Lisa had produced lots of stories like this over the last ten years. They were human-interest stories for ESPN – the stories that drew people into the private pain and sacred celebrations behind their beloved sports. Lisa loved her work, but she had never gotten as involved as she did four years ago. In 2009 she met Leroy and Dartanyon – two high school wrestlers from a poor Cleveland school who were fighting against all odds. Dartanyon was homeless and legally blind and Leroy had lost parts of both legs in a train accident. Dartanyon often carried Leroy to classes up stairs, while Leroy helped Dartanyon with his homework. Their story was so potent for Lisa that she could not walk away. Over the course of four years, she would find herself doing everything from helping Dartanyon obtain his birth certificate, to ensuring they had food everyday; from helping them fill out financial aid forms for college, to connecting Dartanyon to a Paralympic coach.
When I saw Lisa’s story this week, I could not help but to think about the Good Samaritan from the gospel lesson today. Most of us know this story well, and pretty much all of us want to strive to be a Good Samaritan; so much so that we spend time volunteering, we give money to aid important causes, and we even occasionally give a dollar to that guy on the corner. But what struck me this week about the story of the Good Samaritan is that we often simplify the example of the Samaritan. We read this story and we know that we should not be like the lawyer or the priest or the Levite. We should help others like the Samaritan. The problem though with this simplified response to Jesus’ command to “Go and do likewise,” is that we skim over all the work the Samaritan did. The text says the Samaritan, “went to [the victim] and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’”
Several things strike me about this account. First of all, there is a longevity to the care of the Samaritan. The Samaritan does not simply give the man some bandages, or a cloak, or even some money, and then leave. The Samaritan does not simply help the man to a local hospital or inn and then carry on with his life. The Samaritan does not even care for the man overnight, and then depart, having certainly done his duty. No, the Samaritan even pays for the man to stay and promises to return and pay for whatever else is due. This is not a one-time exchange, or even a short-term exchange. This exchange is a commitment to the long haul – a dedication not just to help but to be in relationship. This is what Jesus means when he says we are to “go and do likewise.”
What is tricky about this kind of relationship is that this kind of relationship is messy. Though there is some debate among scholars, many seem to think that the victim on the side of the road was a Jew.[i] So not only was this victim beaten, robbed, and abandoned by those who should have cared for the victim, he was helped and tended to by a Samaritan – a man who was his enemy. The Jews and Samaritans had a long-standing conflict. The Jews had a very low opinion of the Samaritans. Samaritans were seen as second-class citizens to be avoided at all costs. So imagine when the victim woke up at that inn to find a Samaritan nursing him back to health.
Not to mention how complicated this is for the Samaritan. He knows how most Jews feel about him. He may have even felt the same way about the Jewish people. But somehow, his sense of pity gets the best of him, and he finds himself not just asking if the guy is okay, but spending his time and resources on this complete stranger who is his enemy as well. This encounter between these two men is not simply a one-way, clean exchange of helper and helped. This is a messy encounter that leaves the two in a strange relationship that can only be possible through God’s grace. Whatever biases the Jew had against Samaritans had to have been called into question that next morning. Hatred of another cannot remain when one is the recipient of love as deep as the Samaritan shows. And whatever biases the Samaritan had against Jews had to have weakened that day too. You cannot dress a man’s wounds, care for him overnight, and return to check in on him without some of your defenses coming down. The kind of neighborliness that Jesus is inviting people into is messy, complicated, and a bit scary.
Lisa, Leroy, and Dartanyon knew a little about this kind of messiness. Dartanyon and Leroy not only faced the challenges of their own physical limitations, they also lived in a world of struggle. Their school was a school marked by violence and active police presence. Books were handed out and locked back up after each class. Less than forty percent would ever graduate and untold numbers were left pregnant. And white people were not necessarily seen as allies. Meanwhile, Lisa had grown up on the other side of Cleveland. Her parents scraped together money just so that she would not have to go to school with those her parents would call, “those people.” Lisa and Leroy and Dartanyon grew up knowing each other as “the other,” and any attempt at a relationship brought these biases, baggage, and burdens to the foreground.
The funny thing is that when we read our gospel lesson day, we can feel that Jesus is scolding the lawyer in some way. But I think what is actually happening here is a bit of healthy challenge. Jesus fully admits that if the lawyer simply does what the law calls for: to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself – then the lawyer will be fine. Jesus is saying that even the slightest effort of loving God and loving neighbor is good and to be commended. But in the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus is hinting to the lawyer that there is a potential for more – a potential to know God more fully and to love more deeply than he could even imagine is possible. And that kind of amped up grace and blessing can only come from messy, complicated, scary relationships with the other.
Recently, while Lisa, Leroy, and Dartanyon prepared for a follow-up story with ESPN, Dartanyon quietly asked Lisa the question that probably many others had wondered about but never asked. “Why did you stay?” Lisa’s response was automatic. “I love you,” she answered. “That’s what I thought you’d say,” he replied. “But … why … why did you stick around and do everything you did?” Lisa’s response was long and complicated because their relationship was messy, complicated, and at times maybe even scary. But after much reflection, Lisa concludes, “I stayed because we can change the world only when we enter into another’s world.”[ii] Though I have no idea whether Lisa is a person of faith, Lisa is preaching Jesus’ words today with her life. She understands that being neighbors means not just helping people, but entering into their lives, and taking on whatever messiness that involves – because only then can we know the kind of love Jesus has for us. In that sacred, vulnerable, tenuous reality that is relationship with the other is where we experience Jesus and the love Jesus has for all of us – even those we might label as the other. Jesus knows how hard this will be. But Jesus tells us to “Go and do likewise,” anyway because Jesus knows that we can. Amen.
[i] Matthew L. Skinner, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 241.
[ii] Lisa M. Fenn, “‘Carry On’: Why I Stayed,” as found on http://espn.go.com/espn/otl/story/_/id/9454322/why-stayed on July 9, 2013.