Who is the Good Samaritan?
October 25, 2015
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
Jesus told a lot of parables but perhaps more than any other, the parable of the Good Samaritan lies at the core of how we think about ourselves as Christians. We are the ones who are supposed to stop when there is someone who needs some help. Being a Christian, especially for us who are members of this church, means more than just saying, “I believe in Jesus in my heart;” it also means showing that faith with our hands: by wielding a hammer to build a house for Habitat for Humanity, or writing a check to support work in Haiti, or holding the hands of a sick neighbor. We believe that faith expresses itself not just in our love for God but also in the loving deeds we do for our neighbors and that we are called by Christ to be the good Samaritans.
In 2010, a minister working with youth in the city of Pittsburgh wrote an article in which he noted, ‘… Most youth leaders, directors, [and youth group] volunteers will tell you they are the Samaritan who goes around pulling teens out of ditches and helping them with everything they need at great expense to themselves. The problem,’ the author warned, ‘is that you can’t get every teenager out of the ditch. There are some you will miss, there are some teens who want to be in the ditch no matter how much you try to drag them out, and there are even teens who, after you think you have straightened them out, will climb back into the ditch and you have to start all over.’ (BT Gilligan, http://www.calledtoyouthministry.com/spiritual-growth/stop-being-the-good-samaritan)
“This all leads to some very burned out, broke, tired, and guilty feeling Good Samaritans,” the author concludes.
Maybe you are not a youth minister but as a Christian, you have been taught by the church — and by your minister who stands here week after week drumming out this refrain — that you are in the business of helping others.
“Don’t be that Levite and rush by the person in trouble,” your well-intentioned minister tells you.
“Don’t be the priest,” she tells the children in Children’s Time, “so wrapped up in your own salvation that you forget about the problems of the people lying alongside the road.”
“If you don’t love your neighbor, then you don’t love God,” the Bluegrass Band sings out in a toe tapping but stern reminder that we are called to be the helpers, the healers, the rescuers, and the ones who refuse to pass by a person in need.
The problem, of course, is that the need is overwhelming. There are thousands of people just in western NY who don’t have enough money to buy their daily bread and go to bed hungry at night. There are scores of sick people in our local hospitals, millions of refugees across the globe. There are countless people unjustly imprisoned who need advocates, and whole nations embroiled in war whose citizens yearn for peace. Charities clamor for your help; neglected children hope for your help; grieving hearts reach out for your help; oppressed people plead for your help; naked, thirsty, suffering, hurting, wanting, forgotten, abused, bleeding, needing people cry out for your help. The road to Jericho is littered with wounded bodies! And Jesus says that if we are to be good Christians, we cannot pass them by.
Yikes. This parable of the Good Samaritan, when taken at face value, can lead to some very burned out, broke, tired, and guilty feeling Good Samaritans.
So what’s a Christian to do?
In the year 233 (or thereabouts), a man named Origen preached a sermon on the story of the Good Samaritan but his take on this story was a little different from ours. In Origen’s day, when the church was still in its infancy, many of the great church thinkers saw scripture not as a one dimensional text on a page with only one meaning — one interpretation that was either right or wrong — but as a three dimensional gem. They believed that scripture could be held up to the light and turned around in your hand to reveal many faces and meanings, each more beautiful than the last. There might be a straightforward meaning, such as, “If you find a dying man alongside the road, be a good neighbor and help him!” but there also might be another meaning that reveals a truth about Jesus and ourselves, and shows us our place in the spiritual scheme of things.
So when Origen looked at this parable of the Good Samaritan, he saw there the lesson that we see — Jesus says, “Love your neighbor” — but then, he lifted the parable from the page and turned it around in his hand, peering at it from many sides, and looked for other meanings. He saw in its words symbols of sin and grace, brokenness and healing.
