The Migration Parable
Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Kathy Donley
October 7, 2018
This parable is usually called the parable of the good neighbor or the good Samaritan. I have just recently come to understand it also as a parable that says something about human migration. Let me supply just a little bit of background before we get to the parable itself.
Going way back to ancient Israel, at one time there were 12 tribes united in one kingdom. Saul was their first king and then David and then Solomon. When Solomon died, not everyone was willing to recognize his son as the next king. So, the kingdom of Israel split, with ten of the tribes coalescing around Israel in the north and two tribes forming Judah in the south.
In 721 BCE, Assyria invaded Israel. Assyria deported 27,000 of Israel’s citizens and imported other conquered peoples to repopulate it. Generations later, some of those deportees’ descendants returned to Israel. Those left in the country and those who were deported intermarried with people of other cultures. Because of this, the people in Judah saw them as impure and unfaithful to the covenant. Their capital was in Samaria; thus, they became known as Samaritans.
Later, a similar thing happened to Judah. In 587 BCE, Babylon captured Judah and deported many of its citizens to Babylon. A couple of generations later, the deportees were allowed to return to Judah. Some did that, bringing their Babylonian wives home with them. So, the Samaritans, now at home in the land for a hundred years, considered the Judeans to be impure and unfaithful to the covenant.
There were multiple waves of deportations and emigrations associated with both countries. People were moving in and out, sometimes by choice, sometimes by government force. There are other disagreements, theological and historical, between the Judeans and Samaritans, but today what I find significant is their parallel histories and the way their forced migration patterns led to enmity between them.
This ancient story is particularly relevant on this 2018 World Communion Sunday, as an unprecedented 68.5 million people around the world have been forced from home. Among them are nearly 25.4 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18. The United States admitted only 22,491 refugees last year and just set a limit of 30,000 for next year. For comparison, we resettled almost 85,000 refugees in 2016.
Against that backdrop, let us recall this parable of Jesus. Travelling down to Jericho, a man was mugged, beaten and left half-dead on the road. Sometime later, a Jewish priest also travelled that road. He saw the man, and he walked on by. A bit later, another religious man, from the tribe of Levi walked by. The Levites were assigned to assist the priests, like today’s deacons or church moderators. The Levite did not stop either. Now, we might think that the priest and Levite are the bad guys, the villains, but maybe we should not be too hard on them. They are only doing what is legal. They were not allowed to touch a dead body. Making contact with the dead required a lengthy purification process. Until they were purified, they could not do their jobs as religious leaders and that is not something to be taken lightly. The rule in the Torah was that they could not have contact with a dead body, with some specific exceptions. They could defile themselves only for their parents, a son or daughter, a brother or an unmarried sister. The man on the Jericho road did not fall into any of those categories.
Then, Jesus says, a Samaritan man came down the road. This is a surprise. By this time in history, Samaritans and Judeans did not have anything to do with one another. They went miles out of their way to avoid each other. This Samaritan is on a Jewish road, known for its bandits. You might think that a Samaritan, a despised foreigner, would feel particularly vulnerable and have even more reason to keep moving. But he draws near, and explodes with compassion and risks himself to help the stranger.
Remember that the Jews and Samaritans have an ancient shared history, even though they might not remember it. By this time, they have excommunicated each other, and they worship in different places and they don’t even agree on all the books that count as Holy Scripture. But they both accept the Torah, the books of the Law, which means that the Samaritan also knows the rules about contact with the dead, and the exceptions to those rules, how contact with a dead body was permitted if it was the body of your parents, a son or daughter, brother or sister. And so, it seems, the Samaritan believes that the wounded man fits the category. It was this Samaritan, the one whom no one else would possibly see as a brother, who saw his blood relative in the face of the stranger.
Many of our leaders are threatened by the presence of so many different people on the move in the world. They are busy labelling the threats, stirring up fear, criminalizing foreignness, militarizing our borders. What if, in spite of all that, in resistance to that, in the name of Jesus, we commit to seeing every person for who they really are – our sisters and brothers, our blood?
Perhaps that is a hard request to hear today. Maybe on this particular day, after the events of this particular week, many of us are feeling like the we are the ones half-dead on the side of the road, the ones who need a neighbor ourselves to restore our hope.
