The Man in the Ditch
July 10, 2004
Every once in awhile it is valuable to take a parable and turn it upside down. This is particularly true of today’s parable of the Good Samaritan, because the meaning of this parable is so well known that it is almost a cliché: we are to act like the Good Samaritan and help others who are in need. The parable has even influenced the English Language. If you were to stop and help someone fix a flat tire, that person could likely call you a “Good Samaritan.” We have “Good Samaritan laws” that penalize people who do not help others in certain circumstances. Now there is nothing wrong with reading this parable as an invitation for us to help those in need. But if any parable needed a new twist or a different perspective, it would be this one.
So how can we read the parable differently? We can do so by changing the character in the parable with whom we identify. Instead of seeing ourselves as the character who gives (that is the Samaritan) we can see ourselves as the character who receives (the man who fell in with the robbers). This radically changes the meaning of the parable. Instead of inviting us to give to others, the parable shows us how God gives to us, how salvation comes to us, how the kingdom enters our lives. We can even change the name of the parable. Instead of calling it the parable of “The Good Samaritan,” we can call it the parable of “The Man in the Ditch.” We can ask how is that man saved? How does life come to him?
It comes as a surprise and as a gift. The parable is telling us that often God comes into our life as a surprise. The man in the ditch would have expected that the priest and the Levite, good people that they were, would stop to help him. They did not. But who could have thought that a Samaritan would have pity on him? Remember Jews and Samaritans were enemies and would not even greet one another on the street. So who could have guessed that this Samaritan would stop and show him mercy? No one. It was a surprise. In the same way, God surprises us.
God’s coming is also a gift. The parable tells us that God sends us life without our ability to earn or merit it. The man in the ditch could have called out to the priest or the Levite, reminding them of their obligation to help him as a fellow Jew. But what claim could he make upon his enemy, the Samaritan? The Samaritan could rightly say to him, “I owe you nothing,” and he would be right. Therefore, his willingness to stop and help was a total gift, a complete grace. That is how God comes into our lives.
The parable of The Man in the Ditch tells us that life comes to us in ways we can never predict or ever deserve. Your own experience of life confirms this. Look at the surprises in your life: the way you met your spouse, the work your children chose to do, the decisions that led you to where you live and with whom you associate. Who could have predicted any of these things? Look at how much in your life is unearned: that you were born in this country, your health, the people who love you. No one owes this to you. Yet it is your life. It comes as a gift.
If God comes to us as a surprise and as a gift, it is clear that there is no way we can control God’s presence. We can, however, get ready for it. We can open ourselves to God’s will. The stance of the believer is a radical openness to whatever God will do. We should never say to ourselves, “God cannot do this for me.” God is always surprising us. So we can find someone to love us, we can fight this cancer or this addiction, we can find the strength to understand and forgive. We should never try to limit God’s activity to only the things that are due to us. God is always giving us more than our due. Therefore, we should willingly seize whatever opportunity is given, appreciate the relationships that are ours, and be willing to accept help from another.
The key to the kingdom of God is radical openness to God’s will, knowing that God will always surprise us and embarrass us with generosity. The lawyer in the Gospel asks Jesus, “Teacher, what I must I do to gain eternal life?” The Parable of the Man in the Ditch has the answer. It tells us that each day we should wake up, put our two feet on the floor and say, “Lord, here I am. Surprise me with more than I deserve!”
Being the Person in the Ditch
July 15, 2007
Jesus’ favorite way of teaching was by parables. And no parable has only one meaning. For example, when we hear today’s parable about the good Samaritan, we immediately place ourselves in the role of the Samaritan. We imagine that the parable is telling us to help others in need as the Samaritan does. This is a valid and common way of understanding the parable. In fact, we even have “Good Samaritan laws” which tell us that we cannot stand idly by while someone is in dire need. So helping someone else is certainly a valid way of reading this parable. But it is not the only way of reading the parable.
A very different and more profound way of reading the parable occurs when we identify not with the Samaritan but with the man who fell in with the robbers. As long as we see ourselves as the Samaritan we are the helpers, we are the ones giving to others. When we see ourselves as the man who fell in with robbers we become the ones who need help, we are the ones who must receive. When we see ourselves as the Samaritan, the parable calls us to give to others in need. When we see ourselves in the role of the man in the ditch, the parable asks us to realize how God saves us. From the perspective of the man in the ditch, this parable is about the way that God helps us, the way that God brings us to salvation.
