Last week at work I had an opportunity to learn about encryption programs that make it possible to send, by e-mail, encrypted messages to people all over the world. With recent news of the NSA and the FBI prying into the files of American businesses it has become somewhat of an issue that we try our best to keep private things private. We needed to be able to do this because we occasionally work with a number of defense contractors in Niagara Falls. With an encryption program, computer files are converted into gibberish on the sender’s end and then reassembled into readable files on the receiving end using a key. The key can be any word or group of words that I select. The only way you can convert the files back is with the key – if you don’t have the key, then supposedly you’re out of luck. If you are a terrorist, you have no way to open the files, even if you manage to steal them. It’s a great system to keep the bad guys from knowing your business.
You might wonder what this has to do with religion or the gospel, but I got to thinking about it the other day how sometimes Jesus used stories that were sort of encrypted, sort of ‘secret’, if you will – that had one meaning to the hearers and another to the people who had the key. We usually associate these secret sayings with the parables that Jesus used to explain the Kingdom of God to those closest to him and yet remained secret to those far distant from him.
Today’s story of the Good Samaritan is one of the most familiar stories in the world. Everyone knows the story of Good Samaritan because it is timeless in its message and moral teaching. The reason we remember it is, that in the story, the two perceived good guys, the priest and the Levite, turn out to be the bad guys and the perceived bad guy, the Samaritan, turns out to be the good guy. As you may know the Samaritans were considered by the Israelites less than dogs mainly because they raised pigs for the Roman army. They also held to a different belief system – and so they were, to the Jews, the pariah of their times and blasphemers. But of course, as the story goes, this particular Samaritan, even though he worshipped god in other ways, and probably helped feed the enemy, had more of a sense of honor and morality than the so-called righteous priest and pious Levite who showed none of the compassion that their religion required of them. And so, as we have grown up, we are all quite aware that if we happen to come across a wounded man laying in the street we will all know what to do.
Initiating this story of course was a lawyer trying to trip Jesus up into saying that one commandment was greater than another . . . “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall 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.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And (just) who is my neighbor?”
After reading this some weeks ago, I started to wonder this myself . . . that is . . . Just who is my neighbor and perhaps almost as importantly . . . who is not? And since I don’t often come across wounded people in the street I started to wonder if Jesus was telling this story on two levels . . . one for the lawyer who wanted to trick him and perhaps one for a future disciple who might want to believe.
To answer this I started to think about who it is Jesus himself came to help. They of course were the outcasts, the poor and the sick and the suffering. He came to help those who were enslaved in sin and hurting, bruised and neglected by those who thought themselves better than others. And then I got to thinking who it was that were the enemies of Jesus . . . they of course were the learned, the religious, ‘the righteous’ of the time. They were those who would not pull a lamb out of a well on the Sabbath. They were those who proclaimed long prayers in the streets while ringing bells to show their piety and moral character but would not touch or help a poor person in the street because they thought them too unclean.
And so it would seem in the story of the Good Samaritan we have two stories, the one we all know and another one, a hidden one, that mirrors the life and theme of Christ’s mission on earth. Within the hidden story, the cast of characters remains the same . . . the priest, the religious of the day, who crossed to other side of the road before he even got close to the man. The Levite, the learned of the day, who walked right up to the man, saw him in distress, and then crossed to the other side, and then the Samaritan, a man rejected by the priests and Levites as an unclean sinner who picks up the injured man and transports him to the nearest hotel, pays for his care and then promises to return again thereby saving his life . . . are you starting to see a theme here?
So finally, it occurred to me that the story of the Good Samaritan also reveals the story of the Gospel. Jesus shows us in this story that our religion and our piety are not valid if we reject relationship with humanity . . . and that we live in a balance of sorts between a Faith that we hold true and a life in Grace which is our salvation. If we take our belief in God seriously and without reservation then our relationship with humanity needs to be just as broad and far reaching. If it isn’t, we will fail . . . even if we have the best of intentions. Our lives will be out of balance with the Good News, the gospel of Jesus Christ, and out of sync with God the Father. Paul tells us that as Christians, we are to bear one another’s burdens, to help the faint hearted, to clothe the naked and give shelter to the homeless, to bind up the broken and live in charity with all people as community of believers. Many today believe they can be good Christians while not being part of a Christian community. How do I know this? . . . I see it every Sunday morning as I drive here seeing cars parked in nearly every street and driveway. We as Christians are strongest and at our best when we live as a community of faith. The community of faith is a living sacrament that exists as the body of Christ in the world when we are in relationship with each other. It is sacramental in that the community of faith is an outward sign (i.e. people helping each other grow in the love of God) of a spiritual grace (the helping hands, heart and soul of Christ on earth). Often we think of the church as a building and often we are reminded that it is not. If we were to gather together across the street under the fueling canopy at the Mobil Gas station we would not be any less a church than when we are, sitting right here . . . some would say however that we were those ‘crazy gas pump worshipping Anglicans’ and yet others would probably say ‘those Christians are smart to worship in the open air . . . how original’!
What is most important is that we all realize that people we meet will read ‘the story’ through the lens of our lives. They may never hear the gospel, and they may never go to church, they may never experience living in a community of faith. You may be the only bible they ever try to read. And so Jesus is telling us that we need to be the Good News in the world, we have to be his hands and ears and hearts in the world, we need to be a community for the stranger that we might find in the street, or at work and in all walks of life.
We are told through the Story of the Good Samaritan that in the grand scheme of things religion and piety are worthless to God if not integrated into a life lived with mercy, justice, peace and humility toward our neighbor . . . and that we are just kidding ourselves if we think any differently.
Jesus asked . . . Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The (lawyer) said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” Amen