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Sermon, July 10, 2022

Sermon delivered by The Rev. Cristina Rathbone

Luke 10:25-37

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

I hardly every talk about this kind of thing but today I have to start with a complaint about the translation we are using for our gospel reading today.  “The Samaritan while traveling, came near him;” the text says, “and when he saw him he was moved with pity.” 

The trouble is that he wasn’t moved by pity so much as by compassion. Spluk-knees-o-my (Splagchnizomai ) is the original Greek verb Luke uses here. It appears 14 times in the gospels and every time – except in the two greatest stories that Jesus himself tells, this one and The Prodigal Son – it is used to describe Jesus’ own response to the suffering of others.  When Jesus sees the woman with a hemorrhage, or hears the calling of the blind beggar, when he notices that the five thousand are hungry, or when he hears his friend Lazarus has died, he is “moved by compassion” to act, literally drawn towards the one who is suffering,  by an unbidden, un-thought-out movement of his heart.  Spluk-knees-o-my.

And as with Jesus so too with the Samaritan in our story today. At the sight of the beaten and bloody man at the side of the road, he didn’t “pass by on the other side” as both the Priest and the Levite did, but instead “came near to” the man we are told – and then did what he could to help.  

This is what is so different about this word compassion.  It roots in English are latin, of course not Greek – the first com meaning with, and the second, pati,  meaning to bear, or to suffer.  First, the move-towards in love, then (com),  and then the taking on of, or the sharing in the suffering that evoked the feeling in the first place (pati). Com-passion.  Both the priest and the Levite may well have been feeling sorrow or pity as they walked past the man who had been robbed on the side of the road. But only the Samaritan was moved to action.  The difference is in the moving close, and the taking on… the movement from distant but clean pity to up close, and potentially messy engagement.  

I know I’ve been speaking about this a lot recently – but it really does seem to me that it is in this difference that the heart of the story lies, I think.  How many times, after all, have each of us seen someone in need –  a homeless person for example on the side of the road — and felt real pity for them without stopping to see if there is something we can do?  I have – many times, I might as well tell you right now. Countless times I’m ashamed to admit.

But of course if it were one of my own sons lying there on the road, wild horses couldn’t move me along until I’d found a way to help him, or to bring him to a place that could.  And the same with you: if it was your sister, or your mother in such desperate need, you wouldn’t be wondering – even passionately – why God would allow such things to happen. You’d be standing right there with her, right? Calling 911, and waving down passing cars and generally moving heaven and earth to get the help that she so obviously required.  

The fact is, if you loved the person who was suffering, if they were a neighbor to you, and you to them, you’d be moved not only to sorrow or pity, but to action. 

And of course the impossible, terrifying, life-shattering proclamation of the Gospel is that, in fact, that man lying naked on the side of the road,  IS our neighbor, and so our brother, or our mother, or our sister.  That despite all outward appearances he is not other than ourselves – separate and cut off by the depths of his suffering – but that he is linked to us and us to him AND — more even than this – that through his suffering, he has the power to bring us eternal life.  

Because this is the question that starts our story today – right? “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” the lawyer asks and Jesus replies, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”   

But this is where the lawyer’s question about who exactly counts as a neighbor comes in. Because, maybe like us, he can’t quite handle the scope of this greatest of all commandments.  Then, as now, there was suffering everywhere – woundedness everywhere – poverty and need and desperation everywhere – and if he stopped to help one, I can almost hear him worrying that there’ll be no stopping the avalanche that will follow.  

Because he is a good person, basically, a religious person who takes the law God gave him seriously, he wants to do what is right — but he also seeks some kind of rational boundary around who is in and who is out.  ‘Ok, if I have to love my neighbor as myself, who exactly counts as my neighbor?’ he asks. And in response of course, Jesus tells this story we now know as The Good Samaritan, which, dramatically shortened and very roughly translated, means everyone.  Everyone is our neighbor.  And Jesus’ clear instruction here is that – for all of our sakes – we act like it, the way the Samaritan did. The Good Samaritan – not responding – even with sorrow or pity –  from the safety of the other side of the road but, for our sakes as much as for the one who is suffering –  we instead and as far as we are able, move towards the other with love and then share in their suffering until it is lightened. 

We are not told what happened between the man left for dead and the Samaritan during the night they spent together at the inn…we are told only that he took care of him. But I wonder….What conversation passed between them, if any? And if none, how did it feel for the man from Samaria to be holed up in a distant hotel room with a man who could only moan, maybe. Or cry out in pain? Did he mop his brow? Did he bind and rebind his wounds? Did he feed him small spoonfuls of broth as he was able to take it or of fresh water? How long was that night? What depths did he enter, and what peaks did he climb?  Was it a night like any other for him – he’d gone on a business trip and then, a few days later returned to his home and his family to supper and an evening spent in front of whatever was the equivalent to the TV back then?  Or was it, rather, a powerful and transforming night? A night that Samaritan man would return to over and over again for the rest of his life like a kind of touchstone – an imperishable taste of what life could always be like: messy, yes, and painful at times too, but also immediate, complete, sufficient, whatever words you want to use –  abundant was Jesus’ term – life abundant. 

It’s a two way street, that’s the thing.  The man who’d been robbed and then left for dead now had a chance of living again – but so too did the man who stopped to help him.  Because when confronted by the need of the robbers’ victim that long ago day, and then bound up his wounds and put him on his donkey and carried him to the inn and stayed with him there for the night he entered the one truth that saves us all: the truth first spoken by Moses to the people of Israel and then repeated by Jesus every way he knew how that the treasure we are seeking, the treasure we most deeply yearn for lies “not in heaven, that you should say ‘Who will go up to heaven for us and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it? Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us that we may hear it and observe it?’ No, (it) is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe….”