Sunday, July 7, 2013

Sermon: "The View from the Ditch"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
 July 7, 2013
Luke 10:25-37

 “The View from the Ditch”

The morning sun had just appeared over the horizon, when the man regained consciousness.
The smell of wet grass and rotting vegetation quickly overcame him.
It was then that he realized that he was face down on the ground,
…lying in a drainage ditch on the road down from Jerusalem to Jericho.

The man used what little strength he had left to roll himself over.
And when he did he screamed out in pain.
It felt like a thousand knives were tearing through his body as the pain shot through his back, his chest, and the hip that he must have landed on when he fell.  He tried to open his eyes but they were swollen shut.
His head was pounding, and as he reached up to touch his face he could feel the dried blood caked around his nose and mouth.

“How did I get here?” the man wondered aloud.
Did he trip and fall? Was he hit from behind by a runaway cart, or animal?
Then it all came flooding back.
It was approaching dusk the night before when he came around a bend in the road and there they were. Men with cloaks concealing their faces.
First one, then two, then three more, leaping out at him from behind a large rock.
The men descended upon him and began pounding on him with their fists.
He instinctively covered his face and turned to get away, but one of his attackers pushed him to the ground and soon they were all kicking him as hard as they could. What happened next was a blur.

The last thing the man remembered was being stripped of his clothing and his belongings.
The coat that his mother had insisted he take to guard against the chill of the dessert nights.
The sandals his wife had woven for him with loving care.
The lucky pendent that his youngest child had slipped into his belt pouch the night before he left home.
But worst of all, his attackers took the money purse he had hidden beneath his cloak.
Six months worth of wages that he had earned working in Jerusalem.
Money that was earmarked as the final payment on a fishing boat that he desperately needed to support his family back in Jericho.
And now it was gone.

His friends had warned him about the road down to Jericho.
The twisting, desolate mountain road that descends for 17 miles from the hills of Jerusalem to the valleys below was prime territory for ambushers. The locals called it the “The Bloody Pass.”

Now he knew why. He had ignored the warnings, and here he was, lying motionless and left for dead in a ditch.
The rising sun burned on his face, and it was hours before he heard the footsteps of an approaching traveler on the road.
Finally, help had arrived.
The man turned his head and with shear will forced one of his swollen eyes to open, just in time to see a man wearing the cloak of a priest cross over to the opposite side of the road.
Perhaps the Priest didn’t see him because he was too far down in the ditch.
The man weakly called out for help, but the Priest continued on, never once looking back.

The sun continued to beat down upon the man.
Another hour had passed before he heard footsteps on the road once again.
He recognized the approaching figure of a Levite, a member of the caste who assisted the Priests in the Temple.
This time the man did not have the strength to make a sound, but again he pried open one eye and to his relief he saw the Levite looking right at him.
But that relief quickly turned to horror as the Levite too crossed over to the other side and hurried off leaving the injured man alone once again.

The man could not believe what was happening.
It was possible that Levite and the Priest had feared that touching his beaten and bloodied body would render them unclean for the Temple rites, but they were both heading away from the Temple in Jerusalem towards Jericho. They had no reason not to stop and help an injured man, and a fellow Jew at that!

It was then that the man realized that it was NOT obvious that he was a fellow Jew.  All of his clothing had been taken; including the prayer shawl he had draped across his shoulders under his cloak.

The Priest and the Levite must have thought he was a God-less gentile, or a clumsy drunkard, or worse, a Samaritan - One of those blasphemers from up north who dared to claim that they too are descendents of Abraham, even though their blood is not pure, and they deny the writings of the prophets. These Samaritans even made the heretical claim that God resides not in Jerusalem, but in the Temple that THEY built on top of Mount Gerizim. As if the noble God of Israel would ever enter the filthy land of Samaria.

Now the man understood why the Levite and the Priest had passed him by.
He could have been anyone. 
Perhaps they were afraid that the robbers were still in the area.
Or they feared he was one of the robbers, posing as bait and just waiting for some unsuspecting fool to stop and offer help. 
“You can never be too careful on a road like this,” the man thought.
Wouldn’t he do the same if he was passing through a bad neighborhood and saw someone in need? Only a fool would let down his guard and risk his life to help a stranger on the road to Jericho.

With a heavy heart, the man resigned himself to his fate.
He would die anonymously in this ditch, with his family left to wonder what ever became of him.

It was late afternoon, when something, someone, caused him to stir once again.
He felt a hand cradling the back of his head while another hand tended to his injuries - First washing the blood off his face and then bandaging the wounds on his body.
He could feel himself being lifted up and gently, he was draped across the back of a donkey, with a blanket laid across him to protect him from the sun.

The man drifted in and out of consciousness for what seemed like hours before the gentle rocking motion of the animal ceased.
Strong arms lifted him off the animal’s back, and the air cooled around him as he was carried indoors. 
The chatter of voices and the scent of a simmering pot of stew filled the air. The man was carried up a set of stairs and placed on a soft bed, where he promptly fell into a deep sleep.

 In the morning as he awoke, he heard a stranger’s voice summon an innkeeper. The next sound he heard was the tinkling of silver coins, and the stranger’s voice saying, “Here are two denari, take care of this man; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.”