So imagine yourself in this parable. You are the person walking down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. You are attacked by the robbers who strip you and beat you and leave you in the ditch half dead. You are in dire need and you wait for someone to help you. Your heart rises as you see two honorable and respectful people coming down the road, the priest and the Levite. But neither of them stops to help you. Then you see a Samaritan coming down the road. Now remember, at the time of Jesus, Jews and Samaritans were enemies to one another. In the world of the parable, seeing a Samaritan come down the road is seeing your enemy come down the road. Now then, you see the person you like the least, the person who has hurt you the most, the person over whose injuries you have brooded day after day. That person is now coming down the road. What will he do? Will he attack you? Will he ignore you? No. He stops to help you. You are now saved, but not in any way that you could have suspected. You are saved, but not by anyone you would have chosen to save you.
And this is the point of the parable. From the viewpoint of the man in the ditch, this parable tells us that God will save us, but not always in the way we expect or even desire. The parable tells us that God is in charge, and God will decide how salvation comes. Often God will lead us to life in ways that surprise us and even shock us. We all want life, life for ourselves and for those that we love, and we turn to God and we ask for life. God hears our prayers and answers them, but not always in ways we anticipate. Sometimes the road to life is painful. Sometimes it passes through disappointments and failures. Sometimes we arrive at life only through the agency of people we do not like and would rather avoid.
God will save us. God will bring us to life, but on God’s terms, not on our terms. We do not get to choose the way in which salvation comes, we can only embrace it when it arrives. That’s why the fundamental stance of any Christian is one of surrender. However it comes, our role is to surrender ourselves to God’s mercy, knowing that God might choose to give us life in ways that we cannot anticipate and sometimes in ways we would not prefer. In the gospel, the lawyer asks Jesus the question, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” To that question, this parable answers, “Find your place in the ditch and wait.”
Choosing Heroes with Care
July 11, 2010
Luke 10: 25 – 37
I am really not that much of a sports fan. But I do live in Northern Ohio, So I have been unable this week (as I expect you have been unable) to avoid the furor over “The Decision.” The decision of which I speak, of course, is the decision of Lebron James to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers and play for the Miami Heat. Everybody has an opinion on the decision: why Lebron left, why he should have stayed, and how you should feel about it. But all this media frenzy has led me to reflect on the role of heroes in our society and in our lives. How does the example of others either add to or detract from who we are?
We all need role models. We need people we can look to and say, “I want to be like that.” We need to be able to see in the life, actions, and decisions of others the way to discover what is really important and valuable in our lives.
Jesus knew this truth. When the lawyer in today’s Gospel asked him, “Who is my neighbor,” he did not give a short answer. Instead he told a story, because he wanted to point to a person, a person who could serve as the role model for the lawyer and in whose actions the lawyer could see what it meant to be a neighbor. Jesus points to a Samaritan, to a man who despite the hostility between Jews and Samaritans nevertheless set aside his prejudice and convenience to show mercy to the Jew who had fallen in with the robbers. Jesus sets this man up as a role model for the lawyer so that he could see generosity, sacrifice, and mercy and understand how to act. Jesus’ strategy is clear. At the end of the parable he says “Go, and do likewise.” He wants the lawyer to follow the Samaritan’s example, to be like him.
We all need people to look up to. We all need role models to follow. We need heroes to show us the way. The trick is which heroes will we choose? There is an inclination in our society to set up sports figures as role models for ourselves and our children. This is understandable. Sports figures are very talented people. They are usually very financially successful. They live in a world of glamour and adulation. But are these people who we really want to choose to serve as examples to our families?
Mr. James admission on national television this week that what guided his life is, “What would make Lebron James happy,” is disappointing in this respect. Mr. James certainly has the right to be happy. He is a free agent, and he can play wherever he chooses to play. But revealing that your core value is making yourself happy hardly qualifies you as a hero. I think we would be better served to look elsewhere to find role models who can lead us in the right direction.
I think those role models are close at hand. For some of us we might be fortunate enough to have a mother, father or spouse who can be our hero. We might be able to see in that person’s love and sacrifice the secret of what really brings joy into life. How about the single mom who lives down the street, who works two part-time jobs and spends her evenings helping her three daughters with their math homework? I think she could show me something about how to live. How about the young man who just graduated from college and has decided to spend two years teaching reading to children in Appalachia? I think there is something in his life that I could look up to and imitate. How about the 88 year old woman with crippling arthritis in the nursing home who lives each day in pain but never complains? She is always positive and lifts the spirits of anyone who visits her because she greets them with a warm smile and the question “How are you today?” That woman is a hero for me.
