Sunday 13 October 2019
The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 28C
The Gospel of Luke tells the story of two Samaritans. There is the story here in chapter 17 about a group of lepers who were healed by Jesus, and one of them was a Samaritan. And there is the more familiar story, back in chapter 11, about the so-called Good Samaritan. For understanding either of these stories, it’s helpful to have some idea of who the Samaritans are.
Both Jews and Samaritans consider themselves to be the true children of Israel. The division between the two groups goes back more than 600 years before the time of Jesus. Historical accounts vary. After the time of King Solomon, the people of Israel were divided into two kingdoms. The northern Kingdom was called Israel, and the southern kingdom was called Judah. The Kingdom of Israel had its capital and its temple in Samaria, while the Kingdom of Judah had its capital and temple in Jerusalem.
Both Kingdoms were subsequently conquered by large empires. The northern Kingdom of Israel fell first to the Assyrians in 722 BCE. Many Israelites were forcibly moved to other parts of the empire, and other peoples were moved into the land. The Babylonian Empire began deporting Jews from the southern Kingdom in 597 BCE, and the Jerusalem temple was destroyed in 588 BCE. Jerusalem was wrecked, and everyone of consequence was carried into captivity in Babylon.
When Jews started returning to the land 70 years later to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, they found Samaritans living in the land, worshiping on Mt. Gerizim. Both communities built temples, one on Mt. Zion and one on Mt. Gerizim. Both communities thought their place of worship was the one true place to worship God. Both communities had versions of what we call the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible, the Samaritian version consisting mostly of the first five books of the Bible. Both communities claimed Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as their ancestors. Both communities thought they were the true children of Israel. Both communities thought the other was not quite right with God, that they were perverting the ways of God, that they were heretics, unclean, unorthodox.
So Samaritans and Jews did not associate with each other. They were not friends. They avoided each other. They shared a tremendous amount in common. They lived very close to each other. They were, in many ways, siblings. But as in any family feud, closeness did not lead to greater understanding, but to greater division.
It is hard to come up with a modern analogy for the relationship between Jews and Samaritans. Maybe Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. If you were trying to imagine who would be like a Samaritan to you, maybe think of the politician you despise the most.
Like I said, Luke introduces two different Samaritans in the course of the gospel. This is the second of them. Jesus is traveling in the border area between Galilee and Samaria, when he encounters ten people who have contagious skin diseases. According to biblical law, these people had to keep themselves separate from the rest of the population. They were excluded from the social life of the community for as long as they were still symptomatic. Just like they are supposed to, they keep their distance when Jesus comes near, but they yell out to him, asking him to help them.
Jesus tells them simply to go and show themselves to the priests. He doesn’t do anything to explicitly heal them. Nevertheless, while they are on their way to the priests, they are healed and made clean. Jesus sending them to the priests makes more sense than it might seem at first. In order to be released from their quarantine, the priests have to verify that they actually are well.
However, one of them doesn’t follow Jesus’s instructions. He doesn’t go and show himself to the priests. Instead, he turns around and goes back to Jesus. As he goes, he yells out praises to God to anyone who will listen. He bows down at Jesus’s feet and thanks him. It’s only then that the narrator reveals to us that the one person who returned to praise God and to thank Jesus is not a Jew, but a Samaritan. Then Jesus asks why no one else came back to praise God, only the Samaritan. And he tells the man, “Get up and go. Your faith has healed you.” Your faith has saved you.
That raises several questions for me. It seems a little strange that there are both Jews and Samaritans in the same group of lepers. But perhaps the stigma of suffering from a skin disease was worse than the antipathy that Jews and Samaritans had for each other. Maybe if they were excluded from the rest of society, then they were happy to have any companions they could find, even if that companion was a Samaritan.
Also, it’s nice that the Samaritan came back to thank Jesus and to praise God, but he also disobeys Jesus to do so. Jesus told them to go show themselves to the priests, and the Samaritan doesn’t do that. Now, that may not be too surprising. Presumably Jesus means that they’re supposed to go to the Jewish priests in order to get themselves checked out, and a Samaritan man cannot present himself to Jewish priests. Since he can’t do what Jesus has asked, why not go back to Jesus to praise God? The strange thing is that Jesus seems upset that no one else came back with him. Why would he be upset that everyone else followed his instructions and went to the priests? I still have never been able to figure that one out.
Nevertheless, the message seems clear. We have a group of ten people who all receive the grace of Jesus. For nine of them, that act of grace does not lead to any special praise of God. However, one of the people who receives healing grace from Jesus does return to praise God. But the hero of the story is the last person the audience would suspect. The hero of the story is a despised Samaritan. Sometimes Jesus offers grace to people we wouldn’t suspect. And sometimes the people we wouldn’t suspect end up being the best examples of faith.
