Passing By or Passing On

© The Good Samaritan by Tim Kubacki (Flickr)
Published by Josh Hosler on Sun, Jul 14, 2019 2:25 PM

sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 10C), July 14, 2019
Amos 7:7-17; Psalm 82; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37

Who is my neighbor? Who counts? Who is supposed to matter to me? Whose lives must I be involved in? Whom must I love as myself?

“Well,” says Jesus, “let me answer that question with a story. A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho.” Down, down, down from the holy hill, a descent of over 3000 feet in a mere 16 miles. A man went down from the place of temple worship, presumably back to his hometown, through sloping desert canyons with high walls. But then trouble went down and brought the man low. On this notoriously dangerous road the man was attacked, robbed, beaten up, left for dead in the ditch.

If you had been passing by that day, down through the mountain passes, would you have passed over to the other side, away from this man? Would you have passed up the opportunity to help before passing on? Would Jesus have given you a pass?

I looked up the word “pass,” by the way, and found 74 definitions, as a noun, as a transitive verb, and as an intransitive verb.

“Some cake? No, I’ll pass.”

“And he’s wide open, and he’s going to try for a forward pass!”

“They accepted me because I can pass for one of them.”

“Let’s head ’em off at the pass!”

“Please pass the salt and pepper.”

“It is time for us to pass on what we have learned.”

“I’m sorry, but your wife has just passed on.”

What an odd word, to have so many definitions!

“Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.”

The word “pass” is hidden in another place in the gospel reading. Jesus said to the lawyer, “Go and do likewise,” but the Greek word for “go” might just as well be translated, “Pass on to the next place.” So whereas the priest and the Levite pass by on the other side, Jesus commands something different. Don’t pass by … pass on in this way.

Pass on? Doesn’t that mean to die? Why, yes … yes, it does. And not just in English. That Greek verb for “go” or “pass on” is also an expression that means to die.

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

“The one who showed him mercy.”

“OK then,” says Jesus. “Pass on like this. Die like that guy.”

Wait. Did the Samaritan die? He certainly killed his own plans. The Samaritan stopped to help, not knowing how badly the man was hurt. He administered first aid. He put the man on his own donkey. We don’t know how much of the 16-mile journey remained on which the man then had to go on foot. He said to the innkeeper, “Charge whatever you have to.” And then he promised to come back again later to check on the man’s recovery and to settle up.

But you can bet that wasn’t the end of it. What do you suppose his wife said when he finally straggled home? Or the next month when the Visa bill came? The Samaritan didn’t choose the winning path or the safe path. He chose the path of compassionate personal loss. He allowed his life to be altered—possibly forever—by a dying man on the side of the road.

“Life your live like this,” says Jesus. “Die like that guy.”

Later in Luke’s gospel, Jesus uses the same verb when he says, “The Son of Man is passing on as it has been determined.” Shortly thereafter Peter says, “Lord, I am ready to pass on with you to prison and to death!” In both cases the verb could mean, “To go on to the next situation,” or it could mean, “To die.” It’s an intentional double entendre.

There are those who are literally in danger of dying. And then there are those who figuratively die in order to help them. Either way, Jesus implies, dying is the agenda.

Now, you may have heard sermons before about how the priest and the Levite were afraid to help because it might make them ritually impure. But this isn’t true, and Christian preachers would all know this if we just asked any Jewish scholar. The crime of the priest and the Levite is not a fear of ritual impurity, but a simple lack of compassion. It is central to their Jewish faith always to help someone in need; they simply fail to do it. And they know it. I can just imagine them fearfully slinking into the shadows. Feeling bad about it won’t change the fact that they didn’t stop to help. They passed by instead of passing on.

The more privilege and power we have, the more we’re hardwired for this. When there’s someone in need, do we always stop to help? Do we always give money to the panhandler? No, we just decide they’ll probably spend it on drugs. We don’t know this, and statistically, we’re probably wrong. We might make up stories about how the poor don’t know how to spend their money, when in reality the poor are far better budgeters than anyone else. They just literally can’t save their way out of poverty. The math doesn’t work. But most of us don’t even give them the dignity of eye contact. We feel an irrational desire always to be in control of our destiny, and we fear we’ll be polluted by other people’s lack of control. Yet control is an illusion, and this is something Jesus really pressed people on.

I haven’t even mentioned the most glaring point about this parable, and that’s the Samaritan. And here’s where a little history will be helpful. A thousand years before Jesus, the original, short-lived nation of Israel suffered a political split that comes into play in our Amos reading. Samaria became the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel, while Jerusalem, the “city of David,” remained the capital of the southern kingdom of Judah. Jerusalem wasn’t in the northern kingdom, so the people of Israel moved the focus of their worship to Mount Gerizim. Israel was eventually conquered by the Assyrians. One hundred fifty years later, the Babylonians conquered Judah.

Many of the northern Jews intermarried with Assyrians but retained their Jewish faith and practice as best they could. They became known as the Samaritans, and they are still around to this day, though only a few hundred remain. In Jesus’ time, Samaria was yet another occupied province of the Roman Empire. Despite the Samaritans and the Judean Jews being under the same occupation, the ancient rivalries about the proper place of worship had not abated.

And so in Jesus’ time we have two peoples with common ancestors, nursing ancient grudges and suffering from a great deal of animosity towards each other—like Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, or like Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Iraq. The excuse for the breach is religious, but mostly it plays out in politics and especially in social norms. No doubt the children on both sides are told simply that if you want to remain safe and untainted, you stay away from “those people.” The Samaritans are absolutely despised.

Yet who stops to help?

Who is my neighbor? Who counts? Who is supposed to matter to me? Whose lives must I be involved in? Whom must I love as myself?

Do you really want to know the answer? If you do, you might have to let go of your illusion of control.

See, here’s the thing. In our world there are certain factors that more likely lead to relative safety: whiteness, maleness, straightness, health, wealth, education. Some of these we are born with, while others are achievable primarily through factors that were already in play when we were born. The more of these things you have, the more decision-making power is yours, not only about how you choose to live your life, but also about who you’re going to hang out with … and who you’re going to believe to be worthy of help. You’re playing the video game of life on the easy setting. But whatever power and privilege you’re missing, Jesus wants you to know that this is a mark of blessedness.

“Be like this,” says Jesus. “Be brought low. Either be the one who has lost all control over his fate—who is now lying half-dead by the side of the road—or be the despised outsider who abandons whatever control he still has and rushes to help him.”

Well then, I might say, I’ll be the Samaritan! I’ll amend my life and be noble and give up control and rush to help. But I can’t. I can’t be the Samaritan, because I am not the despised outsider. I never will be; I have too much power and privilege in this world. So that leaves me only two options: I can be the person of privilege who passes by on the other side. Or I can be the man lying in the ditch, waiting for someone I despise to come along and help me. And then I can show mercy to the despised one simply by allowing him to minister to my needs.

According to Jesus, the way to salvation is to receive mercy. Good actions are not a requirement for my salvation or yours. When that time comes and I need help from the one I despise, will I accept that help? Will I even have a choice? Hallelujah then, for I am being saved through my lack of options.

Our comfort and control are an illusion, and we must all let our illusions pass on. So just be the last, the least, the lost, the little, and the dead, says Jesus. Allow the Good Samaritan to save you. Amen.

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