A series of essays in the Episcopal Church
Pentecost 10, July 8, 2004
The gospel reading about the Good Samaritan is more than just a fable about individual moral behavior. It is more than a tale about people doing what is right or wrong in a given situation. It is a story where everyone’s humanity is subjected to examination and measured against the standard of compassion. Jesus’ parable is a story about being healed and finding life in the midst of death. And what makes this story so memorable even to people who do not read the Bible, is that the parable of the Good Samaritan is about an unlikely hero.
The Samaritan does the unexpected by helping his enemy. By Jesus’ time Jewish dislike of Samaritans was on par with, if not greater than their dislike for the Romans. Mention anything having to do with that region north of Jerusalem and people reacted with disdain. Especially disliked because they had married foreigners during their captivity by the Assyrians, Jews believed that the Samaritans had defiled Israel. And if their impurity wasn’t enough they were heretical to boot. It seems that the Samaritans once offered sacrifices to God at Mt. Gerizim instead of Jerusalem. No doubt about it. Samaritans were bad people and it was best to avoid any contact with them lest you be contaminated by their sin. In fact Jews from the north traveling south on pilgrimage to Jerusalem would take the long way around to avoid their Samaritan neighbors.
It wasn’t always that way though. Samaritans and Jews were descended from a common Hebrew ancestor named Joseph; the same fellow who showed mercy to his brothers even though they had abandoned him to slavery. Exacerbated by ethnic, political and religious differences over an 800 year period, Joseph’s descendants became totally alienated from one another. Powerless and fewer in numbers, it became easy to treat Samaritans like social pariahs.
Living under the shadow of such prejudice is not easy. Prejudice by its nature seeks to dehumanize people. In essence, it tries to coerce its victims into being less than they are. So why? Given the way he had been treated, why would a Samaritan even think of helping an enemy? Jesus tells us that the Samaritan felt compassion when he saw the wounded man. Since compassion is an attribute of being human, we can conclude that the Samaritan had retained his humanity in the face of prejudice. But I think there is more to what the Samaritan did that day than meets the eye.
In her novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee masterfully tells a story through the eyes a young girl named Scout. Scout, her brother Jem and their friend Dill spend the summer together doing those things kids usually do; playing games and sharing stories about the reclusive Radley family and their the strange son. They even dare one another to sneak up to their neighbor’s house and peek through the back window hoping to catch a glimpse of the mysterious young man few people had ever seen.
Scout, Jem and Dill speculated often about Boo Radley. After all, rumors started the day the Radleys moved to Maycomb. They weren’t like other people. They kept to themselves and were not receptive to Sunday visitors. And then there was that son of theirs. He wasn’t quite right. One never knows about these things. He might have even been dangerous. Besides, everyone knows it is better to avoid people like Boo Radley.
The story’s climax takes place when Scout and Jem are walking home from the school pageant. It is Halloween night and as Scout and Jem walk through the woods they sense they are being watched. Suddenly from out of the dark a man appears and a struggle follows. Jem is knocked unconscious and the man starts moving toward Scout. But then Boo Radley shows up and life for the town of Maycomb begins to change for good.
Boo Radley it turns out wasn’t the man people had characterized him to be. Yes he was a recluse but he was also a victim of fear and prejudice. You see, it is a natural reaction for victims of prejudice to be fearful of their neighbors. Boo Radley had every reason to remain a recluse safely inside his parent’s house, but events that night warranted action and no one else was around to help. To tell you the truth, Boo Radley was probably just as scarred of Jem and Scout’s attacker as they were. Yet he put himself at risk to save his neighbors. Why?
When you’ve been wounded by prejudice, tossed aside by fearful people and left to die alone you begin to see life differently than your neighbors. You develop a certain sensitivity lacking in other people. Boo Radley had been hurt by life. He had spent most of his life as an outcast and he had been wounded by loneliness. Yet he had the grace to take his experience of fear, loneliness and hurt and turn it into compassion and salvation because he loved his neighbors.
Boo Radley was the unlikely hero of Harper Lee’s story not simply because he saved Jem and Scout from danger. What he did was far greater. He changed the world. Boo Radley broke the cycle of fear, mistrust and prejudice that separated the community and opened the door for healing and new life to begin. In a single act of courage, Boo Radley found his humanity and in doing so helped his community rediscover theirs.
Being an unlikely hero is not always easy. Perhaps that’s why Jesus told the parable in the first place. Maybe it was his way of helping us to find the light of our humanity in the midst of the darkness of fear, mistrust and prejudice. In Jesus, the power of love overcomes all that keeps us from doing the right thing. The kind of love he teaches makes it possible to muster up the courage to venture out into those dark and dangerous places to care for God’s people who’ve been assaulted and abandoned. That same love equips us to practice compassion that leads to healing and new life in community with God. And it does this by awakening us to our common humanity. For you see, love empowers even the most timid to become unlikely heroes.
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