There are heroes all around us. We are surrounded by role models we can follow, people we can look up to and discover in their lives what really matters. Most of them will never throw a touchdown pass or sink a crucial basket in the NBA playoffs. But, like the Good Samaritan, they show us that it is through generosity, sacrifice, and mercy that we find eternal life. We need their example because there are times we become discouraged and lost. It is by looking to their witness that we can say to ourselves, “If that person can live in that way, so can I.”
The simple truth is this: We do not find our way to God simply on our own efforts. We need the example to others to show the way. We will not be successful without heroes. We just need to be careful about which heroes we pick.
To Welcome as a Samaritan
July 14, 2013
Today’s gospel is more about actions than motives. We see what all the characters do, but it is not clear why they do it. Why for example do the priest and the Levite pass the man who has been attacked on the road and do not stop? Could it be that they were on their way to an important appointment? Were they perhaps afraid to become involved in this violent scene where a beating took place? Or did they have just something else on their minds? The parable does not tell us.
The Samaritan stopped because he was moved with compassion. But the parable does not tell us the reason for his compassion. The story does not disclose the motives of the characters because its main emphasis is on their actions. The priest and the Levite do not stop. The Samaritan does. The priest and the Levite do not show compassion. The Samaritan does. Clearly we are meant to follow the example of the Samaritan. We are not to pass people by. We are not to ignore their presence. We like the Samaritan are to stop and connect with people who are journeying with us on the road of life.
Now of course, when we stop, if they need help we should try to help them. But the example of the Samaritan is much larger than helping people in need. The Samaritan also gives us an example of welcoming the stranger, of recognizing the presence of someone we meet, of welcoming another into our life.
I would like to apply this trait of welcoming to our parish here at St. Noel. From the time I became pastor here I was always, and continue to be, impressed by the welcoming nature of our community. Indeed, as new parishioners register most mention how welcomed they feel when they first came to St. Noel. This characteristic of welcoming was so important that our Parish Pastoral Council included it as part of our mission statement. We are “a community committed to gracious welcoming.”
A few months ago we passed out a survey that allowed people to respond to the mission statement. The overwhelming majority affirmed the characteristic of being a welcoming community. But interestingly enough there were a handful of people who mentioned that when they first came to St. Noel they did not feel welcomed. For whatever reason, no one said hello, no one greeted them, no one made them feel at home. Now the fact that a few people did not feel welcomed does not mean that we are a cold community. But it does calls us to do a better job of welcoming, to focus on how to increase this characteristic in our community.
This is what the Pastoral Council discussed for several months this spring, looking at a variety of opportunities and possibilities of increasing the welcoming nature of our community. We discussed at length whether we should establish a Welcoming Ministry, a group of people who would stand at the doors of the church and welcome people as they came to Mass. But the more we discussed that possibility the less we like it. Welcoming others cannot be relegated to a small group within the parish. All of us need to be people who welcome one another regularly and openly. It is an essential part of being a parishioner. We are all called to follow the example of the Samaritan, to stop and recognize the presence of a brother or sister and welcome others into our lives.
So this is my appeal to you today. I would like you to welcome the people around you, and I mean that literally. Look at the people who are sitting around you. Some of them you know. Some of them you don’t know. I ask you, after mass today, to say hello to someone around you, especially someone you might not know, to welcome one another as fellow parishioners of St. Noel.
Now if this is a little embarrassing, you can put it on me. You can go up to someone and say, “You know, I’ve been sitting next to you for ten years and I don’t know who you are. But Fr. George told me to ask you.” It’s fine. Be like the Good Samaritan. Stop. Reach out. Connect with someone who is making the journey of faith with you. Now of course, at the end of mass, you can throw your hymnal into the rack and run out to your car, passing by everyone on the way. But then you would be following the example of the priest or the Levite. That is not what Christ asks of us. He asks us to stop, like the Samaritan. The Samaritan is the one who welcomes. The Samaritan is the helper. The Samaritan is the disciple and the neighbor. This is why Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”
Violence in America
July 10, 2016
Luke 10: 25-27
It has been a bad week. Despite the sincere efforts of many people of good will to build peace and understanding in our country, two black Americans were fatally shot by police—one in Minnesota and one in Louisiana. Then a deranged black sniper killed five white police officers in Dallas. This is not the kind of country we want. We want a country of peace, where our children and our grandchildren can grow without fear, where we can live, and move and express ourselves without danger of harm. But the racism in our country seems to undermine this desire at every turn. Time and time again, we witness people on both sides of the racial divide being struck down by deadly force. There is no simple way to eliminate this scourge of violence that attacks our country. It will take years, perhaps generations, for police officers, the black community, and all of us to find a way to truly live in peace with one another.
