Unwanted Blessing: The Good Samaritan in an Age of Partisanship

In oral story-telling, things usually happen in threes — three bears, three pigs, three wishes. And so in this story, we have three travelers: A Priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan.

Mind you, Jesus could have told this story in a more generic way. The three travelers could have been simply that – three travelers, passing along the road to Jericho; two who did not stop, and one who did.

But no – Jesus is very specific here. The first traveler is a priest, the second a Levite, the third a Samaritan. It’s only the beaten man in the road who is left without any further identification. He alone is a generic everyman. When we are beaten and bloody and left for dead, we become no more – and no less – than a human body.

So perhaps this is the first lesson of this story. Those in need are, simply, human. We need know nothing more.

I say the first lesson of this story, because this is a parable, not a fable. A fable is a story with a clear moral at the end – a single lesson to teach. Like, “Slow and steady wins the race.” Or, “Never cry wolf.” A parable, on the other hand, that’s much less cut and dried. A parable has multiple meanings and multiple interpretations. It raises questions as much as it answers them. The message the parable has for us depends in part on who we are, and where we see ourselves in the narrative.

So let’s return to Jesus’ story.

Unlike the victim, the other travelers are given specific social identities. And with the naming of this cast of characters – the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan – Jesus’ tale becomes unavoidably political. I use this word, not in its usual sense of “partisan” – we have come to use these two words as synonyms because so much of our own politics is partisan – but in the way that Aristotle once defined it – to be political, is to be engaged in public conversation regarding the ordering of our common life.

When I say this parable is political, I mean it takes the lawyer’s abstract question – who is my neighbor? – and makes it specific and real and therefore controversial. It’s the difference between saying, “All Are Welcome,” and saying, “we welcome gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons.” It’s the difference between saying, All Lives Matter, and saying, Black Lives Matter. It’s easy to get folks to agree to some vaguely-defined, general moral principle; the devil lurks in the details.

When the lawyer, seeking to justify himself, asks, “who is my neighbor,” Jesus doesn’t just say, “everyone.” He tells the lawyer a story – not about three generic travelers, but about a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan.

Now, the first two – the priest and the Levite – would both be considered pillars of the Jewish community, moral examplars to be emulated. So if the lawyer was looking for an out, Jesus seems to have handed him one. What’s good enough for the priest, is good enough for the people, right?

Well, maybe not. Not good enough, certainly, for the man lying on the side of the road. Thank God, then, for the third traveller. The one who stops, and binds his wounds, and carries him to safety. Does it matter, that this man is a Samaritan?

Geographically, Samaritans and Jews were, indeed, neighbors, but they were separated by a deep historical divide that was both political and religious. The Hebrew Scriptures tell how the two regions had once been one country, a united kingdom ruled over by David and Solomon. But after Solomon’s reign, the peoples were split by civil war. Samaria became the capital of the northern kingdom while Jerusalem remained the capital in the south. The two groups diverged in their religious practices and customs. They began to view each other with mistrust and contempt. Not long before he told this story, Jesus himself had been denied hospitality, while traveling through Samaria.

So it must have come as a shock for his listeners, when Jesus cast the Samaritan in the role of the hero. It still comes as a shock to me, today.

I mean, I get the idea that we should help those in need. I get the idea that compassion is more important than piety. I get the idea that racial and national and religious borders should not set limits on our common humanity.

But the really weird thing about this story, the thing that we so often don’t get, is that the Samaritan – the outsider, the enemy, the heretic – he isn’t the guy who needs help in this story. He’s the guy who offers help. The guy who needs help? That’s everyman. That’s us.

It is hard enough, to bless our enemies. But to be blessed by our enemies? That is nearly unbearable. After all, I can bless my enemy without ever giving up the moral high ground. I can pick my enemy off the ground, and pat myself on the back, saying “that’s more than they would do for me.” But when I am blessed by my enemy, my world turns upside down.

So I wonder, if Jesus were to tell this story today, to me – who might he cast in the roles of Priest, Levite, and Samaritan? It’s an activity I’ve done with youth groups, a sort of parable Mad Libs where I first have them write down the names of two people they admired, and one they despised, and then we read the parable with those names inserted. For the people they admired, they wrote the names of their favorite teachers, their best friends; one wrote down his own name. But for the person they despised, most of them wrote down – well, let’s just say a prominent political figure of the day.

In recent years, researchers have found that “both Republicans and Democrats increasingly dislike, even loathe, their opponents.” America is becoming as divided by political ideology as by religion, gender, or race. During my own lifetime, interracial and interfaith marriage have increased, but inter-party marriages have declined.  Our media, our news sources, our vocabulary, our voting districts are increasingly segregated by political affiliation. We may not have personal enemies; but we do have political enemies.

So let’s imagine a modern re-telling of this ancient parable, shall we?

One snowy morning, a traveler was driving to work when an aggressive driver forced her to swerve, and her car spun off the road into the ditch. The traveler reached for her cell phone but unfortunately she was in one of those dead zones between towns were there is no cell coverage. So instead she anxiously scanned the road for someone who might help her.

The first car to come by sped by on the opposite side of the road. As it passed, the traveler noticed a campaign sticker on its rear bumper. The sticker said, [insert the name of your favorite Presidential candidate here].

A second car did the same, although this time the driver waved as they went past. As the car disappeared, the traveler noticed a campaign sticker on the rear bumpers. It said, [insert the name of your second-favorite candidate here].

A third car came by, and the driver pulled over, to find out if she all right, and if she needed a ride anywhere. As she thanked him, she noticed the campaign sticker on the rear bumper of the car. The sticker said, [you guessed it: insert here the name of your least-favorite candidate – the one you truly despise.]

