One man come in the name of love
One man come and go
One come he to justify
One man to overthrow
In the name of love
What more in the name of love
In the name of love
What more in the name of love
One man caught on a barbed wire fence
One man he resist
One man washed on an empty beach.
One man betrayed with a kiss
In the name of love
What more in the name of love
In the name of love
What more in the name of love
Early morning, April 4
Shot rings out in the Memphis sky
Free at last, they took your life
They could not take your pride – U2′s Pride(In the Name of Love)
A lawyer came to Jesus with a question about eternal life. Jesus referred him back to his own faith tradition. “What have you read? What do you know?” And the lawyer said, “Love God and love your neighbor.” Jesus said, “Right answer.” But the lawyer wanted a more accurate way of keeping score, so he said, “But who is my neighbor?”
And then Jesus told one of his stories. This is one of Jesus’ best stories, in my opinion and one of his best known. Can you remember a time when you did not know the story of the Good Samaritan? Doesn’t it seem like this is a story we have known since we were knee-high to a grasshopper?
Is it still too familiar of a story for the shock value of Jesus casting the Samaritan as the story’s protagonist to be lost in translation? So what if we update it? Set the story outside Lambeau field in Green Bay during football season, dress the guy in the ditch in green and gold sporting a foam cheese wedge hat, and it could be the Good Chicago Bears fan. Put an evangelical conservative fundamentalist in the ditch and make it the “Good Atheist” coming to his rescue. Put a U.S. Soldier in the ditch and make it the “Good Afghani”. Put a Palestinian in the ditch and make it the “Good Israeli”. Put a pro-choice, liberal Wall Street occupying environmentalist in the ditch and make it the “Good Tea Partier”. Put the GOP establishment in the the ditch and make it the “Good Governor Palin”. Can you visualize the hatred between Jews and Samaritans better now? Can you understand how it was so shocking that the one who helped the man in need was considered his enemy?
Jesus’ story takes place on the Jericho Road, that place of violence and oppression and suffering that is still very much with us. The story takes place on the Jericho Road, that dangerous stretch of 17 miles between Jerusalem and Jericho. In those 17 miles, the road drops 3,600 feet. It is a steep, winding road. It was one long day’s journey to travel this road between Jerusalem and Jericho. You set out early to be sure you were off the road before nightfall, and even in daylight you were on your guard because it was well known for bandits. Today it is a place of relative safety, but in Jesus’ time it was 17 miles of watchfulness, 17 miles of potential violence.
How often when we’ve heard the story of the Good Samaritan, we have instinctively identified ourselves with at least three of the characters: either the priest or the Levite (and we like to think we’re not one of them), or we’ve identified with and wished that we could be the Good Samaritan. Perhaps we have been in a similar situation. We’ve been walking along a trail or driving along a highway and we see somebody in distress—a white handkerchief being waved, a call for help. In those seconds between when we see somebody in trouble and we’re already upon them, or perhaps even past them, a barrage of questions goes through our mind. Should I stop and help? What risk is there if I stop and help? What does it mean to my family if my wife or my husband, my children, my grandchildren are along with me? Am I going to get myself involved in a situation from which it will be hard to extract myself? Perhaps we are late for an appointment, and if we delay any longer it will be inconvenient for our guest or we will miss our flight. All these questions go through our mind in the seconds between when we see somebody in distress and when we are upon them. Perhaps we have already passed them by and we see them in the rear-view mirror, but even though they are out of our sight, the memory lingers in our heart and mind and there is a piece of us that feels guilty. We say to ourselves, “Next time we’re on the road and somebody is stranded, we’ll stop.” Perhaps that’s how we’ve often heard this story. We have identified with the priest or the Levite or the Samaritan. .
We have probably heard the parable of the Good Samaritan many times, because it is a popular topic for ministers or priests to give sermons on. Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr was no exception. He preached on the Good Samaritan story many times. The night before he was assassinated he was giving a speech in Memphis and trying to explain how he became embroiled in a sanitation workers’ strike there. To answer the question “Why Memphis?” he used the parable of the Samaritan to paint a picture of why we should help others in distress. His closest aides asked the same question and reminded him that he had more important things to do. Memphis was not a strategic city. The sanitation workers were not attractive victims like the children of Birmingham or the voters of Selma.
