Weeks ago, back when protesting was about personal liberty and protesters were at state capitals, I saw a picture of a protest inside the Michigan state capitol building. Inside was what appeared to be an angry mob, with men standing inches from resolute law enforcement. These men were spitting in the faces of these law enforcement officials as the mob appeared to scream and shout behind them.
Certainly, Michigan was the epicenter of the personal liberty movement for a moment. Life sure does move fast these days, considering that this was only a couple of months ago. Back then, protesting was for a different reason and the protesters were different. Back then, law enforcement was celebrated as first responders, heroes who were still doing their work despite the pandemic. Life moves fast.
And yet some things remain the same. At different moments throughout my life, I have found myself suddenly riled with anger. And seeing these men spitting in the face of law enforcement was one of those moments. What I was thinking and feeling should not be repeated for public consumption. I was not loving my neighbor as myself as we have described the past two sermons.
My experience, and I’m sure you can relate, reveals how some things never change: we’re always prone to respond in vile and hateful ways because some folks are just hard to love. Sometimes, moments in life rile us up and leave us feeling anything but loving. We’re so moved by something, whether it’s personal or societal, that we would rather hate our neighbor.
There’s a word for us about this in the scripture for today. It’s the famous parable of the Good Samaritan. But we begin not with the parable itself, but with the lead-up to the parable, in a conversation about the law contained in Torah; a conversation between a lawyer and Jesus.
Hear now Luke 10:25-37.
There are five main characters in this text. There’s, of course, the samaritan, the reject of polite society, the segregated outcast who does the right thing. In a sermon I did on this text about a year ago, we explored how that act surprises the Jewish audience hearing this story because Samaritans were thought to be corrupt, terrible, vile, people. Think of folks you really despise. Might be the other side of the political spectrum. Might be people who have betrayed you in the past. Might be members of your own family. That’s how Jewish society of the time felt about Samaritans.
There’s Jesus, the teller of the story, which is in response to the lawyer asking this question, “and who is my neighbor?”
Then, there are the priest and the Levite. These are the religious officials of the day, the pastors and lay leaders if you will. There’s good cultural reason why they wouldn’t want to touch the body, so they’re in the story more to set up the shock of it being a Samaritan, not an everyday Jewish person, who helps.
And finally, there’s the lawyer, who has come to Jesus apparently honestly asking if Jesus thinks he’s a good Jew. That’s one way to consider his opening question, “what must I do to inherit eternal life.” As we’ve explored before, Jesus answers him with the two basic and most important commandments; love God, love your neighbor as yourself. But then Luke says the lawyer, “wanting to justify himself,” asks “who is my neighbor?” Jesus’s story about the Good Samaritan is the answer to that question.
Of the five characters in this story, to whom do you relate the most? That’s the power of stories; they give us reflective windows through which to view ourselves as several different characters. As I read the story, did you see yourself as Jesus? As the priest or Levite? As the lawyer? As the Good Samaritan?
We like to believe the best about ourselves. It’s tempting to see ourselves as the Good Samaritan. Of course we’re the ones who would stop at the road and help this beaten-up traveler. Of course we’re the ones who would be so generous as to give two days wages, with a promise of more, to the manager of a hotel. Of course, we’re the ones who would pay his hospital bills. We’re good Christians. That’s what we would do.
That’s what I was tempted to do as I read my way through the story. Of course, I first always consider myself against the religious officials, but I’m so culturally different from them that I cannot relate to the purity laws that would have caused them to keep walking, not helping the person.
So then, I think to myself, almost unconsciously and quite impulsively, that I would be like the Good Samaritan because not only am I a good Christian but I’m a priest, a pastor, a religious official, whose duty includes helping the least of these. All the more reason I tend to see myself as the Good Samaritan.
We’re a church that serves. We’re a church that meets the needs around us. We’re responsive when called upon. Staycation VBS shows that. You’ve already begun dropping off bandaids and cough drops. Some of you have asked what more you can do. How wonderful! The character of our church is good and strong.
Which means that, individually, many of us are the same, for the many of us make up the whole of our church. We’re a helpful people who respond to needs as we see them, even generously, like this Good Samaritan. It’s fair to see ourselves as the Good Samaritan.
If this is the takeaway for us from reading this famous parable of Jesus, then we have lived out verse 29: “but wanting to justify himself, [the lawyer] asked Jesus, ‘who is my neighbor?’”
If we see ourselves as the Good Samaritan, we’ve missed the point of the story. I missed the point of the story.
The point of the story is not to see ourselves as the Good Samaritan, much less the Levite or the priest or even Jesus. The point of the story is to put ourselves in the place of the lawyer. How do we try and justify ourselves as already having kept up the golden rule?
It’s easy for me to point to things that I do that would justify that I keep the golden rule; that I am the Good Samaritan.
Until I consider how I thought about those protesters in Michigan.
Until I recall how judgmental I can be in my head sometimes! That’s a tough thing to say out loud!
Until I consider how I preach “give to all who ask of you” and then ignore the beggar at the intersection.
