“Drama in the Ditch”
Colossians 1:1-10 & Luke 10:25-37 ~ Northwood UC ~ July 10, 2022 ~ Rev. Gabrielle Suedfeld
Seventy years ago, as the world was still healing from the effects of war, a young Japanese film director, Akira Kurosawa, offered a movie with a fresh, new outlook on how to tell a story. The movie was Rashomon. A year after it came out in Japan, to luke-warm results, it was presented at the Venice Film festival, where it won top prize: the Golden Lion. In 1952, it was shown at the American Academy Awards. Someone said “The judges sat down to watch it yawning, and got up dazed.” Rashomon was given an honorary Academy Award, because there was no category for foreign films until a few years later.
I thought about this movie when I read over the parable for this morning. It’s a simple story, based on a short novel. A samurai and his young wife are travelling along a dangerous section of road, when they are attacked by a bandit. In about ten minutes of film, the wife is raped, the samurai lies dead and the only witness to the crime is a woodcutter, who just happens to be passing by. Most of the rest of the movie is about the testimony to magistrates from the four people involved: the woman, the woodcutter, the bandit and the ghost of the samurai, who speaks through a medium. Each of the people gives their account of what happened. Each is trying to justify their behaviour, to make themselves look good, or virtuous,. And each of them has bent the account, to put themselves in the best light. No one asks the horse - which had been stolen by the bandit - who probably got the story straight, because, as we know, animals don’t lie (well, except for ravens, coyotes and snakes in creation stories).
In the end, as the story is told third hand, we are left to ponder the realities of human behaviour. So today we are given a parable, one that we know only too well. It is sandwiched in between a conversation with Jesus and a young, hot shot lawyer, who begins by asking “Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Now, Jesus has an infuriating way of answering a question by asking another one. I think this is part of the way Jewish teaching proceeds. So he challenges the lawyer “What is written in the law and what do you read there?” and the lawyer gives him some pat answers from Leviticus and Deuteronomy which boil down to “love God and love your neighbour.
“Very good!” says Jesus. “You know the law. Have a lollipop.” “But, Jesus,” says the lawyer “who is my neighbour?” And again, Jesus doesn’t give a straight answer. Instead, he offers the parable. A man is travelling on a dangerous stretch of road, from Jerusalem to Jericho. He is attacked by robbers, who beat him up, take his clothes and identity and leave him half dead. A priest and a Levite pass by and ignore the body. A Samaritan takes pity on the injured man, does some quick first aid, puts him on his own donkey and takes the man to an inn, where he cares for the victim and leaves, giving the innkeeper a generous sum and telling him that he will return to settle up any extra expenses.
It’s a simple story, and probably a common occurrence on that road. The Samaritans had separated from the Jewish community at one time, and worshipped differently. Sometimes they intermarried with foreign residents. They didn’t support the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem after the exile, and they were not welcome at worship gatherings in Jewish synagogues. In return, the Samaritans would not show hospitality to Jews in their villages. In fact, in one of the passages in the Gospel of Luke just before this one, Jesus and his disciples are not able to go into a Samaritan village. Some of the disciples wanted to command fire to come down on the village, but Jesus just told them to move on. Good neighours can be found elsewhere.
After the parable, Jesus asks the lawyer; “Which of the three men who passed by was a neighbour?” And the lawyer answers: “the one who showed mercy.” Notice, he does not say “The Samaritan.” And Jesus finishes the conversation, saying “Go and do likewise.”We so often interpret this parable and the conversation to mean that the Samaritan was the “good guy” and the priest and the Levite were uncaring or even wicked. That’s the easy way out. It’s been used for centuries, and now is the time to take a new look at the message here. There’s nothing wrong with what the Samaritan does. He is a caring, merciful person; he goes out of his way to help a stranger. This incident has even given rise to “good Samaritan” being an expression for someone who does something out of the ordinary to help someone they do not know. Just last week, there was an article in one of the local papers using this expression. Hurray for those who care for strangers in distress!
But maybe we need to think about the Kurosawa movie, and take a look at all the characters in this scene! Because by concentrating only on the Samaritan we are passing over all those who express or need God’s love. We need to honour everyone in this passage. What are the stories they might tell? How would they relate to the incident?
For fun this week, read the passage every day and concoct a story about a different person every time. There’s the person in the ditch, the two robbers, the priest, the Levite, the Samaritan, the innkeeper, as well as Jesus and the lawyer. Don’t bother asking the donkey, it will only tell the truth, with a very limited vocabulary. Keep some things in mind: we don’t know the identity of the person in the ditch. Maybe he’s a Samaritan. What about the innkeeper? Where do his sympathies lie? And remember, when Jesus first asks the lawyer, he says: “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”
Ask yourselves: What is written on the page? What does it say to my heart about this person? Many years ago, Walter Wink, who always offered imaginative ways of using Scripture, said “This tired parable is the wet noodle with which Christians flagellate themselves into acts of mercy.” (Sojourners magazine, July 1962 pp28-29) and we’re still doing it that way. “Oh, this means we should be kind to those in need. We should feel guilty that we don’t give enough to charitable causes.” Well maybe, but, there’s so much more. The possibilities are endless.
