Interim charity or long-term justice

Editor's note: William McClain, Mary Elizabeth Joyce Professor of Preaching & Worship at Wesley Theological Seminary, delivered this sermon July 14 at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C. His text was from the Good Samaritan Parable in the Gospel: “And if it costs any more …” (Luke 10:36).

The Parable of the Good Samaritan from the Gospel of Luke is one of the most familiar, beloved, influential passages of the Bible. It has reverberated throughout the centuries as one of the clearest narratives in sacred scripture to call for public love through public action. Some have gone so far as to call it “the noblest of the nobles in the gallery of parables in the Synoptic Gospels.”

William McClain

Love, it tells us, must not know limits of race and nationality and place of origin and color of skin and gender. Love makes no enquiry.

Love seeks to be active to those who are in need. Whomever I can help with my active love at the given time and place of his or her need is my neighbor, and I am his or her neighbor.

Zimmerman and Martin

I wish George Zimmerman had been able to see Trayvon Benjamin Martin in Sanford, Fla., last February as his neighbor, and not as his black-profiled teenage-boy enemy. I wish Zimmerman could have seen Martin as his neighbor who belonged to the human race and who was simply a teenage boy being a teenager with Skittles and a soda from the 7-Eleven, and a cell phone to his mouth and ear.

That is not the kind of God I could ever preach for, ask you to believe in, or urge you to serve.

Zimmerman, a grown man, could have had a conversation with a teen-age boy. If he had, then we would not have to mourn all over again for Trayvon. We would not have to again appeal to the Justice Dept. and its Civil Rights Division for the basic civil rights of another dead black-teenage boy in the South.

It was not in the “ plan” of the God of this parable for a grown man with a gun to kill an unarmed teenage boy merely trying to get to his father’s house. That is not the kind of God I could ever preach for, ask you to believe in, or urge you to serve.

The Good Samaritan

Such a God is not the God of Jesus of Nazareth who told this parable to the lawyers asking the question about who is my neighbor!

This parable of the Good Samaritan has had great effect throughout history. Radical hospitality in many places around the world has been inspired by the compassionate actions of the Good Samaritan that Jesus described.

Many organizations providing very necessary acts of compassion, charity, relief, social service, and even public love have been inspired and continue this very day because of the influence of this powerful parable promoting the Kingdom of God, the “beloved community.”

Racial segregation in the Bible Belt

The expression “the good Samaritan,” has slipped into our common language. How often do we hear the expression, “He or she was just being a ‘good Samaritan’”?

I grew up in the South in the 1940s and 1950s in the Bible Belt and the era of racial segregation:

  • unequal pay for equal work,
  • separate schools for colored and white children,
  • separate water fountains,
  • separate bathrooms in public places,
  • separate waiting rooms in bus and train stations,
  • the era without a Voting Rights Bill or Equal Opportunities act.

I, too, was a teen-age boy just two years older than Emmett Till when he was murdered in Mississippi. I lived in Alabama, an adjacent state. I lived fewer than 200 miles from that Mississippi town when members of the Ku Klux Klan took him from his great uncle’s house, beat him in a barn, gouged out one of his eyes and then shot him through the head killing him. His murderers attached a 70-pound cotton gin fan with barbed wire around Till’s neck and dumped his body into the Tallahatchie River.

Interim charity

Very few white church people saw any correlation at that time between the Bible’s call for righteousness, love and justice and race relations, the treatment of black residents and the notion of them being their neighbor.

I remember one of our white, fellow Methodist neighbors, who lived literally across the road from us, saying to my mother one day, “You are such good people, the Lord must have some good place for you to go when you die.”

But there was this parable of the Good Samaritan in the Bible that affected some attitudes. It motivated the almost-moderate people to engage in acts of charity, such as helping to buy uniforms for the high-school band, bringing food baskets at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and contributing discarded clothes to churches to distribute to the indigent.

Oh, but if they had read and interpreted the whole parable. It says that the Samaritan offered acts of compassion to the wounded man, bound up his wounds by “pouring on oil and wine, set [the wounded man] on his own horse, took him to an inn, and took care of him.” And the next day the Samaritan paid the innkeeper and told him to take care of the wounded man.

That was an act of compassion, an expression of charity, even love. It was certainly “interim charity.”

Long-term justice

But then we get to the other part, “the long-term justice” part in these words as translated by Eugene Peterson in The Message: “… and if it costs any more, put it on my bill — I’ll pay you on my way back” (Luke 10:36).

There it is: “If it costs any more … .”

Justice is the instrument of love, not “cheap love” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminded us a while ago, but “costly discipleship.” When justice acts as the arm of love, it always costs more:

  • More time!
  • More care!
  • More attention!
  • More sacrifice!
  • More understanding! More compromise!
  • And, yes, more money!

Yes, we need soup kitchens to feed the hungry, shelters for the unhoused and the abused, emergency care for the indigent, foster care for the abused and neglected children, and radical hospitality for the strangers in our midst.

Change the conditions

But we also need to change the conditions that make it even possible to live among us as the poor, the unhoused, the neglected, the unaccepted and people who have no citizens’ rights — even though they can fight in our army and die on foreign soil on behalf of this country.

Yes, it costs more! We are disciples of Jesus Christ, not to be conformed to the world, but to be transformed, and therefore to become transformers!

Light puts darkness to an end. Even though there had been darkness, when the light comes the darkness has to flee. Jesus said it clearly: “Let your light so shine …” (Matthew 5:16a).

The Message translates it in language simple, contemporary and clear: “You are here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill.”

And thus, we can still sing the words of that old evangelical Gospel hymn: “Let your lower lights be burning! Send a gleam across the way!”

Read the whole parable

And every Church of Jesus Christ, must read the whole parable of the Good Samaritan, and answer with Jesus that our neighbor may look different from us, may wear different clothes than we wear, speak a language different from ours, may have made choices of mates different than we have made, may have different shapes and shades of eyes and colors, but they are our neighbors.

Yes, it costs more to be the truly inclusive church with open doors, open hearts, open minds! It may mean holding hands with people you never reached for or touched before; it may mean singing songs that you never sang before, and dancing to tunes and rhythms you never heard before.

James Russell Lowell was right: “New occasions teach new duties; time makes ancient good uncouth.”

I believe that God wants Mount Vernon Place and Asbury United Methodist churches to be this corridor of Washington, D.C., where the Good Samaritan comes back to handle the costs of more, not just to engage in short-term aid that is interim charity. But to engage in challenging and changing conditions as they are and ushering in long-term justice, even transforming the world, such that “justice runs down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Letter to the Editor