He wrote: “The man who was going down is Adam. Jerusalem is paradise, and Jericho is the world. The robbers are hostile powers. The priest is the Law, the Levite is the prophets, and the Samaritan is Christ. The wounds are disobedience, the beast is the Lord’s body, the [inn], which accepts all who wish to enter, is the Church. … The manager of the [inn] is the head of the Church, to whom its care has been entrusted. And the fact that the Samaritan promises he will return represents the Savior’s second coming. (Homily 34.3)
For Origen, the road between Jerusalem and Jericho was no longer just a line on a map but was a symbol of our journey from God’s paradise downward into the weary world in which we live. The naked man on the road wasn’t just a character who had been mugged but was also a metaphor for our own brokenness. At one level, Origen saw a neighbor in need lying there, but at another level, he saw that man as a symbol of himself: he was the one lying there; it is you and me lying there, wounded by our sins, broken by our heartaches, and so weary from our good works that we are too exhausted to stand. And then when Origen looked into the eyes of the Samaritan, he said that he saw the eyes of Christ.
Origen argued that this parable contains spiritual symbols that direct our hearts not only to our neighbor’s needs, but to our own need for healing and the promise that Christ can be for us the Good Samaritan, that Christ can lift us from our brokenness to carry us to the Inn where our healing awaits.
We don’t read the Bible allegorically anymore, looking for spiritual symbols as Origen did, but I wonder if he didn’t find more truth here than we modern careful biblical scholars find when we stick so close to “the original context of Jesus’ words.” If we read the story of the Good Samaritan only as Jesus’ audience heard it — as a straightforward admonition by Jesus to take care of our neighbor — we run the danger of burning out because the need is so great. If we ‘do, do, do, work, work, work, help, help, help,’ and bear the wounded of the world upon our own shoulders, eventually we will collapse from the weight and we will be the broken ones lying by the side of that road to Jericho.
A story is told of an exploring party in Africa in the late 19th century that employed a group of local tribespeople to go with them into the interior to guide them and carry their supplies. The explorers pushed the party relentlessly for several days through thick jungle and over rough terrain, stopping at night only when it became too dark to see. Finally, one day the natives sat down and refused to go any farther.
The explorers demanded, “What is wrong with you all? Why are you stopping?”
The tribesmen replied, “We are waiting for our souls to catch up with our bodies.”
How many of you are sitting here in church today because you are hoping that here in this worship your soul might catch up to your body?
Origen’s mystical interpretation of the Good Samaritan reminds us that we cannot always be out there helping and doing if we don’t sometimes let our souls catch up with our bodies. We need to stop being the Good Samaritan long enough for Christ to reach out and lift us up, and restore our tattered souls.
And so in prayer and here in worship, for a few minutes we still our hands. We stop trying to do and to help and to fix ourselves and everyone around us, and instead we just breathe in the Spirit. Sometimes we will hear a word that we can carry into our week to ponder and contemplate. Sometimes the music of worship will quicken our pulse and renewed energy will course through our veins. Sometimes we will laugh with the children or receive a warm hug from a church member that chases the chill out of our hearts. And sometimes none of that happens except for the most important thing – we are still. For a few moments we are not doing, or helping, or trying to fix everyone and everything, but instead are just waiting for our soul to catch up.
And in this time of quiet rest, we stretch our spirit down, deep down, to the bedrock of our faith and feel Christ there, and we know he is carrying us.
A prayer attributed to St. Patrick says,
“…I arise today through God’s strength to pilot me…
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me…”
During the week, our souls become frayed around the edges. We become worn out from a week of being pulled one way and another, from helping our friends who are sick or worried, from working to say the loving thing to our spouse, from trying to raise our children right, from volunteering and organizing, from giving, giving, giving, doing, doing, doing, helping, helping, helping. This is what we are called to do as Christians, and our discipleship is going to tale us away from Jerusalem, that holy city, into the dry barren land of Jericho because that is where the need is greatest. But after awhile, we have to find the center again. We need to stop and let our souls catch up to remember why we are are here, and more — to remember who is here with us.
Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me…
Christ who carries me and then lifts me once again into wholeness and peace.
I think Origin had it right. We are called to be the good Samaritan so that the broken will know the healing through our Christ-like love, but we are also called to regularly stop and rest and breathe in Christ’s spirit and let him be the one who carries us, so that our souls can catch up to our bodies and we too can be healed.
 Though this is attributed to St. Patrick in the 5th century, many experts doubt that authorship and trace it to an 8th century collection of prayers.