The historian Taylor Branch tells the back story. Local residents had objected to the sanitation workers’ practice of eating lunch and “picnicking” (as they called it) outside the trucks. And so the workers were instructed to eat in the truck — but the cab of a truck will not accommodate a crew of four. One rainy afternoon, two of the workers crawled into the compactor on the back of the truck to eat their sandwiches. Something shorted in the electrical gear, the system engaged, and the two workers were compacted, like garbage. It’s no wonder that later, when their colleagues went on strike, many of them wore signs that read, “I am a man.”
A certain man was making a dangerous journey from Jerusalem to Jericho when he fell among thieves and was robbed, thrown in a ditch and left for dead. In his speech King declares that in Memphis the man in the ditch is the sanitation worker. He tries to imagine why two religious professionals, the priest and Levite, didn’t stop to help. Perhaps, he says, it was because they were late for a meeting of the Jericho Improvement Association, or perhaps it was because they were more concerned with the law that forbids defilement, or perhaps it was because they were just plain afraid. You stop on a road like that, and you may well be the next victim. You open your home to the wrong people, and they will rob you blind. You stand up for the wrong cause, and your reputation may wind up in the ditch. In his speech, King says even honorable people ask, “What will happen to me if I stop?” The real question, King said in his last speech, is not, “What will happen to me if I do stop?” but, “What will happen to them if I do not?” Thus for King, Memphis did not represent a detour from a more important destination.
Martin Luther King also painted the picture of the Good Samaritan differently. In another, more profound version of the story, the person in the ditch is not the sanitation worker, or the black man, or the poor woman, or the immigrant. We are in the ditch. America is in the ditch. It is America, as he often said, that has lost its way on a dangerous road. I believe the United States is on that same dangerous road today. Our nation has been stripped of her ideals and fundamental commitments and is in desperate need of rescue. King lamented over the environment of the times – one of class warfare and division. We find ourselves at that same road. Our president is using class warfare as a major theme in his 2012 re-election bid. Our Jericho road is fraught with danger.
If America is in the ditch, who is this Samaritan? Jesus himself gives the answer, but it’s not the one we want. The Good Samaritan is the foreigner, the outsider, the “other.” The Good Samaritan is the last person you want to see when you’re in need of a helping hand. In his day, King identified the Good Samaritan with the black civil rights movement. By its willingness to suffer and work for change nonviolently, this movement would pull America (and the American church with it) out of the ditch.
In this telling of the story, the question is not, “Are you willing to stop and help?” but, “Are you ready to be rescued?” When Jesus first told the story, his hearers would have identified not with the helper but with the helpee, the man in the ditch. It’s the ordinary Jewish layperson on an ordinary little trip who winds up in the ditch. Thus Jesus is saying, “It’s somebody like you –why, it is you — you are the man or the woman in the ditch. You are the church in the ditch, the nation in the ditch.” Are you willing to concede that the example of people unlike you may prove redemptive for you? From whom are you willing to accept help? From whom are you willing to learn?
It was fear and not hardness of heart, which prevented the priest and the Levite from stopping to render assistance to the wounded traveler. It was fear that caused these good, Godly people to “pass by on the other side”. And it is fear that prevents us from responding with compassion to our neighbor in need, not fear of contamination, but fear of getting involved. We are afraid that if we stop and see the suffering we will be compelled to get involved, so we too “pass by on the other side”. We choose to live naively, oblivious to the suffering of our neighbors which is all around us. We close our eyes and our ears and our hearts, not because we are cold-hearted and we don’t care, but because we are afraid that if we really see, then we will be compelled to do whatever we can to reduce the suffering of our fellow human beings. It is our fear that keeps us from being more compassionate to one another. It is fear that blocks us. It is easy for us to be compassionate if we don’t have to sacrifice anything, if we don’t have to risk anything. If we can stay in our position of privilege and power and be compassionate, that’s fine and good. But what if you go beyond that? What if you really have to confront your fears of the other?