This is a parable, it’s about the Kingdom of God. Matthew calls this the kingdom of Heaven, but I think here it challenges us to think about how we can bring God’s world down to earth. This is a parable, and it is open ended. It gives us a lot of questions and no direct answers. Parables always leave us hungry, wanting more. You can’t eat just one potato chip, and you can’t turn away from the call of God in the parables. They are an art form. They are unique, and wonderful, and they change us forever. At least, I hope they do.
Maybe you want to go home and lie on your back looking up at the ceiling, or the sky, and be the person in the ditch. What’s your story? Think of a time when you were in need, and someone you didn’t know came to help. Were you trusting, or scared, did you deny their aid? Were they just like you, same sexual orientation, same colour, same social status? Who wasn’t your neighbour then, the person you could not accept when you were in need? Maybe you have spent some time in hospital. How did you react to all the people who were caring for you? When you looked at them, did you see them only with your eyes, or also with your heart?
Jesus says “go and do likewise;” That’s what is written, but what does is say inside you? There are times when we just can’t help someone, when we have run out of steam, or finances, or we have another emergency to attend to and we can’t deal with any more. And that’s OK, because we are human, and we can’t do everything. But sometimes, we just pass others by, because we are distracted, or don’t know what to do, or are afraid.
Sometimes we justify our own inaction by thinking things like “If I give that person money, they will just go out and buy drugs.” or “well, someone else will come along” or “there are government programmes for this”. Yes, but what is God asking you to do? The Good News is that when we take a larger view, not just a personal one, we may find ourselves able to act, to offer aid, or comfort, or show compassion. We join together to become involved with the forgotten, the disenfranchised, the people in need of temporary assistance. Northwood has a way of reaching out and embracing so many in the community, and part of the healing of the people in this congregation from the last two years of isolation is the revival of many programmes that involve giving, caring and sharing. This is God’s love in action, and God shows up in the faces of those who need a helping hand for now.
Who are our neighbours? The ones with whom we share common space, or common goals or common interests. But they are also the ones who live on the fringes, in another area, people we might be tempted to judge as undesirable, because of their appearance, their lifestyle, their poor choices, their behaviour. And God pushes us into caring, because they are God’s children too. God shows up in unexpected places. David Lose says::“When we fail to see, draw near, and help those we mistrust or fear or just want to ignore, we risk missing the saving presence of God in our lives and in the world.” (The God We Don’t Expect. David Lose In the Meantime, 2016)
Who are our neighbours? The ones with whom we share this planet. And right now, there are some in dire need. We are not just a community, or a province, we are a nation which has riches and resources to share. This week, I thought about our build-up of Covid vaccines. Some have had to be destroyed because these medications are very fragile, and time limited. But maybe we could do more to help other nations who are in need. I laughed when at the beginning of the pandemic, people were stockpiling toilet paper, buying hundreds of rolls at a time. Now we have shortages in a lot of areas and I sometimes think, as I stare at empty shelves where kitty litter, or radishes, or infant formula used to be ,”this is what most of the world experiences on a daily basis”. When I can’t get a full prescription filled, and have to come back in a week, I remember that I am blessed to have medical care and drugs almost all of the time.
I thought about international aid organizations, like Doctors Without Borders, the Red Cross, and so many others, who work to heal without judging a person’s nationality or politics. This is a time to increase our personal giving and our national aid, to go beyond what we think we can afford, because we can’t afford to let the problems go on. The famine in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya has reached a point beyond our imagining. The refugee crisis is being dealt with much too slowly. Politics sometimes slows down the welcome we want to offer, and we point fingers and play the blame game to justify our inaction.
Who is my neighbour, our neighbour? Who gets left out when we share our bounty? Why are there empty chairs at God’s table? What keeps me awake some nights is wondering who I am in the whole mix. God is constantly calling me to take a closer look at my own attitudes, at how I view and treat those in need: the hungry, the homeless, the drug addicts, the elderly, the disenfranchised. For me, the question is: how do I fit into their stories, and how do they help me in my search for truth and justice? Am I willing to let them lift me up from my own brokenness?
In my ministry, and in my so-called “retirement”, I have been involved in a number of outreach programmes, with those in prison, in the psychiatric wards at UBC, with street people and immigrants, and elderly people with dementia. And in every situation, as I learned their stories, I found beautiful souls, children of God, people who had hidden strengths and courage and unexpected humour.
My ministry and my life have been shaped by people lying in the road, neglected, wounded and filled with grace. There are stories within the stories, if we look with the eyes of God. This week, ask Jesus what you have to do to inherit eternal life. And he will say, “Read, and see with God’s eyes, and go and do likewise”. Reach out to your neighbour, listen to their stories, bring in just a little piece of the Kingdom, and be blessed.