“The Samaritan is the Sucker”

The Antidote: Following Jesus Through Toxic Times

Mark 2:15-17; Luke 10:25-37

Rev. Phillip Blackburn

October 28, 2018

Do you ever play poker?  I mean, I know you people play lots of other games, but do you play poker?  I myself am not much of a poker player.  It’s not because I’m opposed to gambling, I have a craps felt on my dining room table.  It’s mostly because I’m not very good at it.  I tried it once at a casino in Vegas and quickly realized it was a bad idea.  I can’t do the math in my head quickly enough and I am not attentive enough to the small details of a person’s behavior to read other people’s bluffs.  And this all made me think of one thing I had heard about poker that is largely true in life.  Someone once said if you sit down at a poker table and you can’t tell who the sucker is, then you are the sucker.  I was the sucker.

So I don’t play poker, at least not at the table, but I play it all the time in life, as do you.  Most of us are constantly looking at our metaphorical chip stack, deciding how we want to allocate it.  Most of us are weighing the probabilities of various decisions we have.  And all of us have found ourselves looking for tells in the behavior of another person.  You play poker when you decide to hire someone to work on your house, or give money to a homeless person, or go on a date, or become friends with a new person.  And you know as well as I do that poker is not an easy game.  You win some pots and you lose some others, you make some good bets and some bad ones, and over the course of a life time you watch the stack of chips in front of you go up and down and you hope that there are enough left to get you to the end.

But none of this changes the fact that one of the things most of us fear at life’s poker table is being the sucker.  We do not want to be the sucker.  We can handle losing a bet, but being played for the sucker?  That is another proposition altogether.  The sucker pays the contractor in advance, the sucker gives money to a homeless person and then watches them drive off in their car, the sucker only dates losers and jerks, the sucker finds that new best friend is really using them for basketball tickets.  When we find we have been played for the sucker it is a blow, and guess what, at one point or another all of us have been the sucker.

And so we understand why the Levite and the Priest kept on walking.  Often we like to make them the villains of the story, but they are not.   They just didn’t want to be the sucker.  There were two problems for them if they decided to stop and help the man in the ditch.   The first is obvious, it could have been a trap.  People would lie by the side of the road and act hurt and then, when the kind passerby stopped, boom, that person would be beaten and robbed and left for dead.  The second problem is less obvious.  If the man were dead, or died in the care of the Levite or Priest, they’d have become ritually unclean and then would have been unable to perform their religious duties.  The Law was clear about this.  So they looked at the situation, they made their calculations, they checked their chip stack, and they kept walking.   Before we villainize them we admit we have all done the same thing at numerous points in our lives.  The value of helping was not worth the potential cost of being the sucker.

But then there was the Samaritan.  He stopped.   Good guy.  And now “the Good Samaritan” has become a label passed down over the ages.  Most people now, when they hear the word Samaritan, think of this fictional fellow that Jesus conjured to prove his point.  They don’t think of the heretics who lived, and still live, in the midst of a Jewish majority and were seen as people who followed a corrupted religion and were, by their very nature, ritually unclean.  Samaritans were no good.   And so Jesus makes the point and in his story where the Levite and Priest keep walking, the Samaritan stops.  The neighbor is the one who doesn’t really worry about the consequences but does the right thing.

Over these three weeks, Tasha and I are talking about how we are supposed to live in this middle of this broken and fractured nation.  The series of bombs mailed this past week to political figures, on top of the shooting a year ago at the house softball game testify to the increasing level of violence.  This is the extreme, of course, but all of us have watched things spiral.  While there has always been political strife in our country, the deterioration in discourse and the number of angry people seems to be at its worst in a generation.  I think most of us would agree that there is a toxic nature to our culture currently.  There is, to put it as specifically as possible, an anger which is bubbling up and spilling over.  People are angry and this anger seems to spill into all aspects of our civic life.  So what are we to do?  It is quaint to say, well, just be the Samaritan.  I mean, that’s not bad advice but in order to speak against the problems we see around us, we need to do better than just say, “be the Samaritan.”  We need to, I think, embody the Samaritan.

So what does that mean?  Embody the Samaritan?  Well, to explain, let me tell you one thing I love about politicians.  Almost nobody likes politicians these days and I get that, they mostly make me angry, but there is something admirable about them.  They are willing to lose.  Think about that for a minute.  Almost every politician who runs for anything is not assured of winning, rather, especially when they start, they are likely to lose.  The incumbent almost always wins and nobody starts that way.  So this morning let’s pluck the low hanging fruit and let’s think of Hilary Clinton, Mitt Romney, John McCain, John Kerry, Al Gore, and Bob Dole.  Those are the losers.  Every single one of them lost a general election for the presidency.  Every single one was mocked and ridiculed.  Every single one had their name drug through the mud, and all of them entered those races believing they would win but knowing they could very well lose, and they did it anyway.  And they ran for lots of different reasons, but they all lost.  And in this way, in this very narrow way, I would point out that everyone who runs for office whether it be for dog catcher or for President of the United States embodies the Samaritan.  How?  They are all willing to accept the consequences of losing.

The Samaritan could have lost everything.  He could have been attacked himself.  He could have been left for dead.  He could have had his animal and his money stolen.  And we know he lost some things.  He lost money for sure, and he lost his ride because he tossed the wounded guy on his animal.  He lost things.  And so, if we consider our poker analogy for a moment, the Samaritan looked at his chips and he looked at the pot and he looked at the other player and he made a bet, and the bet was that he could lose everything but if he won, he would win his soul, his pride, his character, his dignity.  He would do the right thing.

Do you want to know the antidote to this toxic culture in which we live, here it is.  We have to be willing to accept defeat.  We cannot win all the time.  Nobody wins every hand, and we all just hope to win more than we lose.  But that is what we are missing.  We are missing any perspective on loss, on defeat.  Sometimes doing the right thing means opening the door to loss, it means taking the risk that our names will be associated with failure.  Let me let you in on a little secret.  In an upcoming election, your party will lose.  That is inevitable.  Consider the list I gave you earlier, notice anything, since 1996 3 Democrats and 3 Republicans have lost the presidency.  We cannot win all the time, so why not stop worrying about it so much.  Why not stop arguing with people we love, what are you trying to win?  Why not let go of the anger, it changes nothing.

When Jesus ended his story, he did something very interesting.  He asked the lawyer, “which of these three was a neighbor?”  He didn’t say who was the neighbor in need and point to the ditch, he pointed the other direction, who behaved as the neighbor.  The Samaritan, obviously.  The priest and levite failed. Why?  They weren’t willing to pay the price of being a neighbor and the Samaritan was.  Being a neighbor means being willing to lose.  It means there may be times when a situation arises and we need to put chips on the table, maybe a lot of chips and we take the risk of losing because it is the right thing.

Our culture hates losers.  Losers are suckers.  The politicians I listed earlier, despite all their accomplishments and successes, all will go down in history as losers.  They lost.  What Christ calls us to is this understanding.  We follow him into a world where winning is far from guaranteed, and sometimes we find ourselves in a place where doing the right thing may mean losing.  That’s the antidote.  That’s what the Samaritan shows us.  That’s how we live as a neighbor.  Amen.