Last Sunday, a group of parishioners gathered to watch Won’t You Be My Neighbor, the documentary about Fred Rogers. There were countless things I could tell you about this film, but one thing that really grabbed my attention was toward the end. The film documented a criticism of Mr. Rogers as raising up a generation of people who feel and act entitled. You see, one of the primary lessons from Mr. Rogers is he loves each individual, just as they are. No changes are necessary; no fault is too big. Mr. Rogers loves you just as you are. You can hear the words of God in Mr. Rogers’ words – God too loves us unconditionally, and certainly loves us better than any human ever could. However, Mr. Rogers’ critics would argue if everyone is loved just as they are, then surely they do not need to improve, or earn respect, or work hard. But the film asserts something quite different. The film asserts without being recipients of unconditional love, individuals cannot be givers of unconditional love. In other words, to respect the dignity of every human being, one must first learn how sacred one’s own dignity is – one must be shown how she or he is a person with dignity to be respected in order to know how to respect the dignity of others.
That sense of each person having profound, sacred dignity is one of the main lessons of our gospel today. The Good Samaritan is one of those stories that is so widely known all I need to do is say, “the Good Samaritan,” and we likely already know the story. We might automatically recall, “Oh, that’s the story Jesus uses to tell us to be like the Good Samaritan – to be kind to others.” In one sense, our recollection would be true – at the heart of Jesus’ story is a message to be kind to all. But what that simple summary misses is the finer details to this story.
You see, those two people who separately pass the victim along the road, are a priest and a Levite. These two people are not just people of faith – they are keepers of the faith. They know the laws better than most people of faith. You may have heard over the years the logic that priests or Levites could not risk being defiled by touching the body of the victim, and so that is why they went around the victim. But the truth is, their avoidance had nothing to do with defilement – they were heading away from the temple and therefore were not in need of ritual purity, and any good priest or Levite knows they were expected to check on this victim; should he be dead, they should help bury him, and should he be alive, they should tend him.[i] Basically, these are good, trained people of faith, not fulfilling their duty to love their neighbor as themselves.
But perhaps even more significant is the identity of the Samaritan. The story does not say, a priest and Levite passed, but another faithful Jew came to the victim’s aid. The story says, a priest and Levite passed, but a man whose people are mortal enemies of people of faith – who has persecuted, defiled, and subjugated people of faith – is the one who helps. Saying “The Good Samaritan,” is like saying, “The Good Murderer.”[ii] That this typically hated man is the one who shows mercy, kindness, and love is shocking. The hearers of Jesus’ story are shocked, and our ears need to be similarly shocked. Asking us to respect the dignity of every human being is already a monumental task; respecting the dignity of every human being is inconvenient, is humbling, and involves a willingness to be wrong about others. Respecting the dignity of every human being means being willing to see how the best of the faithful fail at kindness, and how sometimes our worst enemies are better people of faith than we are.
Today we are baptizing a child of God. Her parents, godmothers, and our community will make promises today – to raise her in the community of faith, to show her to love and respect, to fight for justice and peace, to share the word of God, and to repent when she messes up. We say those words today as we reaffirm our own baptismal covenants; but sometimes we forget how revolutionary the covenant is. We are agreeing to teach Selah to live a revolutionary life. When we say we will teach baby Selah to respect the dignity of every human being, we are saying we will teach her the hard work being inconvenienced and humbled in order to care for others. When we say we will teach her to love her neighbor as herself, we are saying we will teach her that even her greatest enemies are worthy of love. When we say we will teach her to repent when she sins, we are saying we will teach her to be willing to admit when people who we have deemed unworthy of love and care show us what true kindness really looks like.
Today, when we hear Christ’s words to “go and do likewise,” we can be encouraged that Jesus empowers us to make some promises. Today we look at Selah’s precious, innocent face, and we promise to walk with her as she discovers how hard this work of being a faithful follower of Christ really is. Today, we promise to confess to Selah the times when we have failed to love our neighbors as ourselves. Today, we promise when those we despise, those who hurt us, those we cast out because they are not like us, those we can no longer see humanity in ask us, “Won’t you be my neighbor,” we will say with Selah, “Yes. You are my neighbor too.” Amen.
[i] Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus (New York: Harper One, 2014), 99-102.
[ii] Levine, 105.