The Ditch Perspective

Beth Hoffman Faeth September 29, 2019

Scripture Luke 10:25–37

I imagine that I have something in common with many of you.

I am terrible at asking for help when I need it—even when I am desperate.

I have thought about this malady often, especially in the last few years when I have found myself in the conundrum of suddenly becoming the only parent of two teenage girls, the sole owner of a house badly in need of repair and updating of which I have zero skill for, a yard too large for my time or talent to keep up and a whole future of financial mountains for which I seek answers to questions I cannot even articulate. It’s not that I am unwilling to admit I need help—I will easily share all the ways my life sounds like a bad country song and all the issues that keep me awake at night with just about anyone who will listen. Okay, well, maybe I am not quite that transparent, but my friends will tell you I have plenty to get off my chest and I will voice my woes readily. But as soon as someone offers to come over and look at my leaking refrigerator, or pull some weeds in my gardens, or help clear out the vast majority of stuff I don’t even know the name of in my garage, I hem. I haw. I decline. I say “Oh, that’s okay . . . you are so busy. You have your own stuff to deal with. I need to figure this out. Thanks, you are so sweet . . . but . . . but . . . .”

I am not only terrible at asking for help; I am terrible at receiving it. I really do not want to impose on anyone. I don’t want to put anyone out. And I have conditioned myself to believe that if I don’t ask, then they can’t say no. Because I know the feeling of mustering up all my courage to be told no—or worse, for the other to say sure and then not follow through. That’s just too hard. So, I am the creator of my own help predicament. How about you?

Sometimes, however, we do not have a choice in the matter. We need assistance or the outcome will be disastrous. We don’t just need help: we require rescue. Because we have found ourselves in the ditch.

It is my opportunity to take a turn with a parable this week, during our series “Parables: The Art of Listening.” We are inviting you to hear something new in these stories you have been listening to potentially for many years. Some of the parables will be familiar—I think all of them so far have been ones that play on the repeat cycle for many a Sunday School curriculum—especially today’s. Others we will share may be new for you, and so the challenge will be to listen more than once to find significance. The parables point us towards deeper truths and unexpected outcomes. The gift of scripture is that the conclusions drawn from the same story will change based on the listener—their current circumstance, life experience, ponderings of the heart, the status and situation of the world, the interests and concerns of the one who hears. The truth is, we cannot grow, shift, change, transform, if we do not listen. Hopefully, if you practice the art of listening with the parables this fall, you might also practice the art of listening in other spaces, with other people, with those known and unknown to you. When we deeply listen, we honor the other, we create possibility for transformation and, believe it or not, we cannot help but change.

As Seth, Paula and I were making choices of the parables we would preach, I immediately asked for this one, because I had already been thinking about the perspective from the ditch. Seth responded quickly: “Only if you deconstruct the understanding of good in the Good Samaritan.” Indeed. As we continue our racial justice journey at Plymouth, we must call out when our tradition upholds an understanding that encourages privilege and racism. I have always known this parable as the “Good Samaritan,” haven’t you? This parable has a much farther reach than the Christian community, for even those who have never encountered the Bible have an understanding of the story of the Good Samaritan. We even have laws with the same name.

And yes, what the Samaritan did was good. In the story there are three Jews and one Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans reviled each other. Samaritans were half-Jewish, half-Gentile. They were despised by Jews, who called them half-breeds and dogs. The Samaritans practiced a religion that was a mix of Judaism and paganism and worshiped God in a temple built on Mount Gerizim instead of worshiping in Jerusalem. This was a centuries-old division, this hatred between the Samaritans and the Jews.

Instead of understanding the conflict, Samaritans and Jews taught their children that the other was evil. In fact, if a Jew and a Samaritan met, they would be hard-pressed to say why they should hate each other; it was simply how they were raised to be. And so we might benignly call this story “The Good Samaritan” because the one who helped the traveler in the ditch was a Samaritan and he did a good thing. But a closer listen helps us to understand the embedded racism in this story. First of all, when Jesus asks the lawyer who acted as the neighbor, the lawyer could not even say “the Samaritan.” He could not even utter the word of the one he was to despise. So he said, “the one who showed compassion” or, in many translations, “the one who showed mercy.” Go and do likewise, Jesus says. I really wish Jesus would have said: go and be a Samaritan. That might have had a greater impact on the lawyer.

The irony of this parable, of course, is that the two supposed “helpers” in the story (the priest and the Levite) walked right on by. Help came from an unexpected source, from one considered an enemy within the context of Jesus’ primary community. The Samaritan has nothing in common with the traveler in the ditch, other than his shared humanity, and yet gave extravagantly of his time, energy and treasure so that one called an enemy might be healed. Whether or not we realize it—because that is what implicit bias is—whenever we call this “The Parable of the Good Samaritan,” we are implying that Samaritans are bad and this one is the exception. And yes, that feels uncomfortable because we are so used to using the words “the Good Samaritan” that we don’t question our intention, or our understanding. We know what we mean. Or do we?