At this point in our history, you could say we’ve tried a lot of salvations. We’ve tried unbridled expressions of rage, we’ve tried conspiratorial theories, we’ve tried rights without responsibilities, we’ve taken refuge in socialist ideals seeking political saviors — and we are not saved.
To whom shall we turn? Are there any other options out there? In his day, King made a controversial proposal that is just as relevant today as when he spoke of it. On the basis of Jesus’ life, ministry and death on a cross, he suggested that we try to love one another. It’s hard to imagine how the idea of love could be controversial, especially coming from a preacher. But he made it very controversial, because he took love out from under the canopy of the pulpit, where it’s the safe, expected word, and injected it into the realm of social conflict and public policy. He was forever speaking about love in all the “wrong” places: on highways, in pool halls, city halls, fire-bombed churches, even in Page Auditorium (in a university that for all practical purposes was still segregated). When he might have been talking about revenge or strategy, he spoke of reconciliation.
If you think love is only a mushy feeling that comes with buttered popcorn during a chick flick, King’s use of the word will set your teeth on edge. If you believe love belongs only in private relationships, like romance or friendship, King’s use of it is unsettling. We’re tempted to say that love has no place in a violent world like ours, forgetting that the love of God in Jesus crashed into the political process and submitted to its rough justice. Jesus got himself crucified in a world like ours.
The story of the Good Samaritan is really two separate stories. Viewed from the road, it’s a story of encouragement to reach out to those who are lost and hurting, the way King did in Memphis, the way Jesus did throughout his ministry, the way we do in our better moments. But this same story, when viewed from the ditch, where all of us have been at one time or another takes on a different character. It asks an even more profound question: “Despite your own privileged education, your wealth, or your power — do you understand how God might be using someone or something you never imagined to teach you and make you new?”
Yes, it’s a dangerous road, the winding road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Just how dangerous? Forty-four years ago, it cost Martin Luther King his life. How dangerous? You stop on it to help someone, and you may be its next victim. Just how dangerous? It will disabuse you of everything you thought you knew about faith and politics, because on this road old enemies are transformed into new neighbors — and then friends. How dangerous? It will cause you to lift your arms for rescue to a crucified teller of tales.
In John Steinbeck’s classic, East of Eden, Liza Hamilton serves as the matriarch of her family. She is an advocate of biblical morality and reads the scriptures daily as
the guide for her life. Yet there are some cracks in her pious veneer. Steinbeck describes her use of the Bible sublimely:
“Her total intellectual association was the Bible… In that one book she
had her history and her poetry, her knowledge of peoples and things,
her ethics, her morals, and her salvation. She never studied the Bible
or inspected it; she just read it… And finally she came to a point where
she knew it so well that she went right on reading it without listening.”
The final line haunts me: “She went right on reading it without listening.” When we hear the story of the Good Samaritan, it is easy to move on quickly and to say, “Oh, yeah, we know what that one’s about; that’s about a man who helps another man, and that’s what we’re supposed to do.”
Biblical texts that are familiar to us are often the very ones whose messages have often been muted rather than released. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew there so much more to this story than just a man helping another man; there’s more than a cutting critique of religious leaders who are callous. There’s more to it than a model of neighborliness. He knew Jesus was challenging people to explore God’s expectations for His people. Instead of being like the lawyer in this narrative who wonders what he can do to get ahead in a religious sense, Jesus talks about loving God and neighbor. He talks about ‘putting our money where our mouths are’ and actually doing something to help. It’s not about checking off boxes, not about keeping score, or making A’s on our religious report cards. King said, “A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring” We cannot just throw money at the problems our country must has to deal with. We must face the problems with action through loving one another. Christ talked about violence and danger – and we certainly have plenty of that today. In the Good Samaritan, Jesus tears down notions of status and invites us, the hearers, to become part of God’s radical plan for the world – to love one another as He has loved us. We need that type of radical love to come to our towns in order to transform our nation.