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Sermon (7/11): The Good Samaritan Experiment

July 19, 2010

As I considered how to preach on such a well-worn story as that of the Good Samaritan the words of Moses from today’s Old Testament reading kept haunting me. “The word is very near to you.”

I thought about how I might come up with a tricky, clever, unusual interpretation of the Good Samaritan parable. After all, I’ve just started work here at St. Peter’s and I want to make a good impression.

 But I kept being reminded by Moses’ words to the Israelites that well-worn words of scripture do not require clever interpretation. The Good Samaritan story is concise and it is clear. As Jesus puts it after telling the story, the proper response to the Good Samaritan story is simply to, “Go and do likewise.”

“Go and do likewise.” That is Jesus’ commandment to us.

When we happen upon someone in dire need of help, even someone we don’t know, we are to stop what we’re doing, and spend our time, our energy, our resources and ultimately our money to help that person recover from their distress. We are to take upon ourselves almost complete responsibility for that person’s welfare, at least until they can stand on their own two feet. And this lesson quite obviously translates to situations beyond the obvious example of a hurt person on the side of the road. It applies to people and plants and animals we know to be in distress all over the world—be it refugees in Somalia and Rwanda, children without schools in bombed-out villages in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the burning rain forests of Brazil and Bolivia, the starving polar bears in the arctic.

 When I look the Good Samaritan parable square in the face, I feel a bit overwhelmed by all it implies… I’m sure that I pass by people in distress all the time. Is it because the word of God is far away from me? No, the word is very near me, very near me.

(click below for the complete sermon)

“The Word is very near to you… The word is very near to you…”

The word of God is so very near to us, yet it is still so difficult to live by, isn’t it? The word of God is so very near to us, yet it is still so difficult to take it into our hearts and minds and allow it to guide our actions. Today, we’ve heard the parable of the Good Samaritan yet again, for the umpteenth time. We know the parable of the Good Samaritan, that story is very near to us, yet how often do we really take it in and allow it to move us to right action?

 Now, prior to that Good Samaritan Gospel reading, we heard Moses tell the Israelites, as they wander through the desert in search of the promised land, “The word is very near to you.”

 Today’s reading from Deuteronomy is a portion of Moses’ farewell speech to the Israelites. Leading up to today’s reading, Moses again and again exhorts the people to love God, with, as he puts it, “with all your soul, and all your heart and all your mind.” Then, in today’s reading, Moses says:

 “Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ Now, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”

This week, as I considered how to preach on such a well-worn story as that of the Good Samaritan those words of Moses kept haunting me. “The word is very near to you.”

 I thought about how I might come up with a tricky, clever, unusual interpretation of the Good Samaritan parable. After all, I’ve just started work here at St. Peter’s and I want to make a good impression.

 But I kept being reminded by Moses’ words to the Israelites that well-worn words of scripture like the parable of the Good Samaritan do not require clever interpretation. The Good Samaritan story is concise and it is clear. As Jesus puts it after telling the story, the proper response to the Good Samaritan story is simply to, “Go and do likewise.”

“Go and do likewise.” That is Jesus’ commandment to us. That’s all there is to it. The Samaritan of the story happens upon a man who is a stranger to him, naked by the side of a road, beaten and, we are told, half-dead. And so the Samaritan stops, and he cleans and dresses the man’s wounds using his own store of oil and wine. Then he hoists the hurt stranger up onto his own animal and transports him to an inn. Finally the Samaritan pays for the man’s stay at the inn with his own money, telling the inn-keeper to allow the man to stay as long as necessary, and at the Samaritan’s expense.

 Now, then, “Go and do likewise.” Right?

The story’s meaning is fairly clear, isn’t it? When we happen upon someone in dire need of help, even someone we don’t know, we are to stop what we’re doing, and spend our time, our energy, our resources and ultimately our money to help that person recover from their distress. We are to take upon ourselves almost complete responsibility for that person’s welfare, at least until they can stand on their own two feet. And this lesson quite obviously translates to situations beyond the obvious example of a hurt person on the side of the road. It applies to people and plants and animals we know to be in distress all over the world—be it refugees in Somalia and Rwanda, children without schools in bombed-out villages in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the burning rain forests of Brazil and Bolivia, the starving polar bears in the arctic.

 When I look the Good Samaritan parable square in the face, I feel a bit overwhelmed by all it implies. Sure, the story and it’s meaning are clear. It’s word is very near to me. It’s right there. I can reach out and touch it. But that doesn’t make it any easier for me to “Go and do likewise.”

 A famous psychological study was done at Princeton University in 1971, that is known as the Princeton Good Samaritan experiment. Many of you may have heard of it. I remember first encountering it in an intro psych class my freshman year of college.

