Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, July 10, 2016
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.
A couple of weeks ago, the United Way held its second annual Conscious Kindness Day. United Way volunteers were roaming the streets of Winnipeg giving away cookies & stickers. Did anyone here get a free cookie? The United Way wanted to reinforce a culture of kindness that exists in Winnipeg, even though our local news tries to convince us otherwise. The United Way wanted to remind us of “what can happen when we choose to be kind and compassionate and recognize someone else’s humanity.” As one of the commentators to this story said, “You’ll never regret showing kindness to someone, but you might regret the times that you didn’t show kindness…”
The story of the Good Samaritan is, in part, as story about kindness. When Jesus asked the lawyer which of the travellers was a neighbour to the victim, the lawyer answered, “The one who showed him mercy.” (as it says in our New Revised Standard Version) The New English Bible translation reads, “The one who showed him kindness.”
We may underestimate the power of kindness. We could consider it a fluffy do-gooder action that is not as important as other virtues. And yet, acts of kindness can have a powerful impact. Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall notes that even the “most ethically minded often seem…more concerned for rights than for forgiveness, for justice than for mercy, for equality than for compassion.”
When justice is married with mercy, human rights with forgiveness, equality with compassion, we might better understand the tender, justice-seeking loving kindness of God. Listen to the words of a hymn written a century ago:
For the love of God is broader
Than the measure of the mind;
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.
There are two challenges with the Good Samaritan’s offer of kindness. The first is that it was costly. It was more than a simple gesture of goodwill. When I was on my way to church one day, I was one of the first on the scene of an accident. A cyclist had been hit by a car. As I went into First Aid mode with both the cyclist and the driver, I hoped that the people at church would remember the Good Samaritan story and forgive me for being late. But this story is much more than giving First Aid. The Samaritan went to great lengths to look after the victim. He was generous with his money, his time and his energy. He risked his own life to treat the injured man by lingering in a very dangerous place. To what extent are we willing or able to offer this degree of kindness?
The second challenge of this famous parable concerns the identity of the Samaritan. Jesus tells this story to intentionally break down barriers of mistrust and suspicion between two enemies. There was a long-standing, historic dispute between the Samaritans and the Jews. In Jesus’ time, the Samaritans would have been considered the enemies of the Jews. Amy-Jill Levine, a Jewish biblical scholar, asks us to imagine ourselves not as the people who pass by on the other side, nor as the Good Samaritan, but rather as the victim in the ditch. She then asks us if we would rather die than receive help from a particular group. For her, she wondered if she would rather die than receive help from a member of Hamas, the organization that pledged to wipe out Israel. What would she do if a member of Hamas was the Samaritan who stopped to tend to her wounds? Who would the Samaritan be for us? Perhaps a member of the Islamic State? What if a masked man carrying the black IS flag stopped to tend to our wounds? Now—what if that were reversed? What if we came across an IS guerrilla, seriously wounded in our pathway? This is the jarring intent of the parable that Jesus told when he chose the Samaritan as the one who showed God’s loving kindness.
Just the other day, Nancy & I were walking down the street and passed a young man bedecked with multiple tattoos, piercings and ragged jeans looped in chains. We nodded and kept walking rather quickly, when suddenly we stopped in surprise. He had seen the glass bottle broken on the street—the bottle we had already walked by—and he turned to pick up every little piece of glass. He explained to us that he didn’t want a dog to cut its feet. We thanked him and walked on, our initial judgement of him severely chastised. His loving kindness moved him to risk the traffic and the sharp glass for the sake of the little creatures.
Ahmed Khatib was a 12 year old Palestinian boy who lived under very difficult conditions in the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank. He would often join other boys his age and throw rocks at the Israeli soldiers who had attacked Jenin in 2002 and killed 59 Palestinians. One day, Ahmed found a toy gun and brandished it before the soldiers. They shot him with bullets that exploded inside his body. Almost immediately, they realized that his gun was a toy and they apologized—something that that didn’t happen very often. But even more amazing was what happened after that. As his parents watched over their son’s dying breaths in an Israeli hospital, they decided to donate his organs to Israelis.
Ahmed’s mother explained, “We saw a lot of painful scenes in the hospital. I have seen children in deep need of organs, in deep pain. It doesn’t matter who they are. We didn’t specify that his organs would go to Arabs, Christians or Jews. I didn’t want my son to suffer, I didn’t want other children to suffer regardless of who they are,” she says. “My son was dead but at the same time maybe he could provide life to others and maybe he could reduce their pain. Of course my son was martyred and they were the criminals and they took his life away but we are the ones who could give life back to them. And maybe my son is still alive in someone else. It was a message from us to them, a message of peace for them.”
“Ahmed’s heart was transplanted into a 12-year-old Israeli Arab girl, his lungs into a Jewish teenager suffering from cystic fibrosis and his liver was divided between a seven-month-old Jewish girl and a 58-year-old mother of two suffering from chronic hepatitis. The kidneys were divided between a three-year-old Jewish girl and a five-year-old Bedouin Arab.”
“Many Israelis were surprised and impressed by the Khatibs’ humanity. The stereotype of Palestinians as Jew-haters…[was] so dominant in Israel that news of the Khatibs’ decision was greeted with astonishment. Senior Israeli politicians hailed it as ‘remarkable’.”
The story of the Good Samaritan opens us to the possibilities of the impossible. It asks us to consider gifts of costly generosity from the most unexpected of places. This story encourages us to consider what church Reformers used to call “common grace”—an impulse to kindness that comes from various creeds, religions and philosophies. As Douglas John Hall says, “What if, in every interfaith encounter, our residual human capacity for compassion were prodded by a transcendent Voice whispering in our…ears, ‘For God’s sake, Christian, be kind.’”