The parable of the Good Samaritan, which we have just heard, is one of the most popular teachings of Jesus (among believers and non-believers) — because it presents a straightforward moral teaching that most of us agree with: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” It’s the golden rule. It doesn’t really require a great deal of explanation… or so one would think.
Remember here that it is the lawyer, not Jesus, who says what the law is here. The lawyer says “You shall love God … and you shall love your neighbor.” This isn’t a new teaching, this is a paraphrase of passages in Deuteronomy and Leviticus, from the Hebrew Scripture [note 1]. The lawyer is the one who says that this is the law we should follow if we want to get into heaven. And Jesus confirms this: Yes, this is the law.
But even though the lawyer is the one who states this proposition, he still questions it. “Who is my neighbor?” The text says that he asked this question in order to justify himself. The lawyer needs to justify himself because he knows that he is not following this teaching in its fullest form.
Remember the context here. The lawyer is a Jew, living in 1st century Judea. He lives under a brutal Roman occupation. His people are not just surrounded by enemies — the enemy is living among them. And their neighbors, the Samaritans, those are the people who defiled the Jewish temple just one generation before. He has very good reasons for being wary of outsiders, considering how those outsiders have treated his people. In fact, everyone needed to take sides: did you cooperate with the Romans, or work against them?
“Surely,” this man might think, “there are some people who do not deserve our love.” Certainly it would not be right to love the Romans who oppress us. Certainly it would not be right to love the Samaritans who disrespect our religion and culture. The lawyer knows that the rule needs to be clarified. So who is it that we need to love?
The Parable’s Teaching
And it is that question that causes Jesus to tell the parable. Its message is quite clear and I don’t need to tell you what it means. But there is an important detail that I want to highlight. When telling this parable, Jesus identifies the three men who pass by — the ii Jewish religious leaders who do nothing, and the one (hated) Samaritan who shows mercy. But what about the man who was beaten and robbed? We know nothing about him. Jesus is teaching that it doesn’t matter who the person is — all that matters is whether we choose to show mercy or not. The question “Who is my neighbor?” is an invalid question.
The Choice to Show Mercy
This gospel story is so compelling to us because we are faced with these same kinds of moral choices today. And we make the same kind of responses, and the same kinds of justifications. I am sure that the two Jewish religious leaders who chose not to help the victim had some justification for doing so. The thing to remember about justifications, though, is that they happen after the fact. First, we choose not to act; then, we come up with a good reason why we made the choice that we did.
- What kind of justifications am I talking about? They usually sound something like this:
- This is not my problem.
- I don’t know how to help.
- There are other people more worthy who need my help.
- There are so many people in need, I cannot help them all.
- Nothing I do would make any difference.
The problem with these justifications is that they lead to a slippery slope. We start off by coming up with justifications for why we do not show mercy. But these are often just lies that we tell ourselves. There’s a very real danger that, after a while, we start believing the lies. At that point, suffering and need become too painful for us to look at — it causes us to be uncomfortable. So then we find ways to not have to look at it.
Building the Wall
We begin to respond to suffering by building a wall around our hearts — a wall that helps keep those who are in need out of our view, and out of our conscience. We continue to do our small kindnesses — we give to the food bank, we write our checks to charity, we try to be nice and kind to others. But we never really give too much thought to those who are on the other side of that wall. We love them, yes, but in a kind of general “wish you well” kind of way. We don’t wish ill upon them, but we aren’t going to take any particular note of their needs.
The problem, of course, is that the people on the other side of that wall — they remain in need, and they continue to suffer. Since they are out of our view, they are no longer “our problem.” And after a while, they become “nobody’s problem.”
The Migrant Detention Crisis
Recent events have highlighted this process on a national scale. For many years, we have been walling off our neighbors to the south — quite literally. We know, in a vague sense, that many of them are suffering. But that suffering, we tell ourselves, isn’t really our problem. There really isn’t anything we can do about it. And if people are fleeing the dangers that they face in their own countries, we don’t want them to end up here. And if they do, we have a convenient label for them: illegal immigrants. Since they are breaking the law, we don’t have a duty to show them mercy.