In the experiment, 67 students at the Princeton Theological Seminary—all young men in training for ordained Christian ministry—were told to prepare a talk to be given on the other side of the Princeton campus. They were told that the experiment they were participating in would measure something about learning and memory.

Now, half of the seminarians were asked to prepare a talk regarding today’s Gospel reading, the parable of the Good Samaritan. And the other half were given a completely different topic to address.

 Just before each student was sent on his way to walk across the campus to give his talk, the experimenters made one of two comments to each of the seminarians. In half of the cases, an administrator looked at his watch and said, “Oh, you’re late. They were expecting you a few minutes ago. You’d better get moving.”

 And in the other half of the cases, the administrator told the student, “It will be a few minutes before they’re ready for you but you might as well head over now.”

Then, on their way across the campus, all of the seminarians would encounter a man, in league with the experimenters, lying face down on the side of the path, with his eyes closed, and coughing and groaning loudly in pain.

In related experiments, people have been asked which Princeton seminarians they believed were more likely to stop and help the distressed man at the side of the road. And the great majority of those asked have said they believe that the seminarians who prepared the talk on the Good Samaritan would be more likely to help. After all, the word of God was very near to those particular students, right? They were on their way to give a talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan! Surely, they would stop to help someone in distress, lying down, coughing and groaning. With that parable fresh in their minds, how could they not stop?!

However, the experimenters found that the more accurate predictor of whether a seminarian was likely to stop and help was whether they had been told they had plenty of time to get to their talk or that they were already late.

63 percent of those who believed they had plenty of time to get to their talk—regardless of the topic—stopped and helped. Meanwhile, only 10 percent of those who felt rushed stopped to help—including those rushing to give a talk on the Good Samaritan. Indeed, as the experimenters put it in their own write-up of their observations, “on several occasions, a seminary student going to give his talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan literally stepped over the victim as he hurried on his way.” There are actually famous photographs of this—seminarians on their way to give a talk on the Good Samaritan stepping over someone groaning and coughing on the ground in the middle of the way.

So 90 percent, 90 percent of those who felt rushed did not stop to help—even when the word was so very near to them. It’s kind of disheartening isn’t it? Because I think if we’re honest with ourselves, we’re not so very different than those rushing Princeton seminarians. Had we participated in that experiment, many of us probably would have stepped over the groaning man as well.

Speaking for myself, I’m sure that I pass by people in distress all the time. Is it because the word of God is far away from me? No, the word is very near me, very near me.

Is it because I’m a fundamentally sinful person? Well, okay, sure I’m sinful. And I could cite that Princeton experiment to preach a sermon about how fundamentally sinful we all are and how badly we need to repent and blah, blah, blah.

But Jesus does not conclude the parable by saying it’s too bad we’re so sinful that we’ll never live up to the example of the Good Samaritan, so the only thing for us to do is repent and ask God’s forgiveness for our inveterate selfishness. No. No. Jesus says: “Go and do likewise.”

But how? How? How can we live up to the example of the Good Samaritan?

Well, that Princeton experiment does contain a ray of hope. Remember: 63 percent of those who did not feel rushed, stopped to help the groaning man on the path. That’s not bad. Those who did feel rushed stopped and helped 63 percent of the time.

So what if we were to work on not feeling rushed in our daily lives? What if we were to hold our daily concerns lightly in our minds and in our hearts, such that they don’t overwhelm our senses and blind us to the word of God? What if we were to go about our days with the same feeling of timelessness and open-heartedness that we feel when we come here, to church?

That might help, right?

After all, Jesus is prompted to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan when someone asks him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

So: what must we do to inherit eternal life?

Well, to begin, we’ve got to slow down and recognize that being a bit late or behind schedule or inefficient or sidetracked does not mean a thing in the face of eternity. And maybe if we allow ourselves to take that time, if we open ourselves up to that transcendence of time that is eternity, then maybe we’ll fully hear the word of God that is so near to us.

Then… then maybe, with God’s help, we’ll be able to go and do as the Good Samaritan does.

– The Rev. Jamie McElroy, July 11, 2010

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Eddy Burns permalink
    July 22, 2010 7:39 pm

    I heard this sermon, Jamie’s first as our new assistant priest, and so wished for a copy. Now we have this fantastic usage of technology so that we can read and think about what we heard. Or we can read what was said when we were miles away. Many thanks for setting up this great web site.
    Eddy Burns

  2. Suzie Babcock permalink
    July 23, 2010 1:02 pm

    Amen. N0w if I can figure out to get it on my phone as well!

  3. Matt permalink
    July 27, 2010 7:25 pm

    I wonder about the wording of a section, that humanity is fundamentally sinful. While sin is passed on from generation to generation it is not fundamental to who ‘man is. Sin is proper to each person and humanity as a whole is affected by sin. However, human nature is not totally corrupted by sin. Thus, sin is not fundamental to who ‘man’ is.

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