from A Samaritan Easter

Homily                                             by Rev. Douglas Taylor

Tell them to rise with me, Jesus says in the poem by Edwina Gateley. Tell the people to rise with me. 

But let me start with the Samaritan story. From there I’ll circle around Easter and Passover and back to Edwina Gateley. But let me begin where we began, with the Samaritan’s Story because the story of the Good Samaritan is the essential teaching of Jesus. This is important and if nothing else connects for you today, let this be your one ‘take away’: The Good Samaritan story is the central message of the religion of Jesus. He says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And then to illustrate that point, we hear the Samaritan Story. A man gets beaten by robbers, a priest and a Levite refuse to help and then a dreaded Samaritan steps up and offers the needed assistance. The lesson is: be like the Samaritan.

There is an interpretation of the Good Samaritan story that I want to argue against, as a setup to tell you about an interpretation that I think is very helpful. There is an interpretation that says the Jewish religious leaders were bad. By this interpretation, Jesus was telling us about how awful these elitist priests and Levites were because they were so worried about ritual purity. There were religious laws about keeping yourself clean before performing ritual, and touching that beaten man would have defiled them ahead of the rituals. Being so worried as they were about laws around the rituals, they miss the greater law of love!

But that interpretation misses something important. Aileen was showing me a Jewish interpretation that talked about how the Samaritan story is using a common trope in the Jewish storytelling from that time period which we might recognize today as a version of the rule of three. There were a bunch of stories back them in which first a priest walks by, then a Levite, and finally an Israelite. This was a common trope back then. People back then would have recognized what Jesus was doing after hearing about the first two characters. They expected the third character to do the right thing. What they didn’t expect was who the third person would be. It’s supposed to be an Israelite. It’s supposed to be someone the hearer will identify with. “Oh, that’s like me, I’m an Israelite.’

What Jesus does is subvert the ending. The important part of the story is the identity of last person, not the first two. The first two are not mentioned for the purpose of being disparaged. They are mentioned to set up the expectation which is then subverted. Israelites and Samaritans at that time were like Palestinians and Jews today, like Republicans and Democrats today, like neo-Nazis and black people. They were in deep conflict each other. But according to the trope, the hearer is supposed to identify with the third character, that’s how the story trope works. Jesus adds a twist, a surprise to the usual trope. We’re all listening along, we know where this story is headed, and suddenly it is not what we expected. What Jesus does is subvert the ending.

You may know another story where Jesus does that. It’s Easter today. The Easter story does this as well. We’re all listening along. Jesus starts doing his thing, healing people, performing miracles, challenging the Roman oppressors and the corrupt religious leaders … and we know what’s coming next.

He gets arrested, he goes through a trial which is a bit of a farce, he is put to death. It’s happened before, it happened to so many people back then. It’s still happening in places around the world today. We recognize the story line, it’s how tyrannical governments work, it is how oppressive systems keep the dissidents in check. It’s the playbill of every dictator through the ages.

But then something else happens, Jesus subverts the ending. Easter is the twist ending, the subverting of the expected narrative. The resurrection is not what normally happens. Somehow, hope continues. Somehow, death is not the final answer. I know most of the people gathered do not believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus. I also know a few of the people here gathered do. I’m not suggesting we limit this conversation to doctrines and beliefs and who is right and who is wrong. Sometimes truth is a bigger issue than the question of ‘did it really happen?’ Sometimes truth is found in asking what does this story mean? and does it help me be a better person? 

Now, hold that thought! Because if the Easter story does not connect for your spirituality, let me circle around to Passover. To understand Jesus, it is important to first understand the Jewish context of his message. Last month I attended Jewish Seder meal for non-Jews. It was hosted jointly by Temple Concord and Temple Israel with support from the Children of Abraham interfaith group. We had a Jewish host at each table to help explain the elements and the rituals. Passover began this past Friday evening at sundown. Judaism’s story of Passover is a story of liberation and freedom.

It is a time when Jewish people remember what it was like to be slaves in Egypt. It is a time to seek liberation for all those in bondage today “for we remember” the people recite in the Haggadah.  “We remember what it was like to be slaves.” It is a call to treat the foreigner and stranger with dignity and compassion, for we have been foreigners and strangers ourselves.

And isn’t that essentially what the Samaritan story is all about? Treat the foreigner and stranger with dignity and compassion is simply another version of ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’

Passover, which began this weekend, is the story of freedom and liberation of the Jewish people; it is also the call to seek freedom and liberation for others. Easter is today; it is a story for every soul that ever faced the tragic choice of love and hopelessness in the face of the world’s madness. It is a story that says even if we feel beaten down, abused, denied, and overlooked – something unexpected can still rise.

Tell them, Jesus says, to rise with me. In the poem by Edwina Gateley, we hear Jesus imploring Mary. Tell the people to rise with me. This is not just a story of something that happened thousands of years ago. It is happening today. It is our story too. Ask yourself: Who is in my path? Who should I help now? Rise. Reach out and help your neighbor. Show your compassion – that is the heart of the Easter message, Rise. Rise.

In a world without end, may it be so.