“A View From The Ditch on the Jericho Road”
25Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27He 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.” 28And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
29But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30Jesus 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. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He 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. 35The 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.’
36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
This week I watched a video in which the actor Dustin Hoffman talked about his preparation for the movie, “Tootsie.” In the 1982 movie Hoffman plays a male actor who can’t get a job until he transforms himself into a woman named Dorothy Michaels and gets a role as a female character on a soap opera. In the video, Hoffman discusses how before agreeing to do the movie, he insisted that the producers show him how he could be convincingly transformed into a woman. Hoffman wanted to make sure that the makeup artists could so transform his appearance that he could walk down the streets of New York and everyone would believe he was a woman and not a man in drag.
Well, the make up artists did their work and then shot footage to show Hoffman what he would look like playing the character of Dorothy Michaels. Hoffman looked at himself on film and said, “Well, I do look like a woman. But couldn’t you make me a little more – well – beautiful?” The makeup people assured him that what they had done their best and Hoffman was as “beautiful” as he was going to get.
For Hoffman, it was a moment of deep understanding. He realized that if he had been born a woman instead of a man, the way he appeared as Dorothy Michaels was what he would look like. And that woman he saw on film was not beautiful, at least by normal standards. In fact, Hoffman realized that the woman he saw on the screen was the kind of woman he had ignored all his life.
Hoffman realized how much he had missed in his life because he had ignored some women simply because they were unattractive, although they might have been really interesting people. Hoffman said that the movie, “Tootsie” was never a comedy for him after that. He realized how deeply steeped he had been in society’s conventions of what makes a woman worthy of attention. And the missed opportunities to know some extraordinary women saddened him.
We always say that outward appearances don’t matter, right? We teach our children that it’s what’s on the inside that counts. But we know that’s not really true. Just look at all the conventionally beautiful people on the front cover of the magazines next to the check out counter at the Giant Eagle.
We say that we do not discriminate against people of color anymore. But we know that’s not really true. Just spend a few minutes listening to the commentary about the Trevon Martin case in Florida or check in to the uproar surrounding Paula Deen’s employment practices.
We say that we will not tolerate bullying in our schools. But we know that’s not really true. Just ask the parents of a gay child or an autistic child or a fat child or the parents of any child whose appearance or mannerisms fall outside the standard definition of “normal.”
As Christians, we say that we love our neighbors just as much as we love God and ourselves. But we know we really don’t love everyone like that. Just ask the people who live under the I-579 bridge on the north side who are being thrown out because the people who drive by their makeshift encampment don’t like looking at homeless people on their commute to the suburbs.
And all of us know the right thing. We know it’s the right thing to not judge people by their appearance. We know it’s the right thing to pass legislation to outlaw discrimination based upon the color of someone’s skin. We know it’s the right thing to have rules in schools so that children are safe from being bullied to the point of deciding that suicide is the only way out. We know it’s right to protect people who are homeless due to mental illness or addiction or just plain bad luck. We know the Ten Commandments and we know the Apostle’s Creed, and some of us can recite the books of the Bible and the names of the disciples. And there’s even at least one person here who knows how to go to seminary and pass ordination exams and become a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church USA.
But there’s often quite a large gulf between our beliefs and our actions. In this text today, it is clear that Jesus is on to us – all of us who say the right things, but act quite differently. All of us know the right answer to the question the lawyer asks Jesus – “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus knows that the lawyer will come up with the correct legal response.
The lawyer knows the right answer because he is an expert on the law of Moses. The words roll right off his tongue: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.” “Bully for you,” says Jesus. “You have given the right answer.” And with that, Jesus seems pretty much finished with this particular conversation.
But the lawyer can’t quit while he is ahead. He goes on to ask Jesus: “Who is my neighbor?” And with that question, the lawyer gets tangled up and blue with Jesus. The lawyer wanted Jesus to give him a list of the right kind of people to love and hang out with at parties. The lawyer wants to know whom he should love and whom he can safely ignore.
But, unfortunately for the lawyer, neighbor-loving isn’t reducible to a list that you can post on your refrigerator. In fact our list of neighbors to love includes everyone. Even the people that nobody else notices. Maybe especially the people that nobody else notices. The ugly. The unwashed. The profane kind of people who use offensive words that grate on us. The smelly ones who could use a shower. The ugly girl standing against the wall at the party who wishes she could disappear. The fat lady coming home on the bus with a grocery bag full of Doritos, trying her best to ignore her two sticky whiny children who are getting on your last nerve. Our neighbor is everyone that Jesus loves and since as far as I can tell Jesus loves pretty everyone, the lawyer’s goose is cooked the minute the question comes out of his mouth.
In the gospels, Jesus is really good at noticing people that everyone else is ready to blow right by or pretend they don’t see. Have you ever noticed Jesus doing that? Like all the time? How Jesus spends a lot of time and energy on the people to which nobody else pays the least little bit of attention?
Leave it to Jesus – he always ends up with the oddballs -- the scraggly kid with the runny nose in the corner of the room, that little hussy at the well who has slept with every low-life in town, the obnoxious IRS agent perched up in a tree, the bleeding woman in a massive crowd. Jesus sees people that everyone else wishes would just shut up and go away. Those are the messed up people that Jesus NOTICES. Over and over again.
