Have you ever been in a conversation with someone and just really felt like you were being judged? That they weren’t interested in your thoughts, words, or needs but were more interested in their own agendas? I believe we all have been there. I was at a barbecue a few years back when I met some individuals deeply enthralled in a political conversation. These particular individuals are very highly educated and openly labeled themselves as intellectuals loftily quoting articles and experts in the realm of politics but not openly expressing their own personal understandings. I overheard the conversation and decided to join in and sharing my thoughts and emotions about the administration. Their response was less than accepting and open. Their response was cold and they made me feel like I was just a poor country bumpkin who didn’t know any better. To them, I was obviously not well educated. They didn’t know that I was a pastor, or that I had a graduate degree, because they never asked and it is not my main form of self definition. I didn’t volunteer the information feeling as if it weren’t important. I looked young and they had heard that I was from the country from others at the party.
Then afterwards, feeling completely deflated, I asked myself could there have ever been a time where I have done the same thing to someone else? Then I felt a bit of shame because in all likelihood I probably did at some point without even realizing it. How we define ourselves affects how we work with others. Definitions matter in all contexts because they set the parameters, the boundaries of self expression and what is considered socially acceptable. Definitions of words tell us meanings and convey our thoughts and emotions. Definitions also affect how we effectively reach out to God’s children. It affects whether we care for their needs or whether we turn away abandoning them to the dangers in the road.
As I contemplated the story of the Good Samaritan, it occurred to me that it has been a long time since I last preached on this passage. The last time being in 2010. But its message is one that no matter how many times you read it leaves you inspired and contemplating the depth understanding we might grasp at any one time. The passages leading up to our scripture selection for today provide questions about who is our neighbor, or how do we love our neighbor. On the surface these questions might have some very basic meanings. But I believe Christ wanted us to take longer to search within our own hearts and souls for an answer that shakes us to the core. It is preceded by the command to love your neighbor as yourself. This command implies that we must love ourselves in such a way that it opens our hearts to the needs of others. And I believe this has to do with the importance of our own definitions of self.
It is about what parts of our identity we value more than other parts. When we describe ourselves to others it is the terms that we choose and it is these terms that limits our ability to love others because it limits that types of people we associate with and value in our lives. As such, it is the labels in the story of the Good Samaritan that really has grabbed my attention this morning.
The labels are very specific a “priest”, a “Levite”, a “Samaritan”. These labels like our own labels in life held a lot of significance. “Priest” like the position of “Levite” was important lofty temple positions. They kept their social circles very small consisting only of those people who held similar ranks to them. They would have worried about defiling themselves in the presence of common people, especially one that was beaten: bleeding and naked on the side of the road. They would have been very busily traversing that rocky, dangerous road on official temple business making their journey and destination much more important than the plight of this anonymous man’s suffering. But the title “Samaritan” holds a different connotation. They were seen to be from a sinful city, caught up in idol worship, and caring more for economic prosperity than for the word God.
What is unique here, is that the Samaritan did not define himself and his worth by the location of his birth and home. And he did not allow for the judgments of others to define him either. He defined himself first and foremost as a human being, as a child of God. The same as the poor individual left to die on the side of the road. This commonality, this way of defining self allowed for him to act with compassion. It enabled him to truly understand and act out the love for his neighbor.
He respected himself and loved himself not because he was a Samaritan but because he was a human being, no different than that priest or Levite who rushed past what must have been a pretty horrific scene. In the book of Deuteronomy it says, “But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it”. Christ brings more understanding to this passage with the story of the Good Samaritan. The word here is the work of the Lord, the good work that we are all called to, the love we are exhorted to enact in our lives. It is there in our hearts, upon our lips, but it is our definitions of self and others that hinders that message. It limits the people that hear the message because it limits our circles of social interaction.
We are called to love people, our neighbors, neighbors meaning all those who are in need. We are all in need of love, compassion, care, and the work of the Lord. We are called to love people just for being children of God and not because they hold any special rank or title. We are called to live with respect and care for others not because of their intellectual prose, life achievements, nationality, social status, or political standing. But we live with love because we all hold one thing in common and that is our humanity. This is what brings us together as brothers and sisters in faith. This is what brings all people together and this is what can motivate us to do more, to care more, and to truly answer the call of God. The Samaritan allowed only for his humanity to be his defining feature and this freed him up to be the salvation of another man’s life. We are called; we are challenged, to take a hard look at how we define ourselves and how this might place barriers between ourselves and others. We are called to look beyond the walls that restrict our work to truly see the need God calls us to fill. This is our challenge, and with an open mind God’s work becomes ever more important, teaching us to truly love ourselves and others not for their actions but for their humanity.
 Deuteronomy 30: 14, RSV.
(based on Deuteronomy 30: 9-14 and Luke 10: 25-37)