George Jefferson and the Good Samaritan

7 08 2013

Text:  Luke 10: 25-37

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus asks, “Which of these three was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

Does anyone remember the TV show, “The Jeffersons?” For those of you who may not know, this was a sit-com which focused on the lives of a George and Louise Jefferson, an African-American couple from Queens who have made it big and have moved into a nice mostly white Upper East Side apartment building along with their son Lionel.  While thinking of this parable there is one episode which came to mind.  One of the Jefferson’s neighbors Tom, who is white, was robbed near the building and decided to arrange a tenants meeting.  It turns out that there was already a meeting nearby by a group of folks who were concerned about the wrong kind of people coming into the neighborhood and Tom was invited to attend.  Tom asked if he could bring some of his friends along and the organizers said, “Sure!”  Tom brought along some other tenants in the building including George, who as I mentioned earlier is black.  Imagine everyone’s surprise when it turns out the meeting was organized by the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.

Needless to say, this proved to be rather tense for everyone and almost reaches to the level of violence when the leader of the Klan meeting started to have a heart attack.  George, in an act of compassion and mercy, ceases arguing with the Klansman and performs CPR on their leader and saves his life.  When the leader of the group revived and learned that his life had been saved by a black man, someone he despised with every inch of his life, he remained ungrateful and even told his son, “You should have let me die.”  But the son was so moved by the sight of someone he had been raised to hate and fear and call an enemy saving the life of his father that his heart was changed, and he renounced his membership with the Klan.

The story of the Good Samaritan is one that just about everyone knows, even if they are not a Christian.  It would not be so far-fetched to say that this parable contains the essence of what it means to be and act like a Christian.  It is so familiar, that when it comes up as the sermon topic for day, if you are sitting in the pews it is very tempting to settle back, tune out and wait for the invitation to rehearse the Creed.  If you are the preacher, it is very tempting to dust off a previous sermon on a timeless classic, update it a bit, and put yourself on autopilot.  The challenge with this and every familiar story that we hear is to listen to it with fresh ears.

Before we get into the parable itself, we find out the reason why it was told in the first place.  A lawyer asks Jesus what he must do to gain eternal life.  A better word for lawyer here might be scribe, or a lawyer whose realm of expertise was biblical law.  Both Jesus and the lawyer agree that everything hinges on loving God with all your heart, soul, and strength … all that you are … and also in loving your neighbor as you love yourself.  The lawyer though, requests further clarification, as lawyers often do.  He asks, “Who do you mean exactly? Tell me about this neighbor of whom you speak?”  And then Jesus launches into his story.

A man on a journey is waylaid by robbers and is left to die in a ditch.  Respectable members of the community pass by but do nothing.  Maybe they feel there is nothing they can do.  He might be already dead or even worse this might even be a trap playing on people’s sense of compassion.  The one who does finally offer help is one who is an outcast, a rival.

It is very difficult to convey the distaste, the revulsion, or even hatred that the Jews of the day felt towards the Samaritans.  These were two peoples who had nothing to do with each other.  I suppose a similar comparison might be a member of the Hatfield family coming to the rescue of one of the McCoys.  Or a member of the Palestinian group Hamas saving the life of an Israeli. The Samaritans were despised so much by the Jews that at the end of the story when Jesus asks the lawyer “who was the neighbor?” the lawyer can only reply by saying what the Samaritan did and making a point to NOT identify him by nationality or race.  In short, the Samaritan was the enemy.

But it is in this antagonism, in the mutual distrust between these two peoples that we get what this parable is about.  Many who read this parable will take out of it some “feel-good” lessons on the importance of random acts of kindness, charity to travelers or even helping out someone who is down on their luck.  It is in this parable that we start to get a sense of what Jesus means when he says, “Love your enemies” and what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

The lawyer, in his questioning, wants to define who deserves his love, but the parable says that love knows no boundaries.  To understand what it means to love your neighbor means a willingness to see an enemy as a benefactor, an agent of the Kingdom of God.  It means a willingness to help someone whom you would rather have nothing to do with.  When the Spirit of God moves us to act with compassion on one whom we might normally think does not deserve it … or when someone with whom we are at odds lends us a hand when we need it the most, there is no longer such a thing as an Enemy.

In that act of compassion and mercy, we find it is nothing less than an encounter with Jesus himself.  We look around to discover we are no longer in a ditch on the road to Jericho, but we find ourselves at the foot of the cross.  Laying aside our burdens of fear, contempt and mistrust, we find that we are transformed and we get a taste of what eternal life is all about.  When we engage in acts of compassion and mercy that becomes a way for the Kingdom of God to break into the world.

The son of a Klansman was able to let go of his fear and hate because George Jefferson was moved to save the life of his father … and that act caused everyone there to know what it means to have eternal life for fear and loathing were replaced by love.  Suddenly everyone wonders what all the fuss was about and why they were about to come to blows not even two minutes before.

The Good News I have for you today is that Salvation is found in loving your enemies, in knowing that your neighbor includes the person whose name you cannot bring yourself to mention.  In performing acts of compassion and mercy we not only bring the Gospel to the one we act upon but to ourselves and the entire human race.  We will then look at ourselves and wonder what all the fighting was about, and then keep on about the business of “movin’ on up” and loving each other.

Jesus asks, “Which of these men, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Amen.