But this crisis has built up to a point where it has intruded on our national conscience; it has pierced the walls that we have built up to protect ourselves from seeing it. For me, and many others, the problem became very real when we started to hear the words “concentration camps” being used in reference to the conditions in which we were holding migrants in this country. Some in the current administration have characterized these facilities as more like “summer camps” [note 2] and have decried the use of the term “concentration camps.” [note 3]
However, the government’s own report — from the Inspector General of DHS — described the conditions of these camps: some people have “no access to showers or hot meals” and “little access to clean clothes.” It characterized the conditions as a “risk to the health and safety” of both the detainees, and the officers charged with detaining them. [note 4]
The dictionary defines concentration camp this way: “a camp where persons are confined, usually without hearings and typically under harsh conditions, often as a result of their membership in a group that the government has identified as dangerous or undesirable.” [note 5]
These reports have made people very uneasy, people all across the political spectrum. That’s good. If we are not troubled by the suffering of other people, we become inhumane. That discomfort forces us to act — but we have a choice about how to act.
Some people have chosen to act in ways that try to rebuild that wall — to justify what is happening and to place it outside of our conscience. One such response was heard on the morning news/talk program Fox and Friends. Here are the exact words exchanged on this topic [note 6]:
And these are not — like it or not, these aren’t our kids. Show them compassion, but it’s not like he is doing this to the people of Idaho or Texas. These are people from another country and now people are saying that they’re more important than people in our country who are paying taxes and who have needs as well.
And the response from the co-host:
Yeah, well he just wants to make sure we vet who’s coming across the border, in case it’s MS-13 or drugs.
Note the desire to make a distinction between those who deserve mercy and those who do not. These folks have made a choice, after seeing what has happened, to justify themselves by saying “These are not my neighbors.”
Our Response as Christians
Jesus is calling us to do better than this. His teaching in the parable of the Good Samaritan is clear: all people are our neighbors, and we must show mercy to them. There is no exception for foreigners. There is no exception for people whom we fear. There are no exceptions.
The writer and pastor Robert Fulghum once wrote that [note 7]:
Justice, mercy, love and freedom are not the work of the gods, or politicians; but the work of those who willingly risk seeing the world with open eyes – who do not turn away, but address what they see.
I think this is a fantastic way of understanding our obligation as Christians. We cannot simply say, “God must care for these people.” We cannot say, “The government needs to fix this.” Instead, each of us is called to look — to confront ourselves with what is going on in the world — and to find a way to address what we see. And I would add that we also need to regularly confront ourselves with Holy Scripture — we need to constantly remind ourselves of what God is calling us to do. Some of the teachings of Christ are extremely difficult to follow. But we must face up to the fact that the choices we make do not always comport with what God wants us to do — we have to accept that, repent, and do better.
How do we respond to the current situation? The answer is different for each of us. We can all lobby our political leaders and encourage (or demand) that they take action. We can all find ways to discuss this issue and keep it in the forefront of peoples’ minds — to help continue the process of tearing down that wall. Some of us may be called to do more. But even if it is painful, we must look at what is happening, pray, and then act. And this is not just true about the current situation. We must actively work to see human need and suffering in all of the places we would rather not look — see, then pray, then think, then act.
Don’t do nothing. Do something. You may think that your actions will not have an impact. But I firmly believe that every action has some impact; so act through love. Love, kindness and mercy are never wasted.
May God grant us the courage to tear down the walls that divide us, and the strength to show mercy and love to all our neighbors.
This sermon was preached by Mr. Ryan Tobin at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Cathedral on July 13-14, 2019, for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 10C). The texts for the day were:
- Deuteronomy 30:9-14
- Psalm 25:1-9
- Colossians 1:1-14
- Luke 10:25-37
- Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:17-18
- “Lawmakers Question Trump Officials On Family Separation Policy.” NPR News, July 31, 2018. Link to article.
- “Pence: ‘Outrage’ to say migrant children being held in concentration camps.” The Hill, July 12, 2019. Link to article.
- “Management Alert – DHS Needs to Address Dangerous Overcrowding and Prolonged Detention of Children and Adults in the Rio Grande Valley.” Report of the Office of Inspector General, Department of Homeland Security. Link to report.
- From the American Heritage Dictionary. Link to definition.
- “Immigration Showdown.” From Fox and Friends, June 22, 2019. Link to video & transcript.
- From What on Earth Have I Done?: Stories, Observations and Affirmations by Robert Fulghum, p.299 (St. Martin’s
Griffin, New York, 2007)