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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM

What Would You Do?

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, May 17, 2009

            Funny thing, but, whenever I read (or hear) the New Testament story of the “Good Samaritan”, I always picture myself in the role of the good guy: the one who helped the man who had been beaten up by thieves, who helped him to heal, took care of him afterwards. The one who made the right choice; who did the right thing. Maybe that’s the way you look at it, too; something in us, I think, wants to assume that we would “naturally” take on the role of the “good guy” should such a situation cross our paths. We’d like to assume that we’d do the right thing.


            But, of course, life itself is not so cut and dry, and the choices we make are often difficult and complicated. The genius of the Bible (especially of the parables of Jesus, I think) is that, if we’re honest and open about it, we can often see ourselves in any of the roles that are presented. We might like to see ourselves as the Good Samaritan. But, of course, we could just as easily have been the one who was mugged. If we’re honest, we might also admit that we could have been the priest (I’m even ordained) or the Levite (from one of the best families) who passed the beaten stranger by.


            Perhaps this modern retelling of the Good Samaritan story by one of my colleagues out west can show us more of the nuance of this old story. Rev. Lone I. Jensen of the Valley Unitarian Universalist Church outside of Phoenix tells the story this way:


“There was a wounded man lying on the side of the 101Freeway with a broken bicycle by his side. His knapsack had broken and his books and his water bottle were lying all around him. He wore a T-shirt with the words: Hate is the only Enemy.  


“First a professor drove by in her Volvo on her way to the Changing

Hands Bookstore. She was meeting a friend for lunch at Wildflower Café and was very late. She did not stop or even notice the man.


“Another car, this time a Toyota Hybrid, came by. In it rode a minister, deep in thought. He was brooding about a particular problem he had with a congregant and worrying about his next sermon. He had no time to stop, no emotional energy left and drove right by.


“Next a gleaming black Hummer with silver monster wheels and orange flames painted on the side came by and it stopped. In the back was a double gun rack. A couple of pin up cutouts of busty women were also plastered on the back windows. The truck bed had a recently shot deer in it. The back bumper was full of bumper stickers that read: Lord’s Army, Without the Bread of Life, You’re Toast, and God is for Us.Com, Log on and live! There was also American flag with the words This is Cross Country!


“Out of the truck came the Good Samaritan dressed in full camouflage gear and combat boots. He gently knelt by the man gave him first aid and comforted him till help arrived. Then he followed the ambulance to the hospital and waited until the victim’s family got there. The next day flowers and a get well card arrived to the unfortunate cyclist with no name attached.”


            I don’t think we get a real sense of just how radical the message of Jesus here was until we translate it into our own frame of reference. That also might give us a better chance of understanding what living that message might really mean to us. By choosing the Samartans as the “good guys” in this story, Jesus was really turning the religious and social pecking order of his day on its head (which was something he was good at, actually). The ancient scholar Josephus tells us that Samaritans were especially despised  at the time of Jesus as unclean people who worshipped God on their holy mountain at Gerizim, and not in the Temple in Jerusalem. Hostility toward Samaritans reached a fever pitch in the first century (that is, the time when Jesus lived) after a group of Samaritans had desecrated the Temple at Passover by scattering human bones all over the sanctuary. So, in choosing a Samaritan, Jesus had scraped the bottom of the barrel for his hero (in the eyes of most people of his time). It would be like casting a member of Al Qaeda or the Taliban in that role today (or, for some people, a gay person or a lesbian, or a black, or a “foreigner:; for some of us, maybe, a right wing Christian Republican driving a Hummer with a gun rack and a dead deer, and an American flag on the back bumper).


            But that was precisely J.C.’s point: To shock us into realizing that we are all in this together. We are all neighbors. Just as we are all potential victims by the side of the road, so we should all be Good Samaritans—or not—depending on the choices we make; depending on how we look upon and interact with one another.


            Jesus is challenging us to get put of our ghettos and our gated neighborhoods and of self-defined “cultures”. He’s challenging us to be compassionate even toward those we loathe. That’s a tall enough order, but it’s only half of it. He is also reminding us that we might very well be the ones in the ditch. And he’s not just talking about a physical ditch here; he’s talking about the state of our souls, as well (he had a way of doing that, too). I think that Jesus is saying that if we cut ourselves off from life, then we are putting ourselves in great spiritual jeopardy. But he is also saying  are put along this religious road to help one another. So beware: because your spiritual encouragement and redemption and salvation may be coming from where you least expect it—and you may not find it if you’re too wrapped up in yourself and “your kind” of people.


