Our Inner Samaritan

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

United Methodist Church
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, July 15, 2001


Readings

Amos 7:7, 8 The Plumb Line

This is what the Sovereign Lord showed me: the Lord was standing by a wall that had been built true to plumb, with a plumb line in his hand. And the Lord asked me, "What do you see, Amos?"

"A plumb line," I replied.

Then the Lord said, "Look, I am setting a plumb line among my people Israel; I will spare them no longer.


Luke 10:25-37 The Parable of the Good Samaritan

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

"What is written in the Law?" he replied. "How do you read it?"

He answered: "'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, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'"

"You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live."

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"

In reply Jesus said: "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.'

"Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?"

The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him."

Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise."

Sermon

Jesus said, "Go and do likewise" (Luke 10:37)

It is an honor and a pleasure to be here with you today, offering you some thoughts and, I hope, some inspiration on the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Your pastor (the Rev. Janet Wallace) and I came to Bridgewater about the same time, and we have been good friends and co-workers on the Bridgewater Council of Clergy and in the Bridgewater Clergy Group ever since. I also very much appreciate the friendship and support that some of you have given to various members of the New Jerusalem Church over the years.

I understand that my colleague, the Rev. Andy Stinson of the Elmwood New Church (also a Swedenborgian Church), just preached at the West Bridgewater Methodist Church a week or two ago; and now here I am preaching at the Bridgewater Methodist Church. This could be the beginnings of a Swedenborgian invasion! Really, though, you have nothing to worry about. I figure you've got far more Methodists in Southeastern Massachusetts than we've got Swedenborgians in the entire country.

But seriously, it is one of the wonderful developments in Christianity today that we can feel fellowship not only with people of our own church and denomination, but with many other kinds and varieties of Christians, and even with people of other faiths. In a way, we are finally listening to what Jesus taught us in the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

As many of you know, in the time of Jesus, Samaritans were despised by the Jews largely due to their religious and cultural differences. And one of the Lord's clear messages to his Jewish listeners in this parable was that we are all equal in the sight of God--Jew and Samaritan alike--and that what really counts is whether we live by our faith, and show kindness and mercy to one another. Today we Christians are finally getting the point. We are finally realizing that God loves all people, whatever their background and beliefs--and that we should "go and do likewise." So our sharing with one another this morning, across denominational lines, is one of the benefits of living truly in the way Christ taught us.

However, today I would like to look at the Parable of the Good Samaritan in a little different way. Instead of considering the broad implications this parable has for our ecumenical and interfaith development, I would like to explore with you some of the messages the Parable of the Good Samaritan may hold for us on a very individual, personal level. What does this parable tell us about our own spiritual life? What does it tell us about our own inner struggles and our growth as Christians?

First, it helps to remember that although Jesus' story about the man who fell among thieves had characters very familiar to his listeners, and could have happened just as he described it, this was actually a parable--a story Jesus made up to carry a meaning greater than appears simply from the story line.

Of course, one way to interpret the story is to treat it as a fable, in the best sense of the word. Yesterday I read through all of Aesop's Fables. These are wonderful, brief, pithy tales, many of them involving animals with human characteristics, and almost all of them having a clear moral. Who can forget "The Tortoise and the Hare," with its concluding moral, "Slow but steady wins the race." Or the boy who cried "wolf," and the inevitable destruction of his flock when the villagers did not believe him that this time there really was a wolf. Or the goose that laid the golden eggs, and the foolishness of its owners, who killed the goose thinking they would find a greater treasure inside. These fables--stories with both a punch line and a moral--have become a part of our every day common sense.

Similarly, the parable of the Good Samaritan has worked its way into our cultural consciousness as a "fable" whose moral is that it's not those who simply claim to be religious, but those who live according their religion by showing uncommon kindness to others who will be considered worthy of God's kingdom. And this is a good moral to hear and heed.

But let's look even deeper, and even more personally. Let's consider what this parable would mean if we think of it as Jesus speaking directly to each one of us, as a parable about our own lives. Isn't this when the Word of God comes most alive for us?

The psychologist Carl Jung had a similar mode of interpreting his clients' dreams. In addition to his well-known archetypal theory of symbols in dreams--an idea he probably derived at least partly from reading Emanuel Swedenborg's Scripture interpretations--Jung focused on helping his clients to see every character and event in their dreams as applying, not to outward people or events, but to emotional and psychological events taking place within their own minds and hearts.

For example, if we were to dream of our mother wagging her finger at us, chastising us for something we had done wrong, the image of our mother in the dream would not refer literally to our mother, but to the "mother" in us (perhaps internalized from our actual mother)--the part of us that "scolds" ourselves whenever we do something wrong. Or if the dream was of our mother serving us a slice of her delicious apple pie, it would refer to the part of our own spirit that gives us nurture and comfort, a sense of being loved and cared for.

If we look at the Parable of the Good Samaritan in this way, we can discover that every part of it speaks directly to our own experience. And just as this parable was part of a conversation between the Lord and an expert in the Jewish religious law, so it becomes a conversation between the Lord and our devotion to our religion--to being Christians.

