The text of the sermon, based on Luke 10.25-37, preached with the people of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, on the 5th Sunday after Pentecost, July 10, 2022.
Stories we tell repeatedly over time can lose their power to arrest our attention. We know the details well. We no longer hear them or need to hear them.
Nevertheless, as an old story is told, if we look at the world around us, we might see something new. That old story, like a diamond once bright to the eye, dulled by familiarity, with a mere turn, might reveal a facet hitherto unseen.
Like the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
Jesus, a rabbi, a “Teacher,” and a lawyer debate about eternal life. Not afterlife, a life after this earthly existence, but the fullness of life of, for, in, and with God now.
In ancient Judaism, no distinction was made between civil and religious law. Thus, the lawyer is a scripture-scholar. This, then, is a verbal contest between theological heavyweights.
As suddenly as their deliberation begins, it’s over. Jesus and the lawyer agree that love – loving God and neighbor – is both the pathway to and the proof of eternal life.
However, the lawyer, on second thought, raises that ageless issue of identity and boundaries, inclusion and exclusion: “Who is my neighbor?”
Jesus tells a story about a man. Although unidentified, undoubtedly a Jew. He is beaten nearly to death. Ignored by two passing religious officials. Finally, cared for by a Samaritan “moved with pity” (not mere heartfelt sentiment, but deep sorrow in the presence of suffering).
Jesus, a Jew, tells fellow Jews this story about a Samaritan who is good. Given the ancestral hostility between Jews and Samaritans, surely, this story arrests the attention of the crowd. Precisely the effect Jesus desires. For he intends to confront the prejudice of his listeners that they may know that a neighbor is not born within a particular nation, ethnic group, social class, or family. A neighbor doesn’t come in a particular color, share a particular bloodline, speak with a familiar language or accent. A neighbor is any human. Thus, a neighbor is not born, but made…
In a word, I make you my neighbor by becoming your neighbor. How? By loving you.
The lawyer asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” and “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus asks, “Who, in the story, was a neighbor?” For being a neighbor by being loving is the sign and assurance of eternal life.
This is a common interpretation of this parable. Unsurprising. Hardly arresting our attention. Even more, it bespeaks a kind of theoretical universalism – Be good to everybody! – floating on the thin air of abstraction, never landing on the terra firma of our concrete daily existence.
So, let’s turn this diamond of a story. Let’s look at another facet in the light, in the shadows of our world. Where divisions are easier to see than similarities. Where people – individuals, communities, nations – divide by color and culture, history and ideology. Where historic hatreds among peoples stir up continuing cycles of violence and vengeance; far beyond human memory to recall the first cause.
Now, let’s read and re-imagine this parable by looking through the eyes of one of the least talked about main characters. Not the priest, Levite, or the Samaritan, but the one who was robbed and nearly beaten to death. How did he feel being helped by that Samaritan?
Jesus doesn’t mention the man’s reaction. It’s easy to assume in his moment of greatest need that he was grateful for the help. Any help. But what if he wasn’t? What if he was dumbfounded, even disgusted that a sworn enemy would render aid? What if he thought and said, “Don’t touch me! I’d rather die than be helped by you!”?
This strikes me as less abstract and more real. More like the world often is.
If so, this story, once again, can arrest our attention.
If so, I ask: What must we do to inherit eternal life? Not in search of some afterlife beyond this life, but rather our discerning afresh the meaning of our lives today. If our reply is that life’s purpose is found in of our love for God and for our neighbor, who is everyone, then another question. Who for you, for me is the one in need on life’s road for whom we, unlike the priest and Levite, will not pass by one the other side?
And when I think of us, the St. Matthew’s community, Nazelah Pazani and her daughter and son, Anahita and Artin, whom we have encountered on a circuitous road running from Iran to Spartanburg, are those we cannot and will not pass by. And this is an attention-arresting love story of God and of neighbor that we have only begun to tell.
© 2022 PRA
Illustration: Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jan Jansz Wijnants (1632-1684)
 Nazelah Pazani, Iranian and culturally Muslim, having converted to Christianity, departed her homeland under threats of reprisal. Through a long and meandering path, she and her children, have come to Spartanburg and, through the labors of the St. Matthew’s community, we pray, will make a safe and secure home.