Principles and Practicalities

Sermon this week on the story of the Good Samaritan, found in Luke 10:25-37. May God bless you and keep you this week.

Principles and Practicality

My Dad’s mid life crisis was a convertible. A 1995 Chrystler Lebaron convertible, forest green, that he used to drive us to school in every day with the top down. One day we ran into some traffic after we dropped my brother off. There was a fellow stuck in the turn lane of this five lane road, right before you got to my school. Everyone trying to get into school was having to drive around this guy, who was standing next to his car that had broken down.

Memphis at that time, was still a very segregated place for me. In a city that is more than 50% black, I went to a white church, attended private schools, and lived in a white neighborhood of a white suburb. And I absorbed cultural attitudes about what African-Americans were like, which were almost universally negative stereotypes.

Which was why I was so shocked when Dad stopped as he passed by the man’s car. “Hey, do you want to borrow my phone?” Phones weren’t very common then, but Dad had one of those mid 90’s cell phones through work. It probably weighed as much as four iPhones and cost twice as much. I couldn’t believe that Dad was just going to hand over this expensive piece of electronics to a stranger on the street. As he moved into the line to drop me off, I asked, “How are you going to get it back?” And he said, “I’ll just pick it up on my way out.” I was still dumbfounded that Dad didn’t care about what might happen, but Dad knew something that I hadn’t figured out yet. Dad knew that he was my neighbor.

Let me tell you about Dirk Willems. He was an Anabaptist during the Reformation in the Netherlands. Since the Netherlands was Catholic territory, he was thrown into prison there, near what is now the town of Asperen, in South Holland. He was stuck in prison there for quite a while, but eventually he attempted an escape, by making a rope out of knotted rags. Because he had been living on prison rations for quite some time, he had no trouble crossing the thin ice of a pond on his way out. The guard chasing him, however, was much better fed, and the ice broke as he attempted to make his way across the pond. Hearing the guard’s cries for help, Dirk turned around, and pulled the man to safety. Where the guard promptly arrested him and threw him in the stocks in the tower. They burned him at the stake the next week. I guess they didn’t realize what Dirk had realized as they were running away. I guess they didn’t realize he was their neighbor.

This the first time I’m giving a sermon on the Good Samaritan, but I doubt that it’s the first time any of you have heard a sermon on it. We know the story of the Good Samaritan like the back of our hands. And we understand exactly what it’s trying to say. So why do we have so much trouble doing it?

Why is it so hard for us to realize who our neighbors are? Why is this question one we fight so much? Is it because we wish we didn’t have so many neighbors to care for? Is it because we are as tribal as we were 10,000 years ago, and we can only see ourselves as neighbors with those who are close to us, our kin, our friends, the people who share our values.

One of my favorite ministry books is Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, by Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the great theologians of the 20th century. But this was written long before he was a famous thinker, when he had just graduated seminary and had found himself a pulpit in Detroit just as the automobile industry was developing. The book is made up of journal entries about his ministry, and in one of his later entries he talks about ideals an practicalities:

“One of the most fruitful sources of self-deception in the ministry,” he writes, “is the proclamation of great ideals and principles without any clue to their relation to the controversial issues of the day. The minister feels very heroic in uttering the ideals because he knows that some rather dangerous immediate consequences are involved in their application. But he doesn’t make the application clear, and those who hear his words are either unable to see the immediate issue involved or they are unconsciously grateful to the preacher for not belaboring a contemporaneous issue which they know to be involved but would rather not face….But the ministers who make a virtue of their pious generalities are either self-deceived or conscious deceivers.”[1]

In other words, our failure is that we disconnect the principle with the practical. As Niebuhr puts it, we tend to accept “the gospel ‘in principle’” and then proceed to “emasculate it by a thousand reservations.”[2] The story could not be easier to understand or harder to put into practice.

We have a million excuses and rationales and justifications. Even though the world is getting smaller, the distance between us is getting bigger. We close ourselves off, interacting only with people close to us. We avoid hearing sad stories, so we don’t have to know how many people need neighbors in our world. We live in fear of being seen as the wrong kind of people, so we don’t reach out to where the real needs are. We tell ourselves that nothing can be done, or that we don’t know how, or that we have nothing to offer.

You know I don’t even stop to help people on the road anymore? I rationalize it by telling myself that I have nothing to offer. Everyone in the world has a cell phone these days, and I know less than nothing about cars and fixing them, so there’s really nothing I can do to help. The past few times I’ve tried I’ve just been waved off anyway. So I say a little prayer and I keep on driving. I guess I still don’t know that I’m their neighbor.

But the truth is that for the story to have any meaning, it must be acted on. Love without power is impotent, and power without love is bankrupt.

It begins with theory. The principles of the matter are clear. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said it himself, that’s the right answer.

But instead of keeping it at the level of theory, Jesus moves it into practice. At the end of the story, he asks, “Who acted as a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” “Go and do likewise.”

The challenge for us isn’t to understand the story better, or believe it more faithfully, or hear something new from these ancient words. The challenge for us is to do it. On the roads you walk on this week, look to the sides and see the people who are beaten and broken there. Allow yourself to be separated for a minute from your own needs and your own world and your own life, and be moved with pity. Let yourself see for a minute the neighbors that are all around you.

And then find a way to be a neighbor to the people you see there. Give of what you have, without reservation. Bind wounds, soothe pains, provide rest. And trust that then and only then, have you managed to actually love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.

[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990), 149.

[2] Ibid.


About Drew

I'm the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Pitman, NJ. I love camping, rhetorical criticism, and classic movies. I'm passionate about God's love, and the messy, beautiful ways it shows itself in our communities every day.
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