At a church meeting I attended last month I heard Bishop Mark Beckwith of Newark tell the story of a bicycle accident he suffered in April. Bishop Beckwith was rear-ended and thrown from his bicycle by a driver on a Saturday morning ride, and though he was profoundly shaken up he decided to go ahead with that morning’s Confirmation liturgy at the Newark Cathedral. As the service proceeded it became increasingly clear to everybody (including him) that he was in shock, so much so that they finally called the paramedics who carried him from the church during the closing hymn. Ever the bishop, Mark continued to bless the people, making the sign of the cross as he was borne forth from the church by EMS workers on a stretcher.
I tell this story because it helps orient us to the familiar parable of the Good Samaritan told by Jesus in this morning’s Gospel. A man lies nearly dead in the road. Three people pass by: a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan. Only the Samaritan stops and takes care of the man lying in the road. The priest and the Levite are both Jewish religious functionaries. The Samaritan is a member of an ethnic group looked down on by traditional Jews. Part of Jesus’s point in this story, of course, is that the right thing is done not by the insiders but rather by someone “insiders” would define as an outsider.
When we hear this story, though, it is always easy to identify with one of the presumed insiders, perhaps less easy to identify with the Samaritan outsider. But with whom do you think Jesus actually wants you to identify in this story? I think it is with the unnamed person lying half dead in the road. Of course, it burnishes my self-image to see myself as an able-bodied, if callous, passerby. But it is probably closer to the truth of the situation to see myself as one deeply in need of assistance.
Like my friend Bishop Beckwith, you and I often don’t realize when we’re in trouble and when we need help. We get through life by claiming agency and power, seeing ourselves in control of our own destinies. This attitude serves us much of the time, but when surprising, unexpected things overtake us we often fail to recognize our own need. Who are you in this parable—the priest, the Levite, the Samaritan, or the person lying in the road? To the good religious people in the story—the priest and the Levite—the one in the road might be dead, and so ritually unclean. They see that person as “other”, and so are willing, indeed eager, to pass him by. The Samaritan does not see the man in the road in those religious terms and so is more able to see himself in him. The Samaritan can be a “good Samaritan” because he is willing to risk seeing the man in the road as potentially himself. The religious code of the priest and the Levite gives them a warrant to objectify the nearly dead person and so do nothing on his behalf. The Samaritan is not burdened by that religious code, and so he can feel with and act for the person in trouble. Doing the right thing only happens when we see what we have in common with another.
Our collect for today expresses our situation before God and each other in starkly simple and compelling terms. It asks God to grant that we “may know and understand what things [we] ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them”. We might translate that lofty Prayer Book language this way: Help me, God, to know what I ought to do. And help me, God, to do it. The problem with the priest and the Levite in Jesus’s story is that they know neither what they should do nor how to do it. They don’t even see the man lying in the road as a problem. So if they do not know what they should do, how can they possibly have the grace and power to do it? Our prayer today guides us to thinking both about knowing the right thing and doing the right thing. I think our scriptures give us some insight here.
This morning we begin a several week journey through Paul’s letter to the Colossians. In today’s reading, Paul says this:
[God] has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. [Colossians 1.13-14]
When I worked in Pasadena, All Saints Church decided to do a direct-mail campaign to all the households in a ten-mile radius of the church. At a staff meeting the rector solicited ideas for an attention-getting headline. Now these were the days when you would get that Publisher’s Clearing House envelope in your mailbox with the banner headline, “You May Already Be A Winner!” emblazoned on it. I suggested that our direct mail envelope display in large letters the slogan, “You May Already Be Saved!”
Then as now my brilliant suggestions sounded a bit too edgy for the church, so we opted for something far less original and compelling. But that proposed slogan stuck with me because it gets to the heart of what Paul is saying in Colossians: Here is his language: “God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. “ Here is my language: you may already be saved. In fact, Paul and I believe you are. Both versions pose this next question: What are you going to do about it?
Like the priest and the Levite in this morning’s Gospel, most of us spend most of the time we give to religious speculation worrying about the state of our souls. The reason Jesus is so critical of the Law is that it misleads people into thinking that they are supposed to try to know and do the right thing in order to be all right with God. But the point of Jesus’s teaching, as is the point of today’s reading from Colossians, is that you are all right with God already.
“God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” Religious systems and institutions—even and especially the church—persistently misunderstand and misapply the fundamental message of the Gospel. The Good News is that you are already a winner, you are already saved. So our biggest question ought not to be, “How do I get right with God,” but rather, “Now that I am right with God, how do I get right with the rest of creation?”
The priest and the Levite, the “good religious people”, in today’s Gospel are so worried about getting right with God that they fail to notice the human tragedy in front of them. The Samaritan, the one unburdened by that worry, is free actually to respond in love and compassion to someone in great need. It is only because of his ability to see himself beloved of God that the Samaritan can also risk seeing himself lying half dead in the road. And only when you risk seeing yourself that way can you actually reach out and do something for someone else.
This is the essential doubleness of Christianity, without an appreciation for which one can never quite grasp the fullness and depth of the Gospel. We are, like the man in Jesus’s story, like someone lying half dead in the road. We are small, powerless, at the mercy of forces bigger than we are. At the same time, we are, in Paul’s words, those who “share in the inheritance of the saints in the light”. Because we like to think of ourselves as powerful, competent people, we resist self-identifying as those in need of help. But only as we open ourselves to the truth of our situation does another, deeper reality emerge: we do not have to pretend be in control of our destinies because we are already in the embrace of a God who is. We are both powerless and redeemed at the same time. We live lives of love and compassion not to earn something but because the grace we have compels us to do so.
In the words of today’s collect, how do we know what is right? And once we know it, how do we find grace and power to do it? Like my bike-riding bishop friend, all too often we fail to acknowledge the reality of our situation. All of us need help. All of us depend on others. It’s only when we see and say that that we become open to the grace and power of what it means to share in “the inheritance of the saints in light.”
We will only be open to the depth and power of the Gospel when we acknowledge both sides of our situation. We are fragile, finite men and women in need of help from somewhere outside ourselves. And we are those who already stand in the kingdom of God’s beloved son and share in the inheritance of the saints in light. Both things are true about us at the same time. And it’s part of the divine paradox we stand in that you can’t experience the glory of God’s holiness until you acknowledge the depth of your own need.
You may already be a winner. You are already saved. As you know yourself both to need help and to have received it, you will be set free and empowered to be an agent of help and blessing to others. It is all right to ask for help, to acknowledge your limitations, your weakness, your pain, your loss. The universe does not require your leadership in order to function correctly. But it does require your compassionate heart to feel with those who lie half dead in the road. Only those who know themselves both to be fragile and to be loved can see the need in others and respond as the Samaritan did.
“This is a great mystery” [Ephesians 5.32] as Paul says elsewhere. This profound doubleness, this ambiguity, this dual truth about us is always more than we can take in mentally. We get it not by thinking about it but by living into it. And we can only live into it because of the profound and myriad ways in which we each have been supported and nourished by God in the guise of Samaritans who have picked us up when we were lying half dead in the road. Amen.