Grace, in Unexpected Packaging
So often, when I talk with families of our younger children, they tell me that one of their primary motives for bringing their children to church is that they want their children to become good people. They hope that the church might help support them in this character-building endeavor. And while this certainly isn’t a bad reason to be at church, I always have to resist the urge to reality-check their hope that being at church will somehow instill virtue in their children by osmosis. Because I don’t necessarily think that church has as much of a stranglehold on “goodness” as many wish it did. Sure, there are a lot of really good Christians out there, inspiring people doing inspiring things, but on the whole, we Christians tend to be just as fallible as everyone else.
At our best, however, Christians know and confess this fallibility. We admit to our selfishness, our greed, and our grudges. And then we ask God, along with our sisters and brothers in Christ, for help in overcoming these things that keep us distant from one another.
To be a Christian, I think, is to recognize–in a clear-eyed and ruthlessly honest way–how far from God’s dream our lives tend to be. Because there’s a hope in this level of honestly: a hope that springs from our truthful confession, a hope that springs from the act of asking for help. For God’s help. For one another’s help.
But of course, asking for and receiving help just isn’t something many of us like to do. We prefer to be the helper, rather than the one who is being helped. We relish the power of offering help, but hate the powerlessness of needing it.
And yet, at the root of our Christian story, is the fundamental truth of just how much help we need to make it through this life.
We are so much less put together than we’d like for others to think. We so often feel as if we’re coming apart at the seams, just managing to hold it all together. So when we come to a story like the Good Samaritan, a story which on its surface seems to be asking us: “are you willing to stop and help a person in great need?”–we might get a bit curious about which role the story is inviting us to occupy. Do you tend to identify with the priest, the Levite, the Samaritan? Perhaps the innkeeper? Or just maybe…with the traveler lying on the side of the road?
As the great preacher Richard Lischer reads it:
“When Jesus first told [this] story, his hearers would [likely] have identified not with the helper but with the helpee, [with] the man in the ditch. It’s the ordinary Jewish layperson on an ordinary little trip who winds up in the ditch.[i]
Thus, Jesus is saying, “It’s somebody like you – why, it is you – you are the man or the woman in the ditch. You are the church in the ditch, the nation in the ditch.”
For the traveler lying in the ditch in need of rescue, then, different questions tend to be central. Not: will I help But: is anyone coming to help? Will I accept help from anyone who comes along? And, how badly do I want to be rescued?
Of course, these are hard questions. For many of us, it’s difficult to even begin to put ourselves in the place of the wounded traveler, the one lying helpless on the side of the road. We find it so hard to let go of automatically reading ourselves as the presumptive benefactors in texts like these. Either as failed benefactors, like the priest and Levite, or as successful ones, like the Samaritan. Either way, this is where we tend to see ourselves: in the role of the benefactor, the helper. But it doesn’t have to be this way. This is not our only interpretive option.
At various times in our lives, many of us will end up just as desperate and needy as the wounded man lying on the side of the road. And in that place of desperation, as the parable of the Good Samaritan shows us, the person who comes to save us just might be the last person we’d ever expect, or ever want. The person who comes to save us just might be the kind of person that we have been taught “to patronize, to feel guilty about, to ignore, or even to despise… Can you imagine someone you’ve been taught to despise [coming to be] your salvation? Can you imagine [allowing yourself being tended to, touched] by such a person as that?”[ii]
You might wonder, of course, why the Samaritans would have been so despised by Jesus’ Jewish audience? What made the Samaritan such an unexpected and unwelcome savior.
The theologian and preacher, Sam Wells, lays out the dynamics quite succinctly:
“A ‘Samaritan’ is someone from Samaria, a place where in minds of everyone listening, they did their religion wrong, in a distorted and repellent way. [And if you think this is the sort of] prejudice you’re naturally too enlightened to fall into – you’re missing the challenge. You need to substitute for the Samaritan someone to whom you have a genuine, serious objection.”
Not…the good Samaritan, but the good homophobe. The good racist. The good drug lord. The good terrorist.”[iii]
So, who might that be for you? From whom would it be incredibly difficult for you to receive help? Who would you never expect to offer a helping hand? These are the kinds of questions, I think, that the parable of the Good Samaritan raises. Who are the unexpected, perhaps even reviled, sources of grace in our lives? Who are the rescuers who we could never have imagined or asked for?
Jesus, of course, is telling us, that these are precisely the people through whom God likes to work. That this is what we should learn expect from God. That we should learn to expect the unexpected. Always.
We wish it weren’t so, don’t we? That God didn’t have to be so contrarian. That things could more often be what they seem. Good or Bad–not in between. God introduces so much ambiguity into the picture. God convolutes what we think we know, destabilizes our perception. Refuses to be bound by our categories. Often sends help in the least desirable packages.
But it’s really awfully good news, deep down, isn’t it? That goodness can come from anywhere, at anytime. That we don’t have to walk through the world as if danger is around every corner, with no help in sight.
Of course, help has already come our way. Just this kind of unexpected help. Help so terrifying that we crucified it. Help so terrifyingly real that death could not contain it.
You see, Jesus was telling a story about himself in the parable of the Good Samaritan. He was telling a story about help that had come in the wrong package–all wrong–to people who didn’t really think they needed much help in the first place. People a lot like us. People who, as Sam Wells enumerates:
…long for relationship, for forgiveness, for reconciliation, for eternal life. Which we would be happy to receive from the priest or the Levite…those so much like us, from our own social background. Those who have security, social esteem, resources. But as the story is telling us, they can’t really help us, won’t really help us. They can’t give us what we so desperately need.[iv]
Yet there is one who can help. There is one who comes to meet us in our deepest need, in our darkest places, in the territories of our minds and hearts that seem all but godforsaken. Indeed, Jesus enters into these places with us. He is not afraid. Because these places are not foreign to him. He has known great suffering, too.
And when he comes to meet us in those places of terror and heartache, I wonder, will we have the courage to receive him? Are we prepared to receive healing and forgiveness and eternal life from him? From someone who didn’t amount to much in the eyes of the world? Who lost everything? Whose friends deserted him? Who died the most shameful of deaths?
It takes humility, doesn’t it? It’s humbling to receive from one who appears to be such an utter failure. Yet in receiving from one like Him, we may find ourselves strangely and beautifully liberated. Liberated from expectations about who does and doesn’t have the capacity to help. Liberated to see goodness in the most unexpected people and to receive the gifts they offer. Liberated to see the world with hope. Hope in one another. Hope for one another.
We need so much more help than we’ve dared to ask for. And the person who can help us might be much closer and much different than the person we think we need.
I pray that we will have eyes to see the help that comes to us in these unexpected packages. The help that just might save us.
Grace, upon grace, upon grace….in the most unexpected of packages.
[iv] https://chapel-archives.oit.duke.edu/documents/sermons/July11WhatMustIDotoInheritEternalLife.pdf (paraphrased)