The Rev. William Sloane Coffin: “The Good Samaritan”
Two prefatory remarks:
When I suffered a stroke three years ago, I tried to console myself with Mark Twain’s observation about Wagner’s music: “It’s better than it sounds.” But with no illusions about my voice, I can only beg your indulgence.
I am deeply grateful to Brother John Chane for his invitation to preach. It’s a great honor, a great assignment. It so happens today is my 78th birthday. They say wisdom comes with age, but sometimes age comes alone. We’ll see.
While a firm believer in lectionary readings, I know that Jesus did not instruct his disciples to preach the lectionary. Thus I am emboldened on this special occasion to recall the Good Samaritan, hoping to rescue his story from too much familiarity.
To start with, I can’t resist pointing out that the Good Samaritan could afford to pay the bill at the inn, which means that just about every Episcopalian is potentially a Good Samaritan!
More seriously, you will recall that the story begins with an expert in Scriptural law asking what he must do to inherit eternal life. To this otherworldly question Jesus responds with a distinctly this-worldly story indicating that the sine qua non of religious life is compassion.
To Jews, Samaritans were heretics; Samaria was a dangerous place. Yet it was the heretic, the enemy, the man of the wrong faith who did the right thing, while the two men of the right faith flunked.
The story says a lot to our multi-faith nation and world. It reminds us that, while religions do differ, most seek to fulfill the same basic function. They strive first to help people out of the misery of feeling unimportant, and then to convert them to the wholehearted giving of themselves in love for God and for others.
So why shouldn’t religious people dwell less on truth-claiming than on the function truth plays? “Make love your aim,” says St. Paul. Writes Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “A religious person is a person who holds God and humanity in one thought, at all times, in all places, who suffers himself the harm done to others, whose greatest passion is compassion.”
In short, the Good Samaritan is a multi-faith story that sees love/compassion as the core value of religion. It is bad religion to deify doctrines and creeds. While indispensable to religious life, doctrines and creeds are only so as signposts. Love alone is the hitching post. Doctrines, let’s not forget, supported slavery and apartheid; some still strive to keep women in their places and gays and lesbians in limbo. Moreover, doctrines can divide, while compassion can only unite. In other words, dear fellow Christians, we religious folk, all our lives, have both to recover tradition and to recover from it!
In a recent interview in The New York Times, the president of Union Theological Seminary, Joseph Hough, said: “What is essential for Christians is that we see the face of God in the face of Jesus Christ. It is not essential to believe that no one else has seen God and experienced redemption in another time and place.”
The Good Samaritan is a multi-faith story and one for the ages because the essence of human reality is ethical and love is its religious aim.
But now let us recognize that beyond just individuals, whole communities, even nations, have been stripped, beaten and left lying in the ditch. And what these communities and nations need is not piecemeal charity but wholesale justice.
Had I but one wish today for the Christian churches of America, I think it would be that they come to see the difference between charity and justice. Charity is a matter of personal attributes, justice a matter of public policy. Charity seeks to alleviate the effects of injustice, justice seeks to eliminate the causes of it. Charity in no way affects the status quo, while justice leads inevitably to political confrontation. Especially I would hope that Christians would see that the compassion that moved the Good Samaritan to act charitably – that same compassion prompted Biblical prophets to confront injustice, to speak truth to power, as did Jesus, who, though more than a prophet, was certainly nothing less. Most recently, religious leaders like Desmond Tutu and Martin Luther King have seen once again that compassion frequently demands confrontation.
Christians are called so to live “that in everything God may be glorified.” Clearly, then, religion and politics, although distinct, do mix – and to claim otherwise is to misunderstand both. I underscore this for the sake of our presently tormented and endangered planet. To survive, it will require of far more religious leaders a politically committed spirituality.
President Bush rightly spoke of an “axis of evel,” but it is not Iran, Iraq and North Korea. Here is a more likely trio calling for Herculean efforts to defeat: environmental degradation, pandemic poverty, and a world awash with weapons.
As regards God’s creation, it is well past time for the churches to re-wed nature to nature’s God. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” Caution lest we squander precious resources – such caution is not enough. Only reverence can restrain violence, be it violence against nature or against one another. Therefore church leaders should not lose a step to environmental groups in pressing for legislation to embody the values and principles of a sustainable future for our planet.
As for the world’s poor, many of you I am sure read the recent U.N. Health Report Card on children. As of 1999, over 13 million children were orphaned by AIDS; over 1 million had HIV; 10 million were dying yearly of preventable diseases, 300,000 were impressed into military service and 120 million of school age were nowhere near a school.
Why have they been made to live this way? What business have we reversing the priorities of Mary’s Magnificat, filling the rich with good things and sending the poor empty away? There’s nothing in any sacred scripture anywhere that says that the whims of the rich should best the rights of the poor. How, Sunday by Sunday, can Christians pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, our debts” and not think of Third World countries, some of which are spending three to five times as much paying off foreign debt as they do on basic services to their own people? Especially in our own country, grim poverty is a tragedy that great wealth makes a sin.
To speak of a world awash with weapons is to recognize that beyond individuals, communities and nations, the world itself is on the brink of destruction. The recent Russian-American treaty calls only for storing, not for dismantling, thousands of nuclear warheads. How long, O Lord? When will we realize that only their world-wide abolition can prevent further nuclear proliferation?
There is little we can do about other countries, but shame on us that our countrty does not want to lead the world in responsible supervised disarmament. Instead, the United States prefers being the world’s sole superpower. Our military expenditures are greater than those of the next eight largest military powers combined.
Fellow Christians: It’s hard to represent the Christian faith today in our beloved country. The cost of discipleship is rising. Christians believe in the force of law, not the law of force. Christians know that it was the Devil who offered Christ unparalleled power and wealth. It’s the Devil in each of us who makes us love being powerful. Christians press for a world governed by an urge for compassion, not by a will to power. Powerful nations have always to be reminded of Ezekiel’s lament over Tyre: “You corrupted your wisdom for the sake of your splendor.” And Shakespeare:
But man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep.
All this we Christians have to say clearly, lest we ourselves strip our faith of its meaning and desert it by the wayside. But only by God’s grace can we speak and act spiritually. True, we have to hate evil, else we’re sentimental. But if we hate evil more than we love the good, we become good haters, and of those the world already has too many. However deep, our anger, like that of Christ, must always and only measure our love.
A politically committed spirituality contends against wrong without becoming wrongly contentious. It confronts national self-righteousness without personal self-righteousness. It cherishes God’s creation, it serves the poor, it is not interested in the might of a nation but in the goodness of its people. A politically committed spirituality makes bishops and other church leaders confront injustice with the Samaritan’s compassion. It makes them heralds of reconciliation mindful that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself – and entrusting to us the ministry of reconciliation.”
So God bless and keep you, dear John, as you become the eighth bishop of Washington. May you “mount up with wings like eagles, run and not grow weary, walk and not faint,” upheld by the power of the Holy Spirit and the continuous prayers of all who love you.