In that case, let me offer a different story. This is not my story. It is a story Ray Schellinger told during our Immigration Immersion experience. If you ever go to Mexico with him, and I really hope you do, then let him tell you this story. Don’t tell him you already know it.
He said it was the worst day of his life, about 6 years ago. They were on the verge of opening the second story at Deborah’s House, a domestic violence shelter, most of which he had built or had supervised Baptist church groups in building. He hadn’t slept in two nights because he was trying to finish things up as new families were moving into that space. He had a particularly threatening encounter with the husband of one abused woman. He was keenly aware that these women and children were traumatized by the violence in which they had lived, and he wondered if he was making any difference at all. He was so discouraged that he called his wife, who was in the USA at that time, and wondered if he should quit. She suggested that he get some sleep and pray before making a decision.
So, he went to bed, and with his head on the pillow, he prayed, “God please let me know if I am where you want me to be.”
He was asleep for perhaps 30 minutes when he was woken by the director of the shelter. She wanted him to go pick 3 new residents. He asked why him and she said there was no one else available. So, feeling very groggy from his too short nap and still overwhelmed by everything, he drove across Tijuana to get them.
One of them was a European woman I’ll call Elena. She had lived in California some years earlier on a student visa. During that time, she had become a Christian. When she returned to her home country her family had disowned her because of her faith. Things had never worked out for her there, and in fact, her life was threatened, so she sought a way to return to the USA. She contacted a man in California whom she knew from her time there. He offered to marry her, as a way of getting her into the country. She didn’t like that idea, but he assured her that it was just a matter of paperwork, not because he expected an actual marriage. Once she was safely here, they could divorce. Finally, she agreed.
They met in Tijuana. They had a couple of fun days together and got married. Then he imprisoned her in a motel room and daily attempted to break her will so that he could traffic her. One day, he was distracted and left the door unlocked. Elena grabbed her papers and ran past him. He chased her. She ran to a police officer, at which point, he quit chasing her and disappeared. When she said that the man was her husband, the officer said he could not help her.
She was in a foreign country, having been disowned by her family, with no way to get where she wanted to go. Wanting to at least see the United States, she made her way to Friendship Park. Elena was so close and yet so far from her dream there in Friendship Park. In despair, she determined to simply walk into the ocean and end it all. She was following the border fence down to the water, when she noticed the graffiti painted on the fence and started reading it. What she read reminded her that people – many people, people who did not even know her – cared. She began to believe that maybe there was hope. In what she called a moment of transformation, she decided to look for help. So, she had made her way to people who referred her to Deborah’s House.
She poured out this story to Ray as he drove her and the other women to the shelter. Later, when she was settling in, Ray asked her, “What did you read on the fence that spoke to you?” She said “I read, ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me’. And I read “No wall can contain my heart.” Those words in particular spoke to her and gave her hope.
And then Ray told her that a week earlier, a team of Baptists had gone with him to the fence to paint messages there. LeDayne Polaski, the Executive Director of Baptists for Peace, had written “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” And Ray, whose wife is Mexican, and whose daughters consider themselves both Mexican and American, had written, “No wall can contain my heart.”
He told her that.
Elena said, “No way.”
Ray said, “Way.”
“No way.” “Yes, way.”
So, she said, “Now I know that I am in the place God wants me to be.”
And then Ray realized that in her words, he had received the answer to the question he had asked God just a few hours earlier. Elena herself offered Ray a transformation—a reminder that even when we are discouraged and feeling useless God is using us, even us.
Sisters and brother, the good news, the great good news, is that God often shows up where we least expect God to be. Because perhaps the only way we can see ourselves as the Samaritan – the one called to act like a neighbor– is first to recognize how often we have been the traveler left for dead. Friends, do not lose hope. Even now, God will show up where we least expect God to be. Amen.
 Ray Schellinger, “Who is My Neighbor?” in Pastoral, Practical, Prophetic and Personal: A Resource on Immigration produced by the Immigration Task Force of the American Baptist Churches/USA, April 2015 http://www.abc-usa.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Pastoral-Prophetic-Practical-and-Personal-FINAL.pdf