We just heard probably the most famous of all of Jesus’ parables, and for me at least, probably the most haunting. In fact the story of the Good Samaritan flashes across my mind more times than I can count, nearly always bringing a twinge of guilt. Sometimes when I’m walking into Starbucks up on the corner I have to step around a homeless woman with her bags and grocery cart. Or I’ll be hustling to get to the Metro and end up swerving around a man asking for quarters. Or I’ll take the exit off of the Beltway at Connecticut Ave., see a man working the cars stopped at the light trying to sell them flowers, and I look away. Or a couple of kids will stop me and ask me to buy a large candy bar for a dollar to support their baseball team.

I have to say that I usually pass by when those moments occur. I don’t want to get involved, I’ve heard plenty of advice saying that it’s actually not good for the people on the street to get money this way. Besides, I don’t know whom to trust. Is there really a baseball team somewhere that will get that candy bar money? How do I know the cash people are asking for won’t be used for drugs? And after all, I give my money to the Cathedral, to other causes, and trust that to make a difference. And I just can’t deal with one person after another asking.

So most of the time I do the obvious. I pass by, which is why this story of the Good Samaritan continues to haunt me.

“Teacher,” a lawyer says to Jesus, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” This story begins with a question about salvation. Jesus keeps his answer simple. “What is written in the law?” he asks. And the lawyer in his lawyerly way recites the twofold Jewish law to love the Lord with all your heart and soul and strength and your neighbor as yourself. And Jesus says, ‘Fine. Now do this and you’ll have eternal life.’

How straight-forward can you get? Just do it, Jesus says. Any further questions? So much of the challenge of preachers isn’t in telling people what they should believe. It’s getting them actually to do what their faith calls for. The measure of our faith is where our feet go, what our hearts do, where our money flows, what fills our time, what makes us agonize. Understanding faith isn’t all that hard. Living it often is.

Then the lawyer gets down to specifics and asks, “Who is my neighbor?” Which of course is a clever way of asking who isn’t my neighbor, where can I draw the line, what limits can I put on this?

And then Jesus answers with the story about a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho who is attacked by robbers, stripped and beaten, and then left half dead. Along the road comes a priest. Now you know how busy we clergy are—how many needs and demands, how much important work we have to do, how loaded our Blackberries are with appointments and emails. And so the priest hurries by. And then a Levite, a kind of assistant in the temple, who must be worried about getting services ready for the upcoming Sabbath, passes by on the other side of the road, too.

But then something happens that would have appalled Jesus’ hearers. A Samaritan, part of a sect of Judaism deeply hated by traditional Jews, travels by and is moved with pity when he sees the man on the side of the road. The Samaritan tends to his wounds, takes the man on his donkey to an inn, and leaves enough money to take care of him.

But why did that Samaritan stop? That’s the real question. He was probably just as busy as the two churchy types. How did he know the man lying by the road wasn’t a clever trick to entrap and rob some do-gooder? In a sermon once preacher Will Willimon said he was so curious about why the Samaritan stopped that he decided to go ask the imaginary Samaritan himself what made him do it. “Why did you stop?” he asked.

I stopped, Willimon reports the man saying, because, well, I don’t really have a reason why I stopped. I just stopped. I don’t know why.

I stopped because that man in the ditch could have been me! I know how dangerous this road is and I saw him there bleeding and thought that if I had been here 30 minutes earlier I could have been the one bleeding on the ground.

I stopped because I was outraged that somebody would do this to another person. I was mad.

I stopped because I could. God has blessed me with a lot of material resources, and even with the important things I had to do that day, I thought it was the least I could do.

It was God that wanted me to stop. My faith tells me every person is a child of God. It’s what I’m expected to do.

Because I was bored. I travel a lot, and all of a sudden something exciting was going on.

Because it was my chance to take a stand. Somebody has to say no to the terrible things going on all the time. Somebody has got to show that this isn’t the way the world is supposed to work.

I stopped because he was a human being, and even if the Jews hate us Samaritans, our blood is the same color and we both bleed the same way.