The truth is, sometimes we would almost rather hear that our opponents have done something truly despicable, than that they have done something good. We would rather be right, than reconciled.

But Jesus didn’t say, be better than the Samaritan. He said, be like the Samaritan. What a shock that must have been, to that pious lawyer. What a shock it still is, to us.

What a world it might be, if we all went and did likewise.



(sermon preached by Rev. Liza B. Knapp at Belchertown United Church of Christ on Feb 21, 2016)

freezing the moment

Close your eyes, for a moment, and try to remember some place, some time, some moment when you felt that you were in the presence of something sacred. How long ago was that moment? How long did it last?

I remember this one particular afternoon, a sunny spring afternoon at the home of some family friends, a farm in Columbia County, New York, where we often spent school vacations. On this particular day, I was maybe ten years old, and I had wandered by myself out to a hillside above the pond. I was lying on my back in the long grass, eyes closed, feeling the breeze above me and the sun on my face. It was a Sunday afternoon, which meant that any minute my parents would call to tell me it was time to go home. But for that moment, everything was perfect. I was completely at peace. I was basking in the glow of God.

And then my parents did call me, and the moment ended. You can only bask in the glow of God for so long, before someone calls you, and you have to move on.

One day, Jesus takes three of his disciples on a hike up a mountain. They leave the others far below, and climb up to a high place, a place apart from the crowds and the conflict that seemed to be following Jesus everywhere lately. And in that place apart, he is transfigured in his disciples’ eyes. His clothes become dazzling white, whiter than bleach could bleach them, whiter than humanly possible.

Transfiguration isn’t a word you hear every day. Really most of us hear it only once a year, if we happen to be in church on the Sunday before Lent. Its meaning is similar to transformation, or metamorphosis. A transfiguration is a complete change in form or appearance, into something more exalted, more beautiful. Think of caterpillars, turning into butterflies. The only reason that doesn’t totally freak us out, is that we have come to expect it. But just imagine, if it caught you by surprise.

Now mind you, the disciples have seen a lot of wondrous things since they have been travelling in Jesus’ company. Healings, exorcisms, crowds of hungry people miraculously fed, storm waves miraculously stilled, a child miraculously restored to life. Signs of the kingdom, everywhere they looked. But now it is as if a veil has been torn open, as if the scales have fallen from their eyes, because now they can actually see the light of God streaming from him. It catches them by surprise, and it takes their breath away.

Moreover, he is no longer alone with them, but appears to be in the company of the great leaders of Israel’s past, Moses and Elijah, the law-giver and the prophet. Not knowing what else to say, Peter offers to build them houses, tabernacles on the mountaintop. Because that is what humans do, in places where we have encountered the Holy: we build shrines. Jesus is transfigured, and now the only thing Peter can think of to do, is to stay there on the mountaintop, basking forever in the glow of God.

But Jesus declines Peter’s offer of a mountain-view home. Instead, they head back down the mountain together, and Jesus asks them to keep their peak experience to themselves. For ahead of them still lies the cross, and the empty tomb, and their vision of who Jesus is will be even more radically transfigured in the days ahead.

Moses and Elijah have this is in common: they, too, had profoundly vivid experiences of God on a mountaintop. Moses was on Mount Horeb, when he saw the burning bush, and heard the voice of God in the fire, telling him to return to his people in Egypt. Later, Moses again climbs Mount Horeb – it’s also called Mount Sinai, those are two names for the same place – and once again amid fire and smoke, God speaks to him giving him the Law to govern Israel.

But while Moses is up there on the mountain, the Israelites begin to get into trouble in the camps below, so God tells Moses he better get back down there to his people.

Generations later, Elijah, fleeing persecution, climbs the same mountain, and he too hears the voice of God there, not in the fire, but in silence. And that voice says, Elijah, What are you doing here? Elijah comes to seek refuge in God; but like Moses before him, God sends Elijah back down the mountain, to serve the people of Israel.

You can only bask in the glow of God for so long, before somebody calls you, and you have to move on.

When I was in high school, we received word that our family friends would soon be selling the farm of my childhood. It was, after all, not really mine, not even my family’s property, but it was holy to me, and it was hard to imagine losing it. I was a budding photographer at the time, and I spent hours wandering the fields and barns, trying to freeze the farm in time, to capture it with the camera’s shutter. But looking through the lens was not like lying in the grass. Life is like that. Try to pin it down, and it turns into something different. The butterfly’s wings are never more beautiful than at the moment when they emerge fresh from the cocoon. But if we try to preserve it, to pin it down, we end up with something lifeless.

Butterflies exist in motion, just like moments exist in time. Pin them down, and they become something different.

Many of us have had mountaintop experiences, moments when the veil is torn open and we suddenly see things, not just by the light of day, but by the light of God. And it is tempting, in those moments of clarity, to think that perhaps we are done; that we have glimpsed not just the truth, but the whole truth. And so we want to linger on the mountain, to hold on to that particular moment in time. We want to pin it down, put it in a cabinet, and protect it from damage.

But the church is not a shrine, it’s a movement. There’s a reason why the first disciples referred to their faith as “the way.”

Jesus does not linger on the mountaintop; like Moses and Elijah before him, he returns to his people. We see Jesus, transfigured, in garments of dazzling white; but Jesus is ready to get his hands dirty. We try to pin him down, but he is on the move. We look for God on the mountaintop: but God, it turns out, is already down in the valley.

You can only bask in the glow of God for so long, before Somebody calls you, and you have to move on.

(sermon preached by Liza Knapp for Belchertown United Church of Christ, Transfiguration Sunday, 2015)

(photo: Liza B. Knapp, all rights reserved)