloan Coffin felt when people commented that it was God’s will that his young son died in an automobile accident, and Coffin’s response: “It wasn’t God’s will. God’s heart was the first heart to break.”

The Good Samaritan did something. Sometimes we don’t exactly know what do to, and sometimes we really don’t want to be bothered to do something, but the Good Samaritan did something.

Several years ago I was invited to dinner with a man named Marcus Engel and his assisting dog. We were both healthcare professionals and shared a similar philosophy of care. When he was a first year college student, Marcus was in a car filled with friends from Bible camp when their vehicle was broadsided by a drunk driver. When medics arrived at the scene of the accident, Marcus was found face down on the concrete. He was taken to a nearby hospital where it was discovered that every bone from his hairline to his chin had been shattered. He was also struck completely and permanently blind.

Marcus spent the next two years in rehab, and had 350 hours of reconstructive surgery on his face. He is now an internationally known and respected expert on patient care.

What Marcus remembers most about his original hospital stay was when he woke up there was someone at his bedside who was holding his hand, and she would say, “I’m Jennifer. You’ve been in a car accident. You are in the hospital.” When he would wake up again, she would quietly say, “Marcus, I’m here.” This experience was so profound for Marcus that he travels the world with the “I’m Here Project,” teaching healthcare professionals about compassionate patient care.

Marcus teaches that compassion, empathy, love and understanding are sometimes intertwined to mean the same thing. He separates compassion with the definition that compassion is “being a witness to suffering, being moved by the suffering and having a desire to alleviate it. In his teachings, Marcus shares that when he was hospitalized, he didn’t know where he was, but he knew that he was not alone. Twenty years later, he was able to meet Jennifer, and learned that at the time of his accident she was a twenty year old medical technician assigned to the trauma center where he was treated. She was young and inexperienced, but gave the greatest gift by offering her presence.

Marcus believes that our presence is the greatest gift we can give to another human being. I agree.

As Pauli Murray comments: “We are not commanded to like everyone with whom we come into contact. What is required of us is not admiration, approval, or even personal affection but caring, empathy, seeking to understand, identifying with another’s common humanity, and being concerned for another’s well-being as if it were our own. In this sense the command is absolute. We are not free to pick and choose those we accept and those we reject. Every other human being

is our neighbor. When Jesus was asked, ‘Who is my neighbor?’ he answered with the parable of the Good Samaritan and used a member of a despised race to illustrate the relationship.” (To Speak a Defiant, pg. 250)

There are people alongside our roads, and they are not just the obvious unhoused neighbors who occupy our streets. They are the lonely, the isolated, the incarcerated, the dying, the one not picked for the team, the single mom struggling to pay her bills, the college student who is hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, the helicopter parent who is unconsciously crippling her children, the single person who does not fit into a family oriented society, the entitled person who is devoid of awareness, the lonely millionaire isolated in a perfectly appointed home, the grandmother who feels warehoused in a care home. If we pause for a moment, we will see many people by the side of the road, people with whom we can share companionship and love, people with whom we can live out Jesus’ command to go and do likewise.

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