Let’s look again at how Jesus defines “neighbor” for the lawyer. You know this story. There is a man, an ordinary Jewish man, traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. He is attacked and left for dead by a band of robbers. The bleeding, injured, beaten Jewish man is lying in a ditch on the side of the road. Three men pass by. First a priest. Then a Levite. And then a Samaritan. The priest and the Levite are respected religious figures associated with the Jerusalem temple. They are the good guys in the Jewish religious culture. They are the ones in charge and keep things in the temple running pretty smoothly.
The reason isn’t given, but neither the priest nor the Levite stop to help their beaten up brother. Perhaps they are having a really busy day. Perhaps they are on their way to an official function in Jerusalem, maybe a Presbytery meeting or a groundbreaking for a new education wing. Maybe they are just plain too scared to stop in a really dangerous neighborhood.
But luckily for the guy who is bleeding to death in the ditch, a third man comes along. He is a Samaritan who has somehow ended up in a neighborhood he doesn’t belong on a road he probably never uses. He is a Samaritan – a member of a group loathed by the Jewish people and the same people who refused to extend hospitality to Jesus and the disciples just a few chapters earlier. The disciples listening to this parable must be thoroughly disgusted when hear a reference to the Samaritans. Remember that these are the people that James and John wanted to rain down fire on. No, not those guys, Jesus!
I can imagine them all – the disciples, the lawyer, the people around Jesus listening to a story about a Samaritan and waiting for Jesus to get to the punch line. “And after the Samaritan did all that – the bandaging and the pouring and the carrying him to an inn and paying for his room, and telling the innkeeper to take care of him and put it on the Samaritan’s bill. After all that…the Samaritan robbed the innkeeper and raped the innkeeper’s wife and set the whole place on fire.” In their fevered imaginations about those bad, bad Samaritans, the folks around Jesus could barely expect that the Samaritan would turn out to be the hero of the story.
But he was. And I bet that made the lawyer crazy. All he had done was ask a simple question about who is and isn’t a neighbor, and he gets this terrible story that makes the temple leaders look awful and, worst of all, the stupid, stinky Samaritan is the hero. In fact, when Jesus asks him, “Which of these three was the neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” the lawyer can’t even spit out the word. The lawyer can’t bring himself to say, “Samaritan.” Yet at the end of the story, what does Jesus say? Jesus tells the lawyer to go and be like the Samaritan if the lawyer wants to inherit eternal life. And the lawyer probably went off thinking that he’d rather be dead in a ditch than get anywhere near a Samaritan.
Or maybe not. I don’t know. Tell me this -- if you were beaten up and stuck in a ditch, who would be last person in the world you’d want to help you? What Jesus seems to be saying is that’s the person you need to love. The person who gives you the heebie-jeebies. Maybe even a kid wearing a hoodie and baggy pants and carrying a bag of Skittles. That’s your neighbor right there.
Jesus had a habit of noticing and hanging out with the “the last person you’d want to see in a dark alley on a dark night in a bad neighborhood” kind of people. And this story suggests, at least to me, that Jesus didn’t notice those people because they were necessarily more messed up than other kinds of people. Or because they needed healing any more desperately than your average stockbroker or Presbyterian minister.
I think Jesus noticed those messed up people because they are the kind of people that come through in a pinch. They are the kind of people who were as generous with their hearts as they were with good stories and food and wine when Jesus was staying in their homes. They are the kind of people who believe that stopping to help someone change a tire on the side of the road is more important than being on time to a meeting. They are the kind of people who would remind you that it wouldn’t kill you to say a kind word to the sweaty fat lady on the seat across from you on a PAT bus on a hot afternoon who is just about to lose her mind with her whining kids. Maybe you could even tell her that her little girl is beautiful even if it’s not entirely true.
There’s a quote I have on a collage in my office. I only recently found out that John Steinbeck said it…but it goes like this:
"If you're in trouble, or hurt or need -- go to the poor people. They're the only ones that'll help -- the only ones."
Maybe God’s preferential treatment of the poor has less to do with what we should do for them, and more to do with what messed up people have to teach us about mercy and generosity and grace. Maybe – just maybe -- we are the ones in need of rescue and God sends us people we don’t want to deal with to remind us that God’s love is shockingly radical. Maybe we are the guy who has been beaten up, robbed and left bleeding on the side of the road? Perhaps it is in relationship with the stranger, the outsider or the one we fear that we will be lifted out of the ditch and healed, fed and loved?
The good news of the gospel is that we are not left alone in a ditch. The One who seeks us out may be unrecognizable to us at first when he or she peeks in to see if we need help. But in the gestures of kindness, compassion and mercy, we may realize that we are looking right into the eyes of Christ in face of a stranger who is the last person on earth we’d want to see.
And you know what’s even more amazing? We have countless opportunities, every single day in ordinary mundane moments – to be Christ for someone else. Even a stinky Samaritan on a hot bus in the middle of the summer.
Thanks be to God. Amen.