“Half dead” | 17 July 2016


Text: Luke 10:25-37

Toward the end of last year I saw a political cartoon that used the image printed on the bulletin cover.  This was at the peak of the debate about accepting Syrian refugees into the US.  A little over half of the nation’s governors had declared that their states were off limits.

In the cartoon, text was superimposed at the bottom of this image, which said: “Bible school primer for governors during refugee crisis.”  There were also two dark arrows pointing at the travelers exiting the scene, with the words: “These guys are not the heroes of the story.”  Another arrow pointed to the one who had stopped to give assistance, with the text: “This guy is the hero of the story (you want to be this guy).”


Aside from the political and moral message, a couple things stood out to me with the cartoon.

One was how deeply this parable of the Good Samaritan has made its way into our cultural lexicon.  Of all the stories and parables in the Bible, this is one of the most recognizable.  The political cartoon doesn’t work – or at least not near as well – unless this is the case.  The unwritten assumption is that everybody already knows who the hero is in this story.

The other thing that stood out to me is how much this parable has come to be about the moral agency of these three actors – the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan.  One of the brilliant features of the parable is all the different questions it invites us to ask about why these characters do what they do.  Or don’t do what they don’t do.

The priest and the Levite are both religious figures.  Some commentators have wondered if they were concerned with purity laws, should the half dead person they see by the side of the road become completely dead.  The Torah rendered anyone who comes into contact with a corpse ritually unclean for a week (Numbers 19:11).  We can likely think of other examples when misguided religion is a hindrance to extending mercy and compassion.

A more contemporary angle is that the priest and Levite were simply too busy to stop.  It’s easy for us to imagine them being late for a very important date.  A now-somewhat famous experiment at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1973 tested the hurry factor in acts of compassion.  Forty students participated in this project, which they thought was about public speaking and religious vocation.  Half the students were charged with preparing a speech on job opportunities after seminary, and half were charged with giving a speech about the Good Samaritan.  The speeches were to take place in another building across campus.  As it came time for each student’s turn to speak, some of the students in each group were told that they were running late and needed to hurry to give their speech, while others in each group were told they had plenty of time to make it to the other building.  An actor was strategically placed along the path they would all walk, slumped over, coughing and groaning, in clear need of help.

What the experiment showed was that the topic of the speech they were about to give had no bearing on the students response to this situation – even though one of the speeches was happening in real life along their path.  The determining factor of whether or not students stopped to help the person in need was how much of a rush they were in.  About 10% of the students who were in a hurry stopped, while over 60% of the students who were told they had plenty of time stopped to give some form of assistance.

This rings painfully true to our own experience.  What if our openness to acts of compassion is more determined by the pace of our life rather than what we believe?  Things have certainly not gotten less busy in the 43 years since the experiment.

Martin Luther King Jr. cited this parable often, including in his last public speech, April 3, 1968 in Memphis, speaking to striking sanitation workers, his “mountain top speech.”  Before he got to talking about the mountain top, he talked about the parable of the Good Samaritan, and how the priest and Levite may have been held back by fear.  The Jericho Road was a dangerous road, the robbers who left this man half dead may still be lurking.  King said:  “And so the first question that the priest asked — the first question that the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’

At other times King would take a wider lens approach to the parable and suggest that in order to prevent future robberies that the whole Jericho Road needed to be repaved, with some the good lighting and signage.  Personal acts of compassion eventually lead one to call for policy change to address underlying root causes.

The obstacle of religious purity, the obstacle of busyness, the obstacle of fear, the obstacle of structural and policy failure.  Any one of these could be and has been a sermon in itself.  The parable lends itself to many readings.

The parable is about these three characters who face a decision on the Jericho Road.  We identify with these characters.  We know who the hero is, and we know all too well some of the obstacles to acting that out in real life.

But I’d like to recover another dimension of the parable.  Because when Jesus would have told this parable, his audience would not have first identified with any one of those three characters.  The parable begins: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.”

Jerusalem was the holy city, the site of the annual festivals Jesus and his people would have made pilgrimage to, up to several times a year.  The road from Jericho to Jerusalem was a common route for those coming from the northern Galilee region where Jesus lived and taught.  It was and is a winding and hilly road.  A dangerous road, with plenty of places for thieves to hide.  There was a more direct route to Jerusalem from Galilee – straight south.  But that one went through Samaria.  Many folks preferred the long way around, over to the east, then south, then once you hit Jericho you head back west winding your way up to Jerusalem.  Better to risk the dangers of that road than go through the territory of the hated Samaritans.  They hadn’t yet figured out how to build multi-lane highways through undesirable neighborhoods so they could avoid the people altogether.