It’s not unlike the story of that other Samaritan in the Gospel of Luke. It’s a story that Jesus tells. He has told one of his detractors that the greatest commandments are to love God and to love your neighbor. Jesus’s detractor asks who his neighbor is, then, and Jesus replies with the parable of the Good Samaritan. A traveler is beaten and robbed, lying near death on the side of the road. A priest passes by and does nothing to help. Another religious authority, a Levite, passes by and does nothing to help. But when a despised Samaritan comes by, he takes the man, gives him medical attention, and provides him with housing and continuing care at a local inn. “Which one of them acted as a neighbor to the man who had been robbed?” Jesus asks. It’s a story that is meant to shame the audience. Even a heretic Samaritan can offer help and hospitality to someone in need, but the most religious of people cannot be relied upon to do the same.
Back in the 1970’s, researchers conducted an experiment with seminary students. You might have heard of it before. The seminarians were told they needed to go from one building to another to complete a task. Some of them were being sent to give a talk on the Good Samaritan. Others were sent to do another task. Some were told they were already late. Others were told that they had a little extra time to get there. For all of the students, there was someone in their path, on the ground, who looked like they might be injured or needed help. Some of the seminarians stopped to help, and others didn’t. As you might expect, the ones who were in more of a hurry were less likely to help. Interestingly, though, the ones who were in a hurry to talk about the Good Samaritan were no more likely to help than the ones who were in a hurry to complete another task.
I mention this to you this morning because I preached the Parable of the Good Samaritan earlier this year. And while I was hurrying in to get ready for worship, I encountered someone who needed help. It was on the day that I was preaching the story of the Good Samaritan that I met [Jane] and [Brittany] for the first time, parked with their motorhome near the house out back where we used to have the church office. And by the grace of Jesus, my heart was opened to help.
Most of you probably know that [Jane] and [Brittany] have been staying in a couple of rooms in the old office for a little while now. It’s come to my attention that some of you have some questions about that. So I talked with [Jane] earlier this week to ask what parts of their story I could share with you. She said I could share this and that she’d be happy to talk more with those of you who might have more questions
[Jane] and [Brittany] fled their home in Alaska one year ago because of a domestic violence situation that put them in fear of their lives. Because there are no roads in or out of the town where they lived, they weren’t able to bring much with them. At first they tried to stay with some family in California and then with some friends in Eastern Oregon, but both of those situations ended up being unsafe as well. They came to Hood River because here is where they were able to find a domestic violence shelter with an opening. But no one can stay in the shelter indefinitely, and affordable housing is difficult to find. As they were leaving the shelter, they were able to find an old RV, and they lived in it for a while, parking wherever they could find for as long as they dared.
Both [Jane] and [Brittany] have serious medical issues that require specialist care. [Jane]’s condition, in particular, is aggravated when she overexerts herself. That’s what happened when she was taken to the Emergency Room a couple of weeks back. They were highly motivated to stay in the area, because they’ve managed to establish care here, and a move would mean an interruption in their care. I’ve spoken with their DHS worker, and they are receiving a number of services and have applications in for others, including transitional and affordable housing.
[Jane] and [Brittany] came to us at just about the time that we were preparing to move offices out of the old house. When many of you met them, you expressed a desire to help. A couple of you mentioned that you wished that the master bedroom in the old house was still set up as a bedroom because then they could stay there while they searched for other housing.
I prayed long and hard about the situation, and I got the unmistakable response that we needed to do whatever we could. I proposed to the Board that, since we had no immediate plans for how to use the house once the offices were moved out, that we try to prepare a place for [Jane] and [Brittany], that we use them as a test case for providing medium-term transitional housing, and that once they have found a more stable situation, that we reevaluate whether to continue to use the house for transitional housing, whether to use it for something else, or whether it needs to be removed from the property. After reflection and prayer, they agreed. This is not what we are doing permanently with the house, but it’s what we’re doing right now. I’m checking in with [Jane] every week or two as we work to get them into more stable housing. For her part, she has been eager to help out with anything that she can.
I cannot help but think that we are like two Samaritans. This church has had grace to stop and help and offer hospitality. And [Jane] and [Brittany] have had the grace to return with thanks and praise to God. This is what it means to love and serve our neighbors. I am as proud of this as I am of anything this church has done while I have been your pastor.
Answering Jesus’s call to discipleship is not without risk. Loving our neighbors means acting with grace even when we cannot see the final outcome. But answering when Jesus calls always leads to a blessing. We are blessed with the relationships we form when we love our neighbors. We are blessed with Christ’s presence among us. We are blessed with a vision of the Kingdom of God. I thank you for your grace in offering shelter and hospitality, and I pray that God will continue to open all of our hearts to respond with joy whenever and wherever God calls.