(From sermon by Will Willimon, “Why Did He Stop?” in Pulpit Resource, Vol. 35, No. 3, 2007)

Who knows what the motives actually were? For that matter, who knows what the motives were that got you to church today? They were probably a mixture of duty, habit, hope for inspiration, spiritual hunger, pressure from parents or spouses, who knows? The motives don’t matter, because God is capable of taking whatever motives got you here today and using them for your good. What matters is that you came today. And what mattered was that the Samaritan for whatever reason stopped and helped a man in desperate need.

Did you notice that Jesus shows no interest at all in anyone’s motives? He doesn’t care what was on the minds of the priest and Levite, or what the Samaritan was thinking either. He doesn’t say they should have felt compassion or sympathy or love or understanding. What matters is, did they pass by, or did they stop?

That’s all Jesus cares about at the end of the story. He asks the lawyer, “Which of these three was a neighbor to the man?” “The one who showed him mercy,” the lawyer responds. And Jesus just says, “Go and do likewise.” Period.

One of the great models of the Good Samaritan these days has been Paul Farmer, the founder of Partners in Health, a public health organization committed to fighting tuberculosis, AIDS, and malaria around the globe. He was the subject of the book Mountains Beyond Mountains that is on just about every high school and college reading list.

Farmer grew up in humble circumstances and happened to visit Haiti during his college years. There he was appalled by the health conditions, the poor quality of health care, and the plight of the Haitians themselves. It overwhelmed him, and the difference between Farmer and so many others is that he found himself unable to turn his back on what he saw. He couldn’t pass by, so he became a doctor dedicated to bringing health care to some of the poorest people on earth. Over the years Partners in Health has undertaken massive projects around the globe, and they all stem from Farmer’s refusal to pass by the man, the woman, the child on the side of the road.

In fact he will take pot shots at anyone he thinks is shirking from the truth of the world around them. He calls white liberals, for example, “WL’s.” “I love WL’s,” he says, “love ‘em to death. They’re on our side…. But WL’s think all the world’s problems can be fixed without any cost to themselves. We don’t believe that. There’s a lot to be said for sacrifice, remorse, even pity. It’s what separates us from roaches.”

Author Tracy Kidder describes Farmer as constantly dropping the big organizational demands in his work to do the inefficient thing—walking five hours into the mountains to see a sick child when he has waiting for him back at the hospital countless administrative tasks and hundreds of emails for his worldwide operation. Of all the world’s errors, he believes, the worst is what he calls the “erasing” of people, the “hiding away” of suffering. “My big struggle,” Farmer says, “is how people can not care, erase, not remember.”

Of course the danger is this story of the Good Samaritan can end up simply oppressing us. After all, none of us can respond to every crying human need that confronts us on a television screen or on the streets of Washington. Even Paul Farmer had to say no to countless demands in order to say yes to some. I don’t think Jesus is after perfectionism here. And I know he isn’t interested in anxious, grimly exhausted followers.

Most of our Good Samaritan acts will not be heroic. Loving our neighbor means changing diapers and doing the dishes and caring for the needs of our children. It means making time in our lives to respond in some tangible way to the needs of people’s lives around us. It may take us into teaching English as a new language to a new arrival in this country, or going to the Tuesday noon Eucharist downtown and sharing Eucharist and food with the homeless of the city. It may summon us to city hall to push for low-cost housing or an end to cruelly expensive lending practices. It may mean adopting a foster child, or sponsoring one financially across the world. It will mean being generous, really generous, as that Samaritan was, with resources that were and are, by the world’s standards, fantastically abundant.

You know this story today began with a very personal question: What must I do to be saved? This story isn’t only about social action as such, it’s about you and me and our finding our salvation as we become more and more people of love in action.

Some Sundays Jesus talks about faith and trust, about taking the time to be still and know God’s love. And some Sundays for our own sakes he just calls us to obey. Today, a cautious lawyer asks Jesus for the secret of life. And Jesus tells him about a despised Samaritan, who reached out to a human being in need. Do this, Jesus says. Do this.

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