“There was a man who went down from Jerusalem to Jericho.” Those words begin Jesus’ most famous parable, and they set the stage for a tragic event. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was a notoriously dangerous road. Jerusalem is a high place, about 2,300 feet above sea level. Jericho is a low place near the Dead Sea, which is 1,300 feet below sea level. So, in less than twenty miles, this narrow, winding road drops about 3,600 feet through steep and rocky terrain. As you can imagine, it was an excellent place for thieves to set up an ambush. They could make attacks on travelers making the long, slow descent, and then escape into the surrounding rocks and hills where they couldn’t be caught. For centuries the road was known as “The Bloody Way” due to the frequency of attacks. Jesus’ parable describes the type of violence that was constantly happening on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho for hundreds of years. (William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke, pp. 138-139.)
So, as Jesus tells us, a man was traveling this road alone and sure enough, the thieves got him and left him “half dead” on the side of the road. A priest and a Levite, both of whom were holy men, walk right by the dying victim. They sound evil, but it’s not as if the priest and the Levite were simply bad people. They had legitimate reasons for acting as they did. Any contact with blood or a dead body would have rendered them unclean according to their purity laws. No one who was “unclean” could enter the holy places of the temple. So, walking over and touching this dying or dead man, even just to see if he was alive, was out of the question. It would have disqualified them from their religious duties.
Believe it or not, we’re not so different from them. Several years ago a group of researchers conducted an experiment in which seminary students were each told that they had been selected to help record a talk about the Good Samaritan. The problem was that the recording was to be done in a building all the way across campus, and because of a tight schedule they would have to hurry to get there. On the path to the other building the researchers had planted an actor playing a sick homeless man slumped in an alley, coughing and suffering. The excited students each hurried across campus for their important assignment, and as it turned out, almost none of them turned out to actually be Good Samaritans. Almost all of them hurried past the suffering man. One student even stepped over the man’s body as he rushed across campus to teach about the parable of the Good Samaritan! (Darley, J. M., and Batson, C.D., “From Jerusalem to Jericho: A study of Situational and Dispositional Variables in Helping Behavior”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1973, 27, 100-108.)
The seminary students, of course, were not bad people. They were just human. Like the priest and the Levite, they simply had other priorities that kept them from acting with compassion. Knowing the right thing to do and actually doing the right thing are two completely different things. For instance we all value compassion. Very few of us, however, actually act compassionately to those in need when given the chance.
That’s what sets the Good Samaritan apart. He had plenty of reasons to do as the priest and Levite did, passing by on the other side of the road. He was traveling the ‘Bloody Way’ and needed to get to his destination as soon as he could. The dying man could have been a trap used to lure him into an ambush by thieves. Any number of things could have gotten in the way of his compassion… but for some reason, they didn’t. He did the unthinkable. He stopped, putting himself at risk. He touched the man and bandaged his wounds, rendering himself unclean. He put him on his own horse, slowing his journey on the treacherous road. He took him to an inn and cared for him, devoting more of his precious travel time. He paid the innkeeper to take care of him indefinitely, likely costing him a fortune. Remarkably, none of these things got in the way of his compassion.
I’m reminded of an astonishing incident that happened this past winter in New York City. A construction worker named Wesley Autrey was standing on a subway platform with his two young daughters, waiting on a train. Suddenly another man on the platform suffered a seizure and fell down onto the subway tracks just as a rapidly approaching train neared the platform. With no thought for himself, Autrey jumped down onto the tracks to rescue the man by dragging him out of the way of the train. But he immediately realized that the train was coming too fast and there wasn’t time to pull the man off the tracks. So Autrey pressed the man into the low place between the rails and spread his own body over him to protect him as the train arrived. The train cleared Autrey by mere inches, and actually left grease marks on his cap.
Immediately, Wesley Autrey became a national hero. People were astonished by his bravery and his selflessness. He had no real reason to help this stranger. He didn’t know the man. He had two young daughters. What he did was a severe risk to his own life. But a human being was in desperate need and, moved with compassion, Autrey did what he could to save him. He was dubbed “The Subway Superman” and the headline in one newspaper described Autrey in biblical terms. It read, “Good Samaritan Saves Man on Subway Tracks.” (Newsday, January 2, 2007.)
The actions of Good Samaritans are so remarkable because they are so far beyond what most of us would do. Like the priest and the Levite and the seminary student guinea pigs, each of us would probably find ourselves passing by on the other side of the road, or staring down in horror at the man who fell on the tracks. It is simply not in our nature to forget ourselves and risk everything for a stranger. We can’t simply decide to move ourselves to compassion. Something has to move us.
That, I think, is what Jesus’ parable is really all about. Jesus isn’t simply telling the lawyer to go imitate good works. If Jesus merely wants us to go out and do as the Good Samaritan did, then we’re in trouble. Almost certainly, none of us can do it. None of us can simply decide to move ourselves to that level of compassion and selflessness. Though we may know the right thing to do in any given situation, there’s no guarantee that we would actually do it. Being a Good Samaritan takes more than a change of mind. It takes a change of heart.
I wonder what brought about that change of heart in the Good Samaritan. I wonder what changed Wesley Autrey into a man who would risk his life for a stranger. I wonder what changes any of us from priests and Levites into Good Samaritans. Considering Jesus’ parable, the answer might lie in the victim who is attacked and left for dead. Does he seem familiar to you? We know that he’s come from a very high place to a very low place. He’s risking suffering and death to get there, and he’s eventually stripped, beaten, and left dying. His suffering is even ignored by the religious leaders of the day. There’s something vaguely Christ-like about him.
If you think about it, he is the Christ-figure of the story. For ages Christians have seen Christ in the compassionate self-sacrifice of the Good Samaritan, but shouldn’t we see Christ in the one suffering as well? Jesus did teach that whatsoever we do to the least of these, we do to Jesus himself. Are we not called to recognize the face of Christ in the poor, the needy, the outcast, and the lowly? We may not be able to force ourselves to act with compassion, but we can at the very least open ourselves up to the possibility that Christ is in every lowly, needy, or suffering person we meet. We can seek to put ourselves in contact with more and more people who are living in need. We can be friends to those in low places. This has been the calling of the Church from the very beginning.
In the days of ancient Rome, unwanted children were frequently abandoned somewhere in the wilderness, exposed to the elements so that they would die quickly. This happened primarily with female children, who were not as valuable to the family as male children. One of the earliest ministries of the church was to find these children, to nurse them back to health, and to raise them as their own. When the plagues spread through Europe the church ministered to those who were dying from the diseases. Even though people in the church died from catching those diseases, they would still care for those who were sick. In the Middle Ages hospitals arose primarily from Christian churches. Orphanages and schools for women were built around the world as Protestant missionaries met needy people in countries they visited. Again and again churches had compassion on the weak, the needy, the outcast, and the lowly.
Where do these kinds of things come from? I don’t think they come from just trying to imitate the works of the Good Samaritan. They come from something deeper. They come from God. God’s compassion for us makes us compassionate. God’s love for us makes us more loving to others. Compassion is not simply something we can imitate. Compassion awakens within us when we see the face of Christ himself in those who suffer. We have compassion because our hearts have been changed by good news: God came down to us. God lived among us and shared our pain and our suffering. God loves us, not by remaining far off in high places, but by being a friend to those in low places.
Can we go and do likewise?
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This sermon was written by Rev. Lee A. Koontz.