The tenth chapter of Luke records the story we call, “The Good Samaritan.” We all know this one, right? A Jewish man sets out from Jerusalem on his way to Jericho –– a very dangerous 17-mile trip, as there were robbers and bands of criminals everywhere, and high rocks for them to hide behind. The man is robbed, beaten, and left for dead.
Two men pass him by without stopping: a priest and a Levite, both religious leaders of the day. The letter of the Law stated that if either man touched a dead person, he would be unclean, not able to perform his religious duties. So, they were definitely following the letter of the Law, but they missed the spirit of the Law completely. Because COMPASSION supersedes everything. It’s much more important than the rules and regulations.
Things are different now; Jesus Christ himself is the center of our faith, and not the Law. And Jesus Christ should really be enough! We have love, grace, compassion, mercy, and much more from Jesus –– and to that, we still add rules, traditions, and customs that become like Law, and lead us away from grace.
I’ve heard stories about minorities being excluded from predominantly white churches –– not a hundred years ago, but NOW. I hear that in some churches, if a visitor inadvertently sits in a pew where a longtime member usually sits, the member will actually tell the visitor to move. There are many accounts of people who look different, who aren’t dressed up, who may be poor … coming into churches and being treated badly, either to their face or behind their back. It’s sad but true that the church of Jesus Christ is still full of Law-abiding priests and Levites.
We all have prejudices, and we’re all too quick to pass judgment. These barriers and boundaries come from our culture, our families, our church traditions, and our personal preferences and prejudices. They can come from all kinds of places. But they DON’T come from God. If we think we can follow Jesus and still hang on to our barriers, biases, and hatred, we’re sadly mistaken. The Samaritan parable makes that clear.
Remember, the man lying wounded on the side of the road was NOT the Samaritan. It’s well-known that Jews and Samaritans of that day had a long history of hating each other. No, he was a Jew, just like the priest and the Levite. In their religious self-righteousness, the priest and the Levite were passing by one of their own. There was no racial or religious prejudice there –– just good, old-fashioned self-righteousness, self-importance and, more than anything else, a lack of compassion.
As churchgoers, even when we’re among our “own,” we still sometimes choose to judge or condemn, rather than show compassion. We choose to place our self-interests above those whom we claim to love in Christ.
There’s a story of U.S. Marines, new recruits, who fought in the Pacific in World War II. The older Marines, who’d already faced battle, told the new ones, “Never look in the enemies’ eyes. Don’t stop. Just kill them.” If you looked into their eyes, you’d see a person … someone a lot like you, scared and desperate … and if you really looked, you might feel some mercy, some connection … and you might get yourself killed. So don’t look. Don’t SEE them.
The Samaritan had every reason to hate the Jewish man lying on the side of the road. He had every reason to keep going, even to justify himself and decide that ignoring the wounded man was the right thing to do. But the Samaritan looked at the man; he SAW him, and he felt compassion. He put everything else aside –– fear, hatred, prejudice, custom, tradition, and even his own needs –– and he offered help when no one else would.
Which do you think God would choose for us? Would he rather we cling to our self-righteousness, our judgmentalism, our prejudice, customs, traditions, rules? Or would God choose for us a heart filled with compassion, and the joy and gratitude that come from loving and helping those around us?
SEE those around you! Even if you think they’re your personal, hated Samaritan, see them through God’s eyes and feel God’s compassion. And always remember: We may have our own Samaritans, those we dislike or want to keep out –– but WE are someone else’s Samaritan! Receive God’s grace and love, and offer them generously to others, even those who feel like Samaritans to us. And live in God’s abundant compassion and freedom, filled with his joy.
Rev. Susan Bennett is pastor of Stockbridge Presbyterian Church. She and her husband live in Stockbridge with two giant Rottweilers and a 15-pound rescue dog who is the boss of everybody.