“So who is your Good Samaritan?” asks Rev. Jensen. “Is it a young Arab man on the subway? Is it a Hip Hop teen listening to ‘Gangster Rap’ and wearing gang colors? Is it a right wing Christian Fundamentalist? And how would it feel to be helped by someone you consider an enemy? That is the point of the story. Not the good neighbor bit but the shock of finding someone you despise act with more compassion than some one you know and admire. Maybe even with more compassion than you might…


“We all get stuck in the muck of stereotypes sometimes. We divide into tribes,  partisan parties, religions of the saved and unsaved and we see what we want to see. Us and them, are you for me or against me? The Good Samaritan parable is meant to shatter our ideas about those we despise. Think about it. This is compassion with the face of an enemy. Who is your Good Samaritan?”


            We have lessons to learn about compassion: even from the least expected places.


The story of the “Good Samaritan” is re-enacted every day in our world—with varying results.


Not too long ago, Tricia Whiffen sent me an email about a fascinating episode of the ABC News program, "What Would You Do?". I’d never seen the show, but apparently it puts people to the test to see what they would do in certain situations-- whether they would get involved or just pass on by. 


In the first segment, an actress portrayed a well-dressed professional woman, who just suddenly collapses while walking down the street (it was in Newark, New Jersey, I think).  Almost immediately, within a few seconds actually, people had stopped to get her help, to make sure she was all right. Score one for the milk of human kindness!


But next, an actor dressed as a homeless man (with a beer can in his hand) suddenly fell to the ground. Surprise! Surprise! That got quite a different reaction. People were stepping over him to get by; they were in the main ignoring him there; a couple of people even threw some loose change his way; one woman stared at him, crossed herself, but then went on her way. Finally, after 88 other people pass the (supposed) homeless man by, a precious little woman lady named Linda Hamilton, walking with her cane, living in a shelter herself, holds her ground, and asks each and every person who then passes by to call 911. Very calmly, gently, over and over, she implored passers-by with the exact same words: “Excuse me, could some one please call this man an ambulance.? Excuse me, could you call him an ambulance?”


Linda went so far as to give the homeless man a  name. She humanized him; she made him her neighbor. "Billy," she would say "get up Billy." and "Billy, are you alright?" “Don’t worry, Billy, help’s on the way.” She then reached down and picked up the empty beer can the man was holding, and discarded it in a nearby trash can.  When someone finally did decide to help, and the experiment was over, Linda Hamilton just hobbled away on her cane, wanting and expecting nothing in return.  Later, the actor playing the homeless man was so touched by Linda’s tenacity and compassion, that he thought she was an angel.


And she was.


But no more of an angel than any of us could be, if we open our eyes to what’s going on around us. And open our minds and stop categorizing and stereotyping other people. And open our arms to do what God expects of us in the moment we have before us now.


In his reflection on the story of the Good Samaritan, Guy C. Quinlan writes:


“Injustice results less often from malice than from willed inattention. In Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, the priest and the Levite did no active harm to the wounded man on the highway. They just passed by on the opposite side of the road, distancing themselves from the uncomfortable sight. But relentlessly, Jesus keeps bringing the oppressed back into our field of vision.”


Linda Hamilton, too—like Jesus before her—reminds us that there is a spirit of love which will not let us go.


But compassion is not always convenient. We are so busy. We are so distracted. We are so fearful. Compassion, if we heed its call, batters down those walls of self-importance. Sometimes, we still choose to hold out and ignore its call, and continue skimming around life on the surface of things. But to live that way is not to live fully; it is not to engage life; it is not to be joined to all the living.


So love we must, and reach out we must, and help me must—if we are to be true our deepest human calling.


As Rev. Rob Hardies has written, the story of the Good Samaritan gives us fair warning that love will take us to a place beyond where it feels good to love. “It will take us to a place where we can’t rely anymore on an outburst of compassion or a good, sweet feeling, or the kind of falling in love that we feel when we first met our loved one.”


Love has to be more than a feeling. It has to be action. It has to manifest itself in doing deeds of justice and mercy in the world. Whenever we are called to do them.


In her book, Anything We Love Can Be Saved, Alice Walker writes:


“Love and justice and truth are the only monuments that generate ever-widening circles of energy and life; love and justice and truth the only monuments that endure, though trashed and trampled, generation after generation. We can say with conviction to our children that anything they love can be sheltered by…love; anything they truly love can be saved. First, in their own hearts, and then in the hearts of others. They have only to make their love inseparable from their belief. And both inseparable from hard work.


“Anything we love can be saved. Learning to love—not the easy way, but love-in-action everyone that we encounter, every part of this planet, every possibility for justice and fairness, every single soul—including our own—that reaches out to help and hope for a better world: this can save us.”


This is the essence of our Universalist faith: that everything created in the image of Love, in the image of God, will be saved. That there is a divine love which beats at the heart of creation, and within each of us. This love calls upon us to act, to give of ourselves, to hope for the world, and to live that hope by refusing to pass by the other side, until we have done what we can to live out God’s love on this holy earth.



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