For Jesus’ initial audience Jews were good; Samaritans were bad. Here is an exception. A fresh listen to this parable might caution us to exceptions. Because saying “the Good Samaritan” is akin to saying “the good African American,” the good Muslim, the good Somali. Or we may be like the lawyer and be unable to even utter the source of the help. Part of the work of racial justice means we must wake up to labels. We can start with this one. From now on let’s call this “The Parable of the Samaritan” or even “The Parable of the Neighbor.”

I just can’t stop thinking about that ditch. Most often, if we were to place ourselves within this story, we would champion the Samaritan and the lesson would be to emulate the actions of the unexpected helper, and to examine our habits that tend more toward the Levite and the Priest. This is certainly a worthwhile interpretation, if it would indeed make a difference in the way we acted. But what about the traveler in the ditch? What happens if we place ourselves there? In the ditch. Beaten down, either by a robber or by life. Left for dead, because of choices we have made or the actions of another. Desperate, but unable to mouth any words that might draw attention. Dependent on someone to save us, come to our aid, rescue us. I’ve been in the ditch. How about you?

Earlier this month I spent some time in the ditch, when it felt like someone had taken a baseball bat to my abdomen, and there was little I could do by myself. The simplest of self-care became monumental. This is a really lousy place to be for someone who is terrible at asking for help. Here is what I know that may be true for you, too—when we are in need, there are those beautiful, dependable people in our lives who show up for us, take care of us. And sometimes, the ones we think will show up for us do not. Or cannot. And that is startling, and often disappointing, and makes us think twice about our relationship. And then there are those who surprise us with their care—the unexpected helpers. And in order to achieve healing, we must open our hearts to these ones who surprise us.

For me, in this time of recovery, my unexpected helpers showed up as two young women in the hospital, nursing assistants who always worked together. Together they would enter my room with big smiles and a gentle presence. Together they would help me stand up, assist me to the restroom, comment on my improvements, soothe with a washcloth, change my bedding and bring me ice. It can be humbling to be cared for in such a way, humbling and beautiful. And while my nurses were all kind and caring, there was a significance about the way these two young women interacted with me that was different, and memorable, and lovely, and unexpected. The Parable of the Samaritan invites us to examine how we might respond in the ditch, when someone not only unexpected but also one we are taught to despise comes to our rescue.

Our work around issues of racial equality and justice and inclusion command us to ask ourselves: Would we ever refuse help based on the person offering it? In the nursing home where I used to be a chaplain, I saw residents refuse assistance from people of color and from those of a different gender. This is not a quandary to dismiss, but one rather to take seriously. Would you ever refuse help from someone based on the color of their skin, their sexual orientation, their religious practice, their country of origin? Jesus proves in this story that the one least expected, based solely on prejudice, proved to be the source for redemption. The perspective from the ditch suggests that despite our privilege, our wealth, our power, can we understand how God might be using someone we never imagined to teach us and make us new?

Kate Matthews Huey, a writer of biblical exegesis for the United Church of Christ, ponders something that I have been thinking about, too:

See, when I hear this story, I wonder what happened to the traveler afterward. Once his wounds were healed and his family came to get him and he went home to the security and comfort of life among his own kind, I wonder if he still laughed at Samaritan jokes, and I wonder if he turned the other way when someone said or did cruel things about or toward a Samaritan person. I just wonder if his heart was broken open, permanently, long after his broken bones were healed. I wonder . . . And that’s not all. When I think about this story, I think not just about people as individuals, long ago, and each of us here today, but about communities, nations, and races. Bernard Brandon Scott has written these beautiful words about those boundaries we draw around ourselves: “Not just individuals have to cross the line,” he says, “but communities have to cross the line. Yet the crossing of that line always begins with the first Samaritan whose heart is moved by a Jew. Such people are initiating a new world for all of us.” It seems to me that Scott is saying that every act of kindness, random or otherwise, toward an individual brother or sister is a starting point and an inspiration for wholesale kindness and compassion, woven into the fabric of our communities, our institutions, our world, reminding us of who we all are as beloved children of God. We kick-start this kindness especially when we act in times and circumstances that are both costly and full of risk.[1]

William Stafford writes in “A Ritual to Read to Each Other”:

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

We are called to break a pattern that others have made. We are called to be both the unexpected rescuer and the one receiving rescue. We are called to be in tune with the encounters that could transform us, break open our hearts, and lead us on a new path. And sometimes we are called to the ditch so that we might be humbled and helped.

Amen.

[1]Kathryn Matthews Huey, “Compassionate Neighbors,” United Church of Christ, July 14, 2019, https://www.ucc.org/
weekly_seeds_compassionate_neighbors
(accessed October 3, 2019).