Blessed be the Name of God
The story I am about to tell is about the Reign of God, the Kingdom. Listening to the story, the way I am going to tell it, will take some imagination on your part. You will have to listen to me as if I were someone else. To help you do that, I’m going to wrap myself in this [a saffron colored scarf], so you will know, at a glance, that I am not the one you know so well.
So we begin.
My name is Moishe. I am a Judean and an actor. You probably don’t recognize me out of costume but you have seen me before, likely many times—depending on how much and how often you come to church. I am an actor, a member of a small and rather elite repertory company, a group of players that lives in the imagination of Jesus. We’re the people who work in all the stories he likes to tell, the parables and such. And you know what a remarkable story teller he is. I’ve been with the company for quite a while and I’m the oldest player, though people tell me I don’t look it!
Being a player in the stories of Jesus is very demanding work, but we all really enjoy it, even though we don’t know from day to day what role we’ll be asked to play. This creates a good deal of anxiety among the less experienced—dare I say the less gifted—members of our little band, but for most of us, the variety is quite exhilarating.
I’ve played a number of significant roles in Jesus’ storytelling. You will perhaps remember my remarkable performance as the older brother in the story of “The Prodigal.” The older brother is the grouchy one who complains about his father’s generosity to the scoundrel boy who returns. This part gives clear directions as to the tone and intent of the character but without restricting the player’s natural inclination. Getting annoyed and being grouchy are things I can do very well. They come to me just as easy as you please.
Probably the juiciest part I ever played was the unjust steward [Luke 16.1-7]. You know, the one about the fellow who was going to be called to account for his stewardship and faced the prospect of losing his job. With the threat over him, he gives all the creditors a reduction in what they owe so they will look after him when he’s fired. Wonderful lines in that story! “What shall I do, since my master is taking the stewardship away from me? I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg.” The stories like this one, the ones about “unrighteous mammon,” they are really splendid for the players. And the wedding stories are a true joy!
Now the tough ones are the ones with animals. Working with animals is the pits! For instance, have you ever tried to get just one sheep to wander off? It’s almost impossible. Why couldn’t he tell a story about the 17 sheep who were lost and the 83 who remained behind?! No, it’s one lost sheep! We had to do that one I don’t know how many times before we got it right.
Well, enough of that. The reason I’m here this morning is to help interpret the story of the Good Samaritan—the one read so very well just a moment ago. Now, admittedly it’s unusual for us to work out of character but with this particular story a lot of confusion has grown up so, we in the company, thought it wise to lay aside our usual work and see if we could help.
First of all, unfortunately, the way Luke has set the story doesn’t help much. The business at the beginning, the business about the lawyer and his persistent questions about eternal life—those actually never did have anything to do with the story itself. Luke probably had that stuff written on a slip of paper that just found its way into the text and the typist simply copied it down. The story really begins when Jesus says, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho…” That’s the beginning of the story. And I’m the one known in the script as “A man.”
No doubt you think at first glance that this story is painfully familiar. Thieves rob me, leave me for dead, in a ditch. Very nasty indeed. By chance, both a priest and a Levite take this same road, see me in the ditch, assume I’m dead and pass me by. I don’t blame them for that, and you must not either. Presumably they would be ritually defiled by touching someone dead, so they move on. Makes perfectly good sense. Don’t blame them for this. Perfectly sensible.
Now, this is where the story gets intriguing. By now, all the sympathy in the story is with me. Everyone listening to this tale is right there, with me, in the ditch, nearly death. Well, perhaps not everyone is with me—the scrupulous clerical and religious types will have wandered off sympathetically down the road with the priest and the Levite. Anyway, there I am in the ditch, alongside all those sympathetic with my plight. We, there in the ditch, we are virtual outcasts, beaten, robbed, naked, apparently dead, on a road less traveled. Then, as if that weren’t bad enough, the worst imaginable thing happens. The next person to round the bend in the road is my mortal enemy.
The one in the ditch, a Judean, I have a proud bloodline; my people are very proud, boastful, some would say, about our tradition. The Samaritan—I can hardly say the word without sneering—the Samaritan, this Gentile, is a false person, everyone knows that; an impersonator of humanity, a dog. “May the fleas of a thousand camels nest in your beard!” Going from Galilee to Judea, I’d rather cross and re-cross the Jordan, however many times it takes, than to set foot in wretched Samaria!
It’s ironic to me that this poor excuse for a human being should have been cheated. Someone else has already gotten to me first—I’m already stripped, robbed, close enough to death to pass for a corpse. This fool Samaritan cannot harm me now. What a delicious irony. A final pleasure for me, helpless as I am. A last laugh; a final smile. Over this wretch, I am victorious! Wonder of wonders!
Then the unimaginable, the intolerable happens. Unlike the two earlier travelers, the Samaritan does not pass by, and contrary to the natural characteristic of his people, he does not do me more harm. As the script says, “He was moved with pity.” Dear God in Heaven. What am I to do?!
There in the ditch, I have an enormous problem. Helpless or not, will I permit this lowlife to help me? Will I risk ridicule, humiliation, insult, even hatred from my friends and kinsfolk by allowing this “enemy” to rescue me?
Soon enough, however, I discover that all this tension about permission is for nought. I am too weak to object, too much the victim to turn him away. I have no choice, there in the ditch, but to subject myself to the mercy of my enemy. Even the most sympathetic hearer would desert me now, astounded and filled with disappointment. I am left alone, destitute, to suffer mercy at the hands of this Samaritan, my enemy.
The lavishness of my enemy’s care—the oil and wine to salve my wounds, the bandages, the safety of an inn, the payment for my shelter and healing—all this, only extends my torture. How can I sustain my hatred, my precious anger at this “dog” when he torments me with compassion? If I am saved from death, if I am given life back again in this fashion, how can I face my “normal” world again? I will be forced to accept safety, mercy, loving-kindness from this enemy, as if my friend. Damn!!
And so the story ends, and makes its point.
Under the reign of God, mercy comes unexpectedly and when it comes, it is finally irresistible. Under the reign of God, God’s mercy, the mercy that surprises us, the loving-kindness that restores us, coming from whatever source, re-defines us and deprives us of all our enemies, every last one.
Blessed be the Name of God