With the voices receding into the distance, a young boy entered the room to leave water by the man’s bedside.
“Who was it that saved me?” the man whispered through his parched lips.
“Was it the Levite? Or the Priest? Did they summon help?
Did one of them return to dress my wounds and bring me here?”
“No,” said the boy.
“The man who saved you was not a Levite or a Priest, in fact he was not a member of any local sect by the looks of his dress.”
“But you can ask him yourself,” the boy said. “The stranger said he would be passing through here again…on his way home to Samaria.”


We don’t know how the man reacted to this news.
To the realization that his most hated enemy was the one who saved him.
The end of the story is left to our imagination.
But then again, many of the details in this version of the Good Samaritan tale that you just heard are the product of imagination.
The author of the Gospel of Luke does not tell us who the beaten man is.
He doesn’t tell us how the man reacted when the Priest and Levite passed him by, or how he came to accept the help of the Samaritan.

We’re left to imagine how we might feel if we were in his place…but the view from the ditch is one that we don’t often envision for ourselves.

When we hear the tale of the Good Samaritan, we typically enter the story from one of three familiar perspectives:
We put ourselves in the place of the hypocritical Levite and Priest who give into busyness or fear and walk away from someone in need;
We put ourselves in the place of the traveling Samaritan, who puts his prejudices aside and shows compassion for a stranger;
And we put ourselves in the place of the conniving lawyer in the story’s introduction, who prompts the tale by asking Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” when what he is really wants to ask is: “Who is NOT my neighbor. Who can I continue to fear and distrust AND STILL inherit eternal life?

Through the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus teaches us that we should not let our fears or prejudices get in the way of honoring God’s greatest commandment:
To love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, AND to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.

The message that we typically derive from this parable is that we are to be like the Good Samaritan and show mercy to all. And we are NOT to be like the Levite, the Priest, or the lawyer, who failed to do so.

But what about the man who was left to die in the ditch?
How might we be more like him?
What if Jesus told this story because he intended for us to put ourselves in the ditch most of all?

Perhaps we’re less inclined to take on this perspective because the parable of the Good Samaritan has lost its sting over the last 2000 years.
Most modern day Christians have only a vague awareness that the Samaritans and the Jews did not particularly like each other….and we don’t fully comprehend how shocking it was for Jesus’ followers to hear a story that cast a Samaritan in the role as the righteous and merciful rescuer.

A first century Jew would be repulsed to hear that they were called to accept help from, or imitate the behavior of a Samaritan.
This story forced them to recognize and confront life-long patterns of learned hatred and fear.

In our time, however, the phrase “Good Samaritan” has taken on a completely different meaning. The phrase has worked its way into our secular vernacular and has come to describe anyone who stops to help a stranger.
In fact, we no longer need to use the word “Good” as a qualifying adjective because the name “Samaritan” itself has come to describe someone who is “merciful,” “compassionate,” and “selfless.”
If a first century Jew heard us using the word Samaritan in this manner, he or she would cringe.

For us it would be like redefining the word “Nazi” or “Terrorist” to mean a person of good intentions and good will.
As in, “My car broke down on the highway last night, but thankfully a Good Terrorist stopped to help me.”

If this comparison sounds overly harsh to our ears you can imagine what the people of Judea heard when Jesus descried their hated enemy as “good”.

To garner the full effect of the parable as Jesus intended it, we need to turn it upside down. Instead of putting ourselves in the place of the Levite, the Priest, or the Samaritan and imagining whom WE would be reluctant to help, we might instead see the story unfold from the perspective of the person needing the help.

If we were the one lying in the ditch who would be our Samaritan?   
Who do we imagine would NOT stop to help us?
Who do we imagine would be indifferent to our pain or delight in our misfortune?
And can we picture that person being the one whom we most need to come to our rescue?

We may fully believe that we as faithful Christians are capable of extending love and mercy to our enemy, but do we also believe that our enemy is capable of extending love and mercy to us?

Just as it was healing for the people of Judea listening to Jesus’ parable to see their enemy as being capable of feeling love and mercy for a stranger, it is healing for us to see our enemy in the same way. Our enemy is our neighbor.
By reversing the perspective of the parable of the Good Samaritan, we begin to see that our only hope for healing is to open our hearts to the people we most fear and distrust.

Martin Luther King Jr. lifted up the parable of the Good Samaritan in his famous “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” speech, given the day before he was assassinated, in April 1963.
King noted that the first question that the Levite and the Priest asked was,
"If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?"
But when the Good Samaritan came along, he reversed the question and asked, "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?"

We might extend King’s reversal of perspective by asking yet another question, “If we do not stop to help each other, or accept help from each other, what will happen to us?”

The Kingdom of God, the reign of God, the building of God’s inclusive and loving world here on earth is fully dependent upon our willingness to open our hearts to one another.
So we must ask ourselves, who are the people in our time that we most fear and distrust?
And how might they be the source of our healing?

If we look up from the ditch and see the face of our enemy – whoever that enemy is to us – Jew or gentile, male or female, gay or straight, Christian or Muslim, Conservative or Liberal, native or immigrant, black, white, brown, yellow, or red - this is the person whom Jesus calls to love as our neighbor.

This is the person who holds the key to our salvation.
Because as long as our relationships with each other remain broken and wounded our world will remain broken and wounded.
Healing comes only through love.
Compassion and mercy comes only through love.
Understanding and forgiveness comes only through love.

The lawyer said to Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”
And Jesus pointed to the ditch and said,
“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
The man answered, “The one who showed him mercy.”

And Jesus said to him, “Yes. Now go and do likewise.”