Until I consider many examples of how I have not loved my neighbor.
The lawyer came to Jesus wanting to know if he was being a good person. Was he good enough? I can imagine all of us asking Jesus that question were we to stand in front of him. We want to be good. We want to do what’s right. We want to be justified by our actions, by all the times we have been the Good Samaritan.
But Jesus, in telling this story, wants us to ask this question: whom in your life do you despise, hate, harbor grudges, and judge terribly? Meaning you are not loving them as you love yourself. The lawyer certainly had folks like that in his heart. I have folks like that in my heart. We all do.
And that’s where seeing ourselves as the lawyer matters. If we read the story, imagining ourselves as the lawyer, we hear ourselves asking Jesus, “am I doing good? Who is my neighbor?”
Not to justify ourselves, wanting to think that we’re already keeping the commandment. No, instead, to be bold, like our children taught us at VBS, by asking Jesus to show us new neighbors, hard neighbors, even enemies, in our lives so that we may love them as we love ourselves.
Walking the road to Jericho, the Samaritan saw someone he didn’t know, a total stranger, lying on the side of the road, needing medical care and shelter. The Samaritan didn’t know anything about this man. We like to paint this traveler as the helpless victim of some roadside robbery, for such were common at the time. But this man could have been the robber, beaten up by a would-be victim who got away through physical force. This man could have been known to the people as a cheat, a liar, scum of the earth. This man could have been anyone at all.
Imagine this scene as the aftermath of a protest, with pastors and local officials walking by the body, still alive but badly beaten. This man could have been a protestor, so perhaps it’d be easy to look upon him with disdain. But this man could have been a law enforcement official, stripped of his identifying markers. He could have been a do-gooder, trying to give out water. He could have been a passerby, who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
We might be tempted if we were walking by the Wendy’s in Atlanta or in downtown Portland to keep walking, feeling disdain for someone who’d go to protest. We might assume the worst about this man on the side of the road, thinking that surely he was engaged in looting and robbery and other criminality.
But it shouldn’t matter. And it didn’t matter to the Samaritan because the Samaritan knew instinctually what I’m sure you’ve heard many times, Jesus’s words in Matthew 25:40: as you’ve done to the least of these, you’ve done unto me.
Which means, in the face of this traveler lying beaten up on the side of the road, this man lying in the aftermath of the protest, it doesn’t matter his background nor his previous actions because, in looking at his face, the Samaritan saw Jesus.
When you consider your enemies, the people you hate, the people you despise, the people who have done you wrong and you’re still learning to forgive them, the people whom you judge harshly, the people you see depicted in the news whom you blame for our country’s condition, the people who are so far removed from your political persuasion you think of them only in political terms; when you think of any or all of those people, do you see the face of Jesus?
As you have done unto the least of these, you’ve done unto me.
When you see photos of protesters, whether for civil liberties or for black lives, do you see the face of Jesus?
When you see federal officials sent to cities to clear protests, do you see the face of Jesus?
When you look at Nancy Pelosi or Donald Trump, do you see the face of Jesus?
When you run into family members you despise, when you see the friend in town you betrayed you, when you find yourself staring face to face at someone whom you hate, who rankles you on the inside in a way you find difficult to control, do you see the face of Jesus?
As you’ve done unto the least of these, you’ve done unto me.
The least of these can mean many things, but here we mean those people we hold in the least, the lowest regard; the people we consider the scum of the earth. When we see these least, these people we think of as the worst of creation, do we see Jesus?
Jesus is in all of us. In the beginning, God created us in God’s own image. That includes Jesus. We all bear the face of Jesus, even if we don’t confess his name. We all bear the likeness of God, even if we refuse to believe God exists.
It’s tempting to justify ourselves, thinking about all the times we have loved our neighbor as ourselves to convince ourselves that we’re already keeping the commandment; that we’re already doing good enough.
But if we’re bold, just like our children learned in VBS, with Jesus’s power we can be bold enough to see ourselves as the lawyer, the one who wanted to justify himself, so that we can see where we are not loving our neighbors, where we can do better.
And to do better, learn to see the face of Jesus in the face of the people you struggle to love. When Jesus looks down at them, Jesus sees himself, a reflection, the image of God that lies within all of us. We can learn to see all of us, no matter what, that way.
We can learn, but I confess to you that it’s still a struggle for me. But perhaps that’s the best place to begin: with the struggle. To confess this morning that we’re not perfectly loving our neighbor as ourselves, that we all have room for improvement, that we can all get better by loving those in our lives who are hardest to love as we love ourselves.
So freely confess this morning that you have work to do, that you have room for improvement, that there are people in your life, whether you see them through a screen or know them personally, that you need to learn how to love as you love ourselves.
How are you justifying yourself? Let’s stop doing that.
Whom in your life do you find hard to love? Look at their picture today. See the face of Jesus.
Be the lawyer. Do the hard work of reflection. For then, we will begin to love those hardest to love as we love ourselves.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.