So when Jesus tells a story about a traveler headed back down the road, from Jerusalem to Jericho, it is the traveler that the people are identifying with.  They can picture the road and the scenery.  They can feel the fear of getting ambushed.  They can easily imagine that it is they who have been left by the side of the road, stripped, beaten, and half dead.  If we would hear as Jesus’ audience first heart it, then we, dear listeners, are that traveler, in desperate need of help.  That’s us.  Our very life depends on someone, anyone, seeing us and taking the time to come attend to our wounds.  Who’s going to do it?  Who’s going to help us?

It’s a different way of experiencing the parable.  We are so used to being in the position of the helper – or at least the position of choosing whether we help or not.  Whether this situation is where we wish to direct our energy, whether this organization is where we give some of our tithe, whether this cause is where we invest our time.  These are all very real and difficult matters to discern.  But in this parable, you’re half dead.  You need help.  You’re so incapacitated that you’re the only character who doesn’t get an arrow pointed at you in a political cartoon.

This past week I read an essay from the Mennonite Quarterly Review that I’m still mulling over.  The author was Philipp Gollner, a new history professor at Goshen College in Indiana.  The title of the essay is “How Mennonites Became White” (MQR 90 April 2016).  The essay starts by recounting a conversation a friend of the author had with a business owner in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  The business owner had said that he employs six people – “three Amish, and three white guys.”  Gollner uses this brief exchange as a launching off point, wondering what it was about the Amish that caused that business owner to distinguish them from the white guys, even though the pigmentation of Amish skin is just as white as others.  How is it, the author wonders, that mainstream Mennonites came to be white moreso than their Anabaptist cousins, the Amish.

It’s a good question.  But I confess that the answer the author presents caught me off guard.  Here’s the author’s own summary of this argument: “I follow the story of the young Mennonite activists who moved to Chicago in 1894 in order to reach the city’s immigrants with works of benevolence and uplift, and to activate fellow Mennonites to transcend their ethnic tribe and shape the future of the nation. These activists did not simply become progressive, or americanized. Though already racially white, they now became recognizable clearly as good, white Protestants – through their belief in the privileged task of improving the world around them, and their desire for a more universally relevant church.”

In other words, this essay argues that Mennonite immigrants from Europe eventually became white Americans by entering into the already-racialized social matrix as helpers.  Or, to put it in the setting of our parable, Mennonites became white by attempting to be the Good Samaritan toward communities of color deemed to be in need.

What do you think of that argument?

Surely it’s not the only way Mennonites became white, but it does put an exclamation point on the original angle of this parable, which flips the script.  In our present context, in 21st century racially charged America, what if, rather than only asking how we might become the Good Samaritan, we see ourselves as being in need.  Highjacked by the side of the road by the invisible tentacles of racism that have beat us senseless, eyes so puffy we can barely see, half alive, half dead.  We allow ourselves to be vulnerable and confess we need help.  Who’s going to help us?

There’s all kinds of dangers and pitfalls this immediately presents.  In no way does this make people of color primarily responsible for helping white folks – their burden of self-liberation now made heavier with the task of liberating others.  It also doesn’t imply that white folks are the main victims of racism.  This is all really tricky.

What it does do, I hope, is call white folks to a posture of humility.  We need help.  We don’t have all the answers.  We don’t always have to be the problem solvers.  We’re hurting in ways we don’t even realize – thinking that we’re privileged and self-actualized when we might be half dead.

We need help from each other.  We need to be gentle with each other, even as we challenge each other.

This road to becoming racially conscious is not an easy road.  Just about every step has potential to be a stumble, and I’ve likely stumbled several times even this morning.  One of the gifts of congregations is that we have a certain trust level with one another, to be able to speak and make mistakes, and learn and grow and practice extending and receiving grace.

This whole story began with a lawyer asking Jesus how he might inherit eternal life.  Jesus proceeds to ask him and others to identify with a traveler who is only half alive.  The healing presence comes from the least expected sources, the Samaritan, the person, the place that the traveler was likely trying to avoid at all costs.

I pray that we recognize our need and that we open ourselves to healing from the most unlikely of sources, whatever, whoever, that might be.