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Tell Us a Story: The Man in the Ditch

November 12, 2006

Luke 10:25-37

At 3:30 one morning in March 1964, a young woman in Queens, New York, parked less than 100 feet from the door of her apartment. She got out of her automobile and locked it. As she made her way to her apartment door, she noticed a man standing nearby. He started pursuing her. She ran to the police box and was almost able to sound the alarm; but the man grabbed her from behind and stabbed her. She screamed, “He stabbed me! Somebody please help!” In the neighboring apartment buildings, tenants raised windows and turned on lights. When the woman screamed again, one man yelled from a seventh story window, “Leave that girl alone!” The attacker walked away from the woman. Tenants turned off lights and closed windows. The victim staggered toward her apartment door before the attacker returned and stabbed her yet again. “I am dying!” the young woman screamed. “Please help me!” Tenants, for a second time, turned on light in their apartments. The attacker got in his automobile and drove away from the scene of the crime. Lights went out and windows closed. Then the attacker returned and found the victim who had crawled inside the front door of her apartment. He raped her and stabbed her multiple times until she died.

At 3:50 that morning, someone telephoned the police to report the attack. The police arrived within two minutes of receiving the call and began investigating the death of Kitty Genevese. They were shocked to learn that no fewer than thirty-eight people had heard her cries for help. Some witnesses had actually seen the attack from their apartment windows. Thirty-eight people knew of the attack, but not one of them called the police. Not one did anything to render aid. The unresponsive nature of people to give assistance in time of need has become known as the Kitty Genevese Syndrome.

The murderer, caught six days later, provided the gruesome account of the attack. He did not know the woman he killed; he had simply picked her at random. When questioned, he admitted to committing two other murders. The court sentenced him to die in the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison but later on appeal, reduced his sentence to life imprisonment. He is still in prison. He said that he wrote a letter to the family of Kitty Genevese, apologizing for any inconvenience he may have caused them.

For several years after this event, Foredom University held a seminar called The Conference on Being a Bad Samaritan. What happens to people that makes them unresponsive to such a cry of human need? What happens in the hearts and minds of people? Did those thirty-eight people have not one whit of compassion? This strange mixture of apathy and unresponsiveness exists because people do not want to get involved. They say, “It is not my problem. I don’t want to be bothered at 3:30 in the morning.”

In our text for today, a lawyer comes to Jesus and asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Most of us ask this same question, though we may frame it differently. Where can I really find meaning and purpose in this life? How can I get to heaven? and What is the plan of salvation?” are questions of ultimate reality in life that concern all of us. When asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus, a wonderful teacher, does what rabbis often did; he answers a question with a question.

I once asked a rabbi, “Why use this rabbinical method? Why respond to questions with questions?” His answer was, “Why not?”

“What does the law say?” Jesus asks this lawyer. Do you see the irony in this question? Maybe this lawyer was such a devout Jew that he wore on his arm a phylactery, that little box which actually contained the written law. Maybe Jesus even points to the box and then says, “What does the law say?” In any case, Jesus’ question points out to the lawyer his profession.

Of course, the lawyer knows the right answer. He moves quickly from the passage in Deuteronomy called the Shema, which is still included in every Jewish service of worship: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” Then the lawyer chooses one verse from what is called the Holiness Code in the book of Leviticus: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Jesus compliments him on his response, saying, “That is the right answer. You have answered correctly. You have it! Now go and live that way.”

The lawyer must have been embarrassed because the text states, “Seeking to justify himself, he asked another question, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” The Jews had very specific guidelines about their neighbors. They even had a law regarding the collapse of a stone wall on a person on the Sabbath. They could remove only enough stones to identify whether or not the person was a Jew or a Gentile. If the person was a Jew, they could move the rest of the stones. If the person was a Gentile, they had to wait until the end of the Sabbath. They had very clear ideas about whom to include and whom to exclude.

In response to the lawyer’s second question, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus tells him a story, one based on an important Jewish concept.

The first commandment God gave Moses reminds us that only one God is worthy of worship. The Jews often talked about that category as the One who was not created. God alone occupies the category of Creator. We, falling into the category of those created, have as our proper response the role of worshipping the one God and nurturing and caring for others.

The problem comes when we allow things we should regard as part of creation to cross the line and identify them with the Creator. For example, Nicodemus, who comes to Jesus at night, has allowed his status as a member of the Sanhedrin and his education to creep across the line. He thinks he is too important. When Nicodemus asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answers, “You have to start over. You have to be born again. You have to regain the humility of a little child.” Jesus confronts the woman of Samaria whose god is sensuality. He says, “You are never going to quench your thirst by looking for love in these wrong places. You have to turn only to the one true God.” To the rich young ruler who had allowed material possessions to cross that line, Jesus instructs, “You have to get rid of your stuff. You must sell all that you have because your possessions are impeding your worship of God.” In the Parable of the Rich Fool, God warns, “…anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:21).

Jesus senses in this lawyer that his attitude of excluding other people is interfering with his search for eternal life. He tells the lawyer a story about a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. Jerusalem is at 23,000 feet in elevation while Jericho is at 13,000 feet below sea level. Jericho is the lowest place on earth that is not underwater. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho, a course of twenty miles, descended 36,000 feet. The steep, winding route – the first-century version of the Saluda Grade – was dangerous during the time of Jesus. Jerome, who translated the scriptures into Latin, a version called the Vulgate, called the route “a red and bloody way.” H.V. Morton, who wrote the book In the Steps of the Master in the 1930’s, said that route was still dangerous to travel at night. Robbers who hid in the limestone caves all along the road would beat and take everything an unsuspecting traveler had. They left their victims in a ditch, as in the case of the man in this story. Sometimes one of their own would lie on the side of the road and pretend to have been beaten and robbed. When a compassionate soul stopped to give aid, other robbers came from the caves and attacked that person. The man traveling this path was clearly taking a foolish risk and putting himself in jeopardy. Robbers attacked, beat, and robbed him.

