Thursday, July 19, 2007

The "Compassionate Samaritan": A new take

The following sermon was delivered on Pentecost 7, July 15th, at Trinity Episcopal Church in Ashland, Oregon by The Reverend Tom Murphy, one of several "Wise Guys" that think they are retired clergy and who are occasionally called upon to deliver the sermon by The Reverend Anne K Bartlett, rector. Though the sermon is great reading and holds a myriad of truths about how we should live the Gospel, to have heard it "LIVE!" was a real treat and had us laughing in our pews with wholehearted agreement. I even heard some well-placed, rumbly AMENs that I have only heard in Baptist congregations to go with! But there is no time like our present to hear this Gospel parable again and to savor and soak in its message.


I got to thinking that maybe the most useful response for us to this compelling story of the Compassionate Samaritan would be to just sit together in silent reflection on it for 6 or 7 minutes and think about how the meaning of this story gets worked out in our lives, or needs to. It doesn’t seem to need a lot of interpretation. It just grabs you. Its force is just unavoidable. I’d guess it’s one of the most accessible and best known portions of Scripture there is even by folks who don’t go to church and don’t know much about the Bible.

It’s one of the few Scriptural images that’s still part of our common culture, and the idea of being a Good Samaritan is still widely understood even if maybe in a rather superficial way. It’s even the name of a club for recreational vehicle owners – the Good Sam Club, with its promise to come to the aid of a fellow-RVer in distress! Some of you may be or have been members of the Good Sam Club. I hope before I’m through to suggest our membership in an even more profound and all encompassing Good Sam Club!

And, as you can plainly see, I’m not going to shut up for a few minutes while we all meditate! I haven’t got the intestinal fortitude to do that. I’m a weak person, and to give up the chance to yak at you for a few minutes is a sacrifice I’m not prepared to make, although you’re perfectly free to tune me out completely and do your own meditating on this magnificent text – probably be a better sermon than this one! Besides, it’s my sense, from my observation of the passing scene these days that it’s easy to overlook or ignore the real heart of this story. It’s about a lot more than just letting the guy next door use your weed-whacker or deciding to pick up a hitchhiker or giving a buck to a pan-handler. It’s really about our understanding of where the boundaries of the human race are, and how we behave on the basis of that understanding.

I don’t want to insult anyone’s intelligence and I assume we all understand that Jesus’ story about the abundantly compassionate Samaritan is His vigorous attack on all ingrained institutions of race and ethnic hatred, and by implication, any other dehumanizing ism, and all attempts to reduce the limits of the human race – those who have a legitimate claim on our care and love – to just those who are like us. The assaulted traveler was a Jew. So were the religious figures, the priest and the Levite. The one who came so overwhelmingly to his aid was a Samaritan.

In the culture of Jesus’ day one of the givens of social life was that Jews and Samaritans – who shared a common ethnic and religious root – had a virulent group hatred for each other. In His encounter on another occasion with a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well, in which Jesus asks her for a drink of water, she puts the tension succinctly and starkly when she says to Him, “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans”!

You may be thinking, “Well, not much has changed in two millennia, except now it’s Israelis and Palestinians!” But things have changed, because the ethnic hatred and exclusion that was considered normative and even a good thing in the First Century has been replaced among many, not all, participants in that struggle today with an eagerness to really find a way to live harmoniously as good neighbors in that tiny place, and we have to believe and pray that out of the present maelstrom the forces of reconciliation and authentic neighborliness will prevail. And from this distance in time and in vastly changed historical circumstances from those of the first century, we can’t ever let Scriptural texts like this be used as an excuse for any kind of anti-Semitism.

When I think of this story that reveals so gloriously what the real depth of authentic neighborliness means, I think of other ideas and words and images that help me enter into the heart of this stunning and transforming incident and give some direction for myself in trying to conform to its challenge for my life – and one of the things that comes to my aid is the Baptismal Covenant in the Prayer Book, part of whose language arises directly out of this parable.

The Episcopal Church gets beaten up in certain circles including from many of its own members, for being “deficient in theology” – for not having clear and forceful teaching – for being wishy-washy and crippled by theological relativism – too much of ‘on the one hand this, and on the other hand that’ – for being vague and vacillating and excessively open and inclusive! What this usually means is that the Church doesn’t endorse the critics’ narrow, rigid, reactionary and exclusionary ideas. Anyone troubled by this complaint would be well advised to take a good look at the Prayer Book Baptismal Covenant. It’s found in two places – in the Baptismal liturgy itself beginning on page 304, and in a slightly altered form in the liturgy for the Great Vigil of Easter.

This brief statement is of immense importance because it represents the consensus of the Church at this point in time as to what the components are of a viable and authentic Christian life – what it means to be and to live with integrity as a person in Christ.

The Covenant is rendered in traditional question and answer form, and each word is carefully and thoughtfully chosen. It’s the last two questions I think of when I reflect on today’s Parable. We are asked in the fourth question, “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” That’s what the Samaritan did – and that’s what it means to be in the real Good Sam club! Then the final question in the Covenant really puts it over the top when it calls us to be Samaritans and asks us:

“Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”

And my knees shake at the challenge as I say in response:

“I will, with God’s help”.

The Episcopal Church doesn’t teach or believe anything, and has a deficient and vague theology? Don’t make me laugh!! To live into the meaning of those breathtaking words is the challenge of a lifetime, and to accept the identity they suggest and move toward it is the most thrilling thing in the world.

What the Episcopal Church does not have, thank God, is any system of punishments or sanctions or penalties for not ‘toeing the line’. We don’t have any “shape up or ship out, our way or the highway, kick-butt theology or spirituality”. You will never hear an Episcopal Bishop threaten to excommunicate some Episcopalian senator for not supporting the Church’s teaching on reproductive issues! What we do have is an invitation to a journey to the lifestyle of the Samaritan.

It’s an invitation that says “whoever you are, whatever you bring, whatever you do or don’t believe – if this journey with us and with Christ toward a life that seeks Him in every single person and respects the God-given dignity of every single human being - if that journey calls and excites you then come join us - and we never are successful, we never arrive in this world, we never do it perfectly or even very well, we fall and fail over and over again, and we pick ourselves and one another up and dust each other off – or as that other phrase in the Covenant calls us to do, we “repent and return to the Lord” - but being on the journey together is everything – because He is the journey and the End of the journey and we believe that in walking in that Way with Him and one another, we will assimilate Samaritanism and be “changed into Jesus’ likeness from glory to glory”. Amen.

The Rev. Tom Murphy
Trinity Episcopal Church, Ashland, OR

The art work, "Good Samaritan", is by He Qi at