One year the US Bishops were having their annual meeting at the Omni Hotel in Washington, D.C. The hotel was running a promotion: There are no problems, only opportunities. Banners and posters were everywhere: There are no problems, only opportunities. One bishop came up to the front desk. “Sir, we have a problem.” The clerk, bright employee that he was, smiled and said, “But, bishop, there are no problems, only opportunities.” The bishop answered, “Call it what you will but there is a woman staying the room you assigned to me.” I imagine that the priest in the story of the Good Samaritan was someone who saw only problems. “Look at the victim lying by the side of the road. We have a real crime problem in Jericho. When I get back home I’m going to call the police chief and lodge a very strong complaint.” The Levite too probably thought of robbery victim as a problem. “Our health care system has a real problem. How come there isn’t an ambulance service to take care of that poor fellow lying over there! I’m going to write my congressman to see what he can do about it.” What was a problem for the priest and Levite was an opportunity for the Samaritan. It was an opportunity to reach out to someone who was hurting. It was an opportunity to see beyond the religious, cultural and racial divide and find a brother. It was an opportunity to share some of the bounty that God had bestowed upon him with someone in need. It was the opportunity to love his neighbor as he loved himself.
What was the difference? Why did the priest and Levite only see a problem and the Samaritan an opportunity? It wasn’t because the priest and Levite were mean. They weren’t bad people. Jesus deliberately chose characters for this parable who were known to be good people. But being a good person was not enough to get them to seize the opportunity. They expected someone else to take care of the problem. The Samaritan moved beyond dealing with the scene merely as a problem because he made things personal. He realized that there was a connection between the crime victim and himself. That guy over there wasn’t just a man on the side of the road, he was a brother, someone who had a claim on him. This provided him the opportunity to demonstrate by his actions the love that he felt for another. We have probably all taken distressful situations as personal when it concerns a family member. I know when my brother was dealing with issues of alcohol the family rallied around him to provide the necessary support for his sobriety. We were not dealing with a “problem drinker,” we were dealing with our brother. We took the opportunity to show in very direct and concrete ways the love we have for him. The parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us that everyone out there as a claim on us, everyone out there is brother and sister to me. We are challenged to recognize the opportunities for love that come at us every day.
Obviously we can’t solve all the world’s problems. There are too many victims lying by the side of the road. What we can do is confront the attitudes and behaviors in our daily life that keep popping up like malevolent fun house boogie men and produce these problems. Do you remember the words of Dr. King? “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” We must confront the easy recourse to violence so prevalent in society. We must confront the racism that divides the world up into Us versus Them. We must confront the disrespect for legitimate authority that makes living as a community impossible. We must confront the false choice between whether black lives matter or blue lives matter – since all lives matter. Are there problems out there? Certainly. But they provide the opportunity for us to bring the gospel into the nitty-gritty of life. The parable of the Good Samaritan shows us how Jesus wants us to approach these distressing and painful realities – by taking a personal responsibility to deal with them. Jesus wants us to understand that everyone out there is made, like him, in the image of the invisible God, everyone out there is our neighbor, everyone out there is a brother or sister or mother to me.
Of course, transforming problems into opportunities is not limited to these big social issues. Johnny or Janie having a problem with their homework provides an opportunity for parents to spend some quality time with their children learning stuff together. (Of course, that doesn’t count “new math” which parents are congenitally unable to understand.) Your spouse having problems at work provides you an opportunity to listen attentively to what is going on in your beloved’s life – and men, please don’t offer any suggestions about how to respond to the problem. Your wife does not want solutions she just wants you to understand how she is feeling. And St. James losing our big, old, beautiful church building was a problem. We need to let it become for us an opportunity to discover what being church is truly all about – not pews and organs and stained glass and steeples but love for one another, a spirit of hospitality, a willingness to serve the needs of others, an openness to the real presence and action of God, an attentiveness to the Word of God, a lifting up of our minds and hearts in prayer.
I can relate to the way the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy puts it: the commandments of God are not “too mysterious or remote for you, up in the sky or across the sea.” If we were going to translate it today we might say something like: people, people, this isn’t brain surgery, this isn’t rocket science. God’s will is very near, already in your hearts. All we need do is carry it out. There isn’t one problem in life that we can’t handle with God’s help. Again and again we are presented with problems that God wills we transform into opportunities – opportunities for kindness, opportunities for forgiveness, opportunities for service, opportunities for mercy, opportunities for love. AMEN.