A priest and then a Levite, two people important in the worship of Israel, came along the route. By the first century, so many priests existed that they usually had only one chance to officiate in the temple per year. Many of those priests lived in Jericho. We can assume that the priest in this story has his one chance out of the year. According to custom, if the priest touches a dead body, he is declared ritually unclean. By the end of the period of purification, which takes seven days, he would have missed his opportunity to serve in the temple. This priest is not taking any chances. He avoids the victim because he has another agenda. The Levite, also a servant in the temple, is a little more curious. His actions are the same, however; he passes by on the other side of the road.

It is impossible to know what these two individuals were thinking. Perhaps they were simply protecting themselves from ritual uncleanness. Perhaps their posture was one that so many take: the victim is at fault. Perhaps they thought, “He was foolish and should have known better than to travel that route.” Perhaps they thought, “He only got what he deserved.” That kind of attitude is social arrogance. I saw this attitude expressed one time on a sign in a shop: “I would like to help you out. Which way did you come in?” It is a way of saying, “You do not belong here.”

I am sure these two men had some compassion, some sympathy. They might have said, “Poor fellow. I am so sorry robbers beat him. Maybe he will get his life straightened out and be fine when his injuries heal.” Some of us might have that attitude when we offer a prayer for those less fortunate than ourselves, a prayer that has an undertone of superiority, as if others somehow are not quite at our level. That type of prayer is similar to the unholy prayer of thanksgiving by the Pharisee, “Lord, I thank Thee that I am not like other people.” Maybe they had some sympathy but looked down on the man in the ditch. Maybe they were just too busy and thought they just did not have time to be bothered, interrupted, by this poor fellow.

Along comes a third man. A Samaritan, whom everyone considered a half-breed, stopped and showed compassion. The enmity between Jews and Samaritans dates back to at least the year 400 B.C. The Jews excluded the Samaritans on several accounts, always considering them inferior. The Samaritans worshipped differently than the Jews.

Why would a Samaritan be on that road in the first place? It is entirely possible he was a traveling salesman. The innkeeper certainly knew him and trusted him to return. Apparently, he had traveled that way before and would return. Why would the Samaritan stop to help? The Samaritan knew what it felt like to be despised. He knew what it felt like to be ostracized and considered inferior.

Bret Harte wrote a wonderful short story called “The Outcasts of Poker Flat.” When the town decided to get rid of all the evil in the town, they expel four people considered undesirable: John Oakhurst, a gambler; Uncle Billy, the town drunk; and “Mother Shipton” and “The Duchess,” two women of ill repute. The outcasts’ journey together bonds them in a community that cares for each other.

Something of the same dynamic must be at work in this parable. The Samaritan offers first aid – bandages soaked with oil and wine, transportation to an inn, and payment for the injured man’s care. He even offered to pay additional money if necessary. The Samaritan took real action.

Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest and theologian, told a parable of his own, one similar to the one Jesus told. A man came to a rabbi and asked, “Where can I find the Messiah?” The rabbi answered, “Go to the city gate, and look among the beggars. You will find the Messiah there.” The man went to the city gate and saw beggars gathered. After searching but seeing only beggars, he returned to the rabbi and said, “I did as you said but saw only beggars.” The rabbi directed him, “Go back, and look again. You will see one beggar who is not dabbing at his own sores. He will be caring for the other beggars. That is the Messiah.” Nouwen, who calls his parable “The Wounded Healer,” says that only when we have been hurt are we able fully to respond to the hurts of others.

The Samaritan, whose treatment from Jews had hurt him, follows the Golden Rule, however. He treats other people as if he were the other person. That is the core truth in this parable.

Fritz Perls, known for his work in psychoanalytic psychology, said that when interpreting dreams, you must put yourself into every role in the dream. You could apply that advice to some parables of Jesus. If we put ourselves into the various roles in this particular parable, we would not want to be identified with the priest or the Levite. We want to show more compassion than they do. We certainly do not want to be identified with the robbers, the ones who injured and robbed the man. Our immediate reaction is to put ourselves in the place of the Samaritan because of his considerate actions.

Jesus told this parable to a Jewish audience and to one Jew in particular, a lawyer. He wanted this Jew to identify with the Jew in the story, the man in the ditch. Finding ourselves in the ditch allows us to understand that we are the recipients of kindness from others, maybe even people we do not like, maybe even people we despise. We open ourselves to be recipients of their grace. More importantly, we remove all patronizing in our kindness to others.

During this season of giving, we have many opportunities to show compassion: Scouting for Food, Samaritan’s Purse, Mobile Meals, and prisoner packets. Our tendency is to give down, to give hand-me-downs, leftovers. This parable, on the other hand, teaches that we must give across, not down. We do not give to just poor, unfortunate people who may deserve what they get because of their own foolishness. We give to our brothers and sisters who occupy the same ditch we do. That kind of giving is redemptive. It recognizes that God equally loves every person. Christ died for every person. Grace saves every person.

Have you experienced that kind of grace from God? If you have never accepted Christ, I invite you to make that decision. Acknowledge Jesus as your Savior. If you are looking for a church home, this church family will welcome you. We would enjoy having you as a part of our fellowship. We invite you to respond to these invitations on behalf of Christ as we stand and sing together our hymn of invitation, “O Jesus, I Have Promised.”

© 2006 Kirk H. Neely

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