First, let's personalize the setting. The parable starts with a man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. Let's assume this man means us. What is our Jerusalem? This is not too hard to discover. Yes, Jerusalem was the political center of the Jewish people. But even more than that, it was their spiritual center. Now, since you are here in church today, I am going to jump to the conclusion that this church is your spiritual center. Church is the place where we churchgoers especially learn about God, the life and teachings of Jesus, the Bible, and how to live in a Christian way. This is our Jerusalem.

However, we don't spend our whole lives in church. After the service is over, we go back home, and spend most of our week in our ordinary, everyday tasks: working, taking care of our homes and families, taking time off to rest and relax. Just so, the man in the parable was going down from Jerusalem--the spiritual center of the Jewish people--to Jericho--an ordinary, working--class town. Perhaps Jericho was where he lived and worked, and he was returning from religious ceremonies at the Temple. We don't know.

What we do know is that somewhere along the rugged and dangerous road that covered the eighteen miles from Jerusalem to Jericho, he fell into the hands of robbers. Whatever fine experience he had in Jerusalem, it was all destroyed on his way to Jericho.

Of course, very few of us fear that we will be set upon by robbers on our way home from church! But there's another way we can be robbed, right in the privacy of our own minds and hearts, as we make the transition from our Sunday mornings spent in church to our everyday lives in the world. Let's face it: it's pretty easy to feel religious and have high ideals here in church. We're singing hymns, listening to Bible readings, praying to God, hearing a sermon full of all sorts of spiritual wisdom, and enjoying fellowship with others who share our faith. The tough part is keeping that same spirit of Christian love, unity, and closeness to the Lord once we get back home.

Sometimes we don't even make it home before our inner robbers get us. Let's say we're driving home from church, and some rotten so--and--so pulls right out in front of us and cuts us off. It would be nice to think that when this happens, we would smile blissfully at the person in the other car and offer up a little prayer for him or her. But I suspect that what happens more often is that a few choice words escape our lips, and only our sense of social propriety keeps us from shouting out the window and making rude gestures.

Oops! Our inner robbers have gotten us! Only minutes before, we were immersed in high ideals of Christian living; and already we're feeling anger and resentment at someone who has quickly become our "enemy" by crossing our path in the wrong way. Of course, this is a fairly trivial example. Things get even harder when we get home into sometimes difficult home or work situations, and fall right back into our old patterns of dealing with the people around us--our loved ones, family members, friends, and co-workers--patterns that aren't anywhere near as Christian and idealistic as we aspire to when we're in church.

Sometimes we get ambushed by our own impatience, our faulty attitudes, our frustration with our situation and the people around us, or simply by despair over whether our various struggles and emotional pains will ever get any better. And though we may have started out with good intentions for the week when we left church, we may find ourselves spiritually lying by the side of the road, beaten and bloody, with little hope left.

This is where our religious beliefs should come to our rescue. We ought to be able to recite some of the verses we've learned, or recall one of those pithy spiritual teachings, and have it lift us up out of the emotional gutter we're in. Alas, in this case, both the priest and the Levite walk right by. Yes, we know Jesus loves us. We know the Golden Rule, and the Ten Commandments, and many other fine guides to spiritual living. And yet, too often these become matters of rote repetition--lifeless rules that we think of simply as things to do to prove we are Christians, and to make people think well of us. The priest and Levite in the story, like the religious lawyer who "wanted to justify himself," were religious more for outward show than for living by the inner spirit of their religion. This kind of formulaic, mechanical, self-justifying religion will not pull us out of the ditch that our own inner thieves and robbers have thrown us into.

What does pull us out? In the story, it was a Samaritan. It was one of the hated and despised people who mixed Jewish religious practice in with their own semi-pagan practices, thus, in the Jews' eyes, desecrating the sacred things of the Jewish religion. And yet the Samaritan, and not the priest or the Levite, was the one who helped.

We can think of our inner Samaritan as those parts of ourselves that may not be all that clear on the finer points of theology, but are determined to be kind and helpful, and do the right thing, whether or not our actions would pass muster with the theologians. The Samaritan is our simple, gut-level concern and caring for the people around us. It is our desire to treat people fairly, with respect, with thoughtfulness, and with kindness.

Just when we feel that our religious beliefs are abandoning us--or we are abandoning our faith--what often picks us up and gets us back on track is noticing that there are people out there who need our help and our love. We may not be able to make fine doctrinal arguments as to exactly how we should treat particular people in particular circumstances, and why. But we know that we have a job to do.

So our inner Samaritan pulls us out of that ditch of despair and self-pity, and gets us going again. As we focus on the people around us, and what we can do to make their day just a little bit better, our own troubles and worries don't seem quite so difficult and painful anymore. As we help others out of their mental and emotional ditches, we find that we ourselves are gaining more and more strength. As we heal others' wounds, our own wounds are healed at the same time.

And then we find that after all, our experience in Jerusalem did come with us to Jericho. As long as our religion was all in our head, we didn't get anywhere. But as soon as we open up our heart to others, and begin living by the deeper spirit of Christ's teachings, our spirit revives. Then the healing touch of the Lord's love has come into our lives, and through us into the lives of those around us. Jesus tells us, "Go and do likewise."

 


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Music: Soulsong
2001 Bruce DeBoer
and used with permission