But there is one thing that each of us can do today. It may not seem very significant, but it is a beginning. What each of us can do is watch the way we react to racial violence, to track the way our heart moves when we hear of these tragedies among us. For each of our hearts will move either towards judgment or towards compassion. When we move towards judgment we seek to place blame. (And don’t get me wrong. Blame must be placed. People on both sides of the racial divide have to be held accountable for their actions.) But when our focus is only to place blame, that blame hardens us into the groups that racism creates. We say, “Police always overreach in their exercise of power.” Or we say, “All black people are disrespectful of authority.” When we place blame, we end up hardening ourselves into the groups that divide us.
Compassion is different. Compassion seeks to find, even in situations where so much is wrong, a humanity that still unites us. Compassion tries to understand the frustration of the police officers who place their lives daily in danger, often in thankless situations. Compassion tries to understand the fear of black Americans who know that statistics show that, when they are stopped by the police, they are less likely to experience a fair and just outcome.
This choice between judgment and compassion lies at the heart of today’s gospel. The hatred in Jesus’ time between Jews and Samaritans was as real and as divisive as racism in our country. And yet, when the Samaritan sees a Jew in a dire situation, he is moved with compassion, and he stops to help. He could have said, “That is my enemy. He is of no concern to me.” But he does not. Instead of seeing a Jew in the ditch, he sees a neighbor. This parable then, of the Good Samaritan, calls us in times of fear and violence to move towards compassion. Compassion can find reasons to unite us on both sides of the racial divide. With that understanding of what we share in common, we are more able to undermine the violence that racism often generates.
Of course, even if you and I today move our hearts less towards judgment and more to compassion, it will not suddenly bring peace to our country. There are many more hearts that need to be moved. But, it is a beginning. And it will also show us to be disciples of Jesus, who commended the compassion of the Samaritan, and who tells us “Go, and do likewise.”
God Is Free
July 14, 2019
You might think that you know the meaning of the parable of the Good Samaritan. But maybe not. Almost everyone would say that the point of this parable is to help whoever we meet who is in need. The parable certainly means that. But there is another, deeper meaning that is also possible. This meaning emerges when we appreciate the shock that must have occurred when Jesus first told this parable to his Jewish audience. Jesus makes the hero of this parable someone that Jews hated. He makes the hero of this parable a Samaritan.
Jews and Samaritans were enemies for centuries. If you consider the modern-day antipathy between Jews and Palestinians, you will have some sense of what the relationship between Jews and Samaritans were at the time of Jesus. But in this parable, Jesus makes a Samaritan the person who helps the man in the ditch. By doing this, he presents the Samaritan as God’s agent, as the one God uses to save the Jewish person who was beaten by the robbers. The text is very explicit on this. There are other characters in the story who would be much more likely candidates to help the man who was in trouble. The priest and the Levite were respected religious members of the community. Everyone would suppose that they would stop and help, but they do not. The Samaritan does.
If Jesus was telling this story to us today, it might sound something like this. A man fell victim to robbers as he was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. They stripped him and beat him, and went off leaving him half dead. Now, Pope Francis happened to be going down that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. Likewise, Mother Theresa came to that place, and when she saw him, she passed by on the opposite side. But then, Osama Bin Laden came upon him, and when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. He approached him, and poured oil and wine on his wounds, and bandaged them. Then he lifted him on his own animal, and took him to the inn, and cared for him. The next day he took out two silver pieces, and instructed the inn keeper, “Take care of him, and if you spend anything more than what I have given to you, I will repay you on my way back”. The shock of Jesus’ parable is that he makes the least likely character – the most hated character – the one who helps the man in the ditch.
What this parable then is telling us is that any person in our life, no matter how unlikely, could, on any specific day, be the person that God sends to help us. Every situation, no matter how hopeless, is still a situation in which God might choose to save us.
There might be a member of your family you can’t stand, and every time you encounter this person, there is a problem. There might be someone at school or at work whom you have written off as a loser. This parable tells us that God is capable of sending that person to you in your time of need. There might be someone in the public sphere with whom you disagree violently, a politician or a government official for whom you have no respect. This parable says that God is free to use even that person to bring about a good thing, for you or for our country. You might find yourself in a hopeless situation, a situation where you are overcome with the grief of someone you love or a facing a fatal diagnosis of cancer. This parable says that even in that darkness, God is still able to find a way to bless you.
Now of course, the people who usually help us are the people we love and respect. The situations in which we usually recognize God’s blessings are situations of success and joy. But the parable of the Good Samaritan tells us that God will not be limited by any person or any situation. God will bring salvation how and when God chooses. So be warned. Be ready. It might be in a time of loss or pain that you discover for the first time what is really important in life. It might be your enemy that God sends down the road to save you.