The Wrong Question

An experience I had recently around that famous Parable of the Good Samaritan that we just heard reminded me of a truth about the great Gospel stories that I’ve known for a long time. You tend to learn it when you preach from the lectionary every week like I used to, for you end up preaching several times on the same texts. One of the really great things about the great Bible stories is that you keep seeing new lessons in them. You keep learning new things about them. In some writing I’ve done I laid out five different interpretations of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. They include things like don’t trust the temple authorities, don’t trust religious authorities in general, reject the purity code of Leviticus, and get over thinking you’re superior to people who are different from you. I thought I had pretty much exhausted what there is to say about this parable.

Wrong. Recently my wife Jane told me of a way to understand that parable that I hadn’t heard before. She heard it from the Rev. Jeff Spencer, formerly a pastor in our Conference, and she said he got it from Martin Luther King, Jr. It goes like this: What’s going on in the Parable of the Good Samaritan is that different people are asking different questions. The priest and the Levite who pass by the beaten man without helping him ask: What will happen to me if I help him? What would happen to them is that they probably would be guilty of violating the laws of the book of Leviticus about priests coming into contact with blood or with a dead body. They would be ritually unclean. They would be excluded from the Jerusalem temple where they worked until they had undergone some kind of cleansing ritual. They probably would have violated rules in the part of Hebrew scripture that was most important to them, the Purity Code of the book of Leviticus. So they passed by. The answer they knew to their question “what will happen to me if I help” got them not to help. They put their personal piety and their personal interests above those of the beaten man. They passed by and left the beaten man to his fate.

The Good Samaritan asked a different question. He asked, in effect if not quite expressly, “What will happen to that man if I don’t help him?” Again the answer is fairly obvious. Assuming that the man was still alive, which it turns out he was, he might well die if he didn’t get help. At the very least he would continue to suffer. The Samaritan in this parable didn’t quite know what would happen to him if he stopped to help. Was the man faking it so that he could beat and rob anyone who stopped to help him? Maybe. Surely our Samaritan couldn’t rule that possibility out. Would the man, assuming he was Jewish, refuse the help the Samaritan offered because that man was a Samaritan not a Jew and Jews hated Samaritans? Maybe. Again our Samaritan couldn’t rule that possibility out. Would Jewish passers-by ridicule him for stopping to help a man who as far as they could tell might be dead? Again, that was quite possible. I think we can assume that our Samaritan knew all of these possibilities at some level of his consciousness. But he didn’t stop think about what might happen to him. He was concerned about what would happen to the other, to the beaten man, if he didn’t stop to help. The parable doesn’t make these questions explicit, but clearly when Jesus approves of what the Samaritan does and disapproves of what the priest and the Levite do he is saying that the Samaritan asked the right question and answered it in the right way and the two temple officials asked the wrong one and gave an answer that kept them from doing the right thing. The Samaritan gave the right answer to the right question. The priest and the Levite gave the wrong answer to the wrong question.

In our country today I see so many people, from the president on down, asking the wrong question. I see that happening in a great many aspects of our common life, but I see it most powerfully and most disturbingly in the arguments around what to do with the horde of people from Central America who cross our southern border seeking asylum, seeking refuge for themselves and their children from the violence, poverty, and lack of sufficient food in their home countries. About those desperate people so many of us ask: What will happen to us if we let them in? The people who ask this question about the situation at our border with Mexico give answers that lead to the conclusion, “Don’t let them in at all and throw them out if they manage to get in.” They’ll take jobs away from real Americans. They’ll all be rapists, murderers, and members of violent gangs. At least that’s what our president has told them. They’ll be a horrible drain on social services that they’ve done nothing to pay for. They’ll be criminals if for no other reason than they broke our immigration laws in the way they came here.

All of these supposed consequences of migrant immigration from Central America lead Americans from the president on down to say these people don’t deserve our help. They deserve to be despised. They deserve to have their children torn from their arms and put in inhumane conditions in holding facilities that some have called concentration camps. Never mind that there’s little or no evidence that any of these things are true. But then, Jewish hatred of Samaritans in the first century CE wasn’t based on any meaningful facts either. Hitler’s hatred of the Jews wasn’t based on any facts either. Far too many Americans ask the wrong question about these immigrants and give unfounded answers that lead to rejection and exclusion.

Jesus wants us to ask a different question. He wants us to ask the question the Good Samaritan asked: What will happen to these people if we don’t help, if we don’t let them in? What will happen to them is horrific. They’ll be stuck in Mexico where they are subject to violence by unlawful forces there. Or they’ll be sent back to Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador, the countries they fled to escape otherwise unavoidable violence and poverty. Their hopes for a better life for their children will be crushed. They will be left in situations of desperation with no way to remove themselves from those situations.

There are bad things that will happen to those of us who are already here if we don’t let them in too, although that’s a question Jesus is much less interested in having us ask. Without undocumented laborers both the construction industry and the agriculture industry in this country would collapse. But Jesus doesn’t want us to let these children of God in because doing so might be good for us. He wants us to do it for the same reason he approved of the actions of the Good Samaritan in his great parable. He wants us to do it because it is best for the other, for the people who are the subject of our decisions not for us, the ones making the decisions. Jesus wants us to let them in because it is the right, the moral, the Christian thing to do.

Now, as is always the case in moral issues some nuance is necessary. Jesus never called on us to disregard the consequences for ourselves in our decision making. After all, in his Great Commandment that we also heard this morning he lifts up an obscure verse from Leviticus that says “love your neighbor as yourself.” That’s not a call not to love ourselves. It is a call not to love the other less than we love ourselves, but it is not a call to disregard our own selves when we act for the other. So while Jesus never commanded us not to love ourselves, he did call us to think at least as much about the welfare of others as we think about our own welfare. More specifically he called us care especially about the welfare of people in need. People beaten by robbers and left by the side of the road. People fleeing poverty and violence in their home countries and coming to us for safety and a new chance at a better life.

Folks, the way the Trump administration is handling the issue of undocumented immigration is a great shame and a disgrace to our country. It is not inaccurate to call it nothing less than fascist. So let us call on ourselves, our fellow citizens, and our government to stop asking the wrong question. To stop asking what will happen to us if we let them in. To start asking what will happen to them if we don’t. Stop being the priest and the Levite. Start being the Good Samaritan. That is our lesson for this morning. May we truly take it to heart. Amen.

Sorenson, Thomas C., Liberating the Bible, A Pastor’s Guided Tour for Seeking Christians, Revised Edition, Volume Three, The New Testament, Coffee Press, Briarwood, New York, 2019, pp. 126-133.

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