July 10, 2022
"A Dangerous Unselfishness"
Rev. Scott Landis
Arguably one of the best-known parables of Jesus, the parable of the Good Samaritan is an interesting one on so many levels. Yet its familiarity may result in our missing some of the obvious. First off, Jesus never referred to the Samaritan as “good,” yet this adjective has been ascribed to him for all time. We even have “Good Samaritan Laws” designed to help protect those who administer aid to folks in need.
Second, while we may be highly critical of the priest and the Levite I wonder if there is not more of them in us than us in the Samaritan. I’ll let you decide that for yourself. In fact, given the variety of characters in the story, it’s often a good idea to see which one you find yourself most drawn toward. With whom do you identify in this provocative tale? [Pause]
As was so often the case, the story begins as kind of a set-up for Jesus. A lawyer comes to him and tries to establish some boundaries regarding what exactly is expected of any self-respecting Jew in order to gain eternal life. The unasked question being, what’s the least that I must do in order to squeak by?
Jesus, sniffing out the trap, said, “You know the law. You’re a student of the law. What does it say?”
The lawyer quoting from Leviticus 19 said, “Easy peasy – you shall love the Lord with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”
“Exactly right,” replied Jesus, “do this and you will live.” Which highlights another point often overlooked.
Notice he didn’t say, “do this and you will receive ‘eternal life,’” which is what the lawyer asked. He said simply, “do this and you will live.” Hold that thought for a moment – it’s important to the story’s deeper meaning.
The lawyer completely skipped over Jesus’ response and tried to trap him again by asking, “so, just who is my neighbor?” His question resulting in Jesus famed “Parable of the Good Samaritan” – one that I need not recite. You know the story all too well. [Pause]
Jesus and the lawyer engaged in a little dance of social responsibility and justice. The lawyer tried to see how far he needed to go or what he needed to do to get what he wanted. But Jesus pushed back against the one who knew the law yet tried to thread the needle in a way that suited him. He wanted to fulfill the law, but he didn’t want to be inconvenienced in the process. So, when he asked, “who is my neighbor?” the deeper question was “do we see as Jesus sees?” And, if so, how do we respond? Can we bring ourselves to offer compassion to the one who initially may not appear to be our neighbor? [Pause]
On the eve of his assassination, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to this parable in his famed, “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech. He was speaking on behalf of the striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee – encouraging those in attendance to stand with them in their hour of need.
But he cast a very interesting slant on the parable that I find compelling. He said, lest we be too critical of the priest and the Levite for not doing what we may think they should have done, let us remember that they were human too and likely scared.
He went on to explain that he and his wife Coretta had rented a car while visiting the Holy Land and drove that same road (described in the parable) formerly known as the “Bloody Pass” – the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. The road is windy and dangerous and decreases in elevation from 1,200 feet above sea level in Jerusalem to about 2,200 feet below sea level in Jericho. Not easy to navigate in a car and far more dangerous on foot.
“It’s possible,” King suggested, “that the priest and the Levite were worried that they could be next. Just like this man in the ditch, they could be beaten up and robbed by those hiding in the bushes as they made their way as quickly as possible to the city. Or better still, the supposed beaten man could be a ploy – a lure to prey on their compassion only to be overtaken by hidden accomplices.
“And so,” posits King, “the first question that the priest asked -- the first question that the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: "If I do NOT stop to help this man, what will happen to him?"
Dr. King continued, “That's the question before you tonight. NOT, "If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job. NOT, "If I stop to help the sanitation workers what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?" The question is not, "If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?" The question is, "If I do NOT stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?" That's the question.
Viewed in this way the whole perspective of the parable changes. It’s not about the priest, or the Levite, or even the Samaritan (good, bad, or indifferent). It’s about the guy in the ditch – whoever he is or whoever she represents and what will happen to them if we look the other way, walk by on the other side out of fear or indifference.
King challenged his listeners that night by saying, “It’s time we begin to develop “A Dangerous Unselfishness.” “Good trouble” as John Lewis used to say. Realizing that the very act of following Jesus may get us into a whole lot of trouble and may be quite dangerous. But that’s what it means to be unselfish as we see our neighbor with unselfish eyes. It’s time we begin to develop a “dangerous unselfishness.” [Pause]
In his commentary on this passage, New Testament scholar Matt Skinner contends we can even take this idea of Dr. King one step further. Dr. Skinner asks the rhetorical question, “If I DON’T help the man in the ditch – what’s going to happen to me? The scenario comes full circle. If I don’t stop to help, what becomes of my heart, my soul, my life?
I think that’s the bottom line for each one of us. You see, it’s not so much about eternal life as the lawyer initially questioned – but about life in the here and now. If we don’t care for our neighbor, can they OR we ever fully live?
And who is our neighbor? Well, that’s constantly changing. [Pause]
Take a good look around, Keawala’i. Not only is the neighborhood changing – so are our neighbors. And I bet you can say the same thing wherever you live. Our neighborhood is changing – constantly. Our state is changing. Our country is changing. Our entire world is changing. But the commandment remains the same. Love God – Love your neighbor. [Pause]
It’s so simple – yet so difficult, but it’s the only way to live – fully. Oh, that we might create a “dangerous unselfishness” so all might fully live.