The Rule of Three

This is a slight adaptation of what I preached yesterday... MaryAnn McKibben Dana Idylwood Presbyterian Church July 14, 2013 Luke 10:25-37

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" He said to him, "What is written in the law? What do you read there?" He answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." And he said to him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live."

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" Jesus replied, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, 'Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.' Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" He said, "The one who showed him mercy." Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."


We’re going to start with a little quiz this morning. Now I know it’s summertime, and for those of us who follow the school schedule, we’re on a bit of a mental break… but let’s see how awake we are this morning, eh? I will give you a list of two items; your job is to fill in the third. We’ll start out easy:

Larry, Curly, __________ The Good, The Bad, _________ This one is too hot, this one is too cold, and ________ Who’s on first, What’s on second, __________________

Let’s kick it up slightly: Can anyone name the three musketeers? (Athos, Porthos and Aramis) How about the three races that make up the triple crown?

Now let’s get biblical: Gold, frankincense and ___________ Father, Son, ______________

What we’re seeing here is the rule of threes, which is a basic structure used in literature, folktales, and yes, scripture. Master storytellers know this structure and use it either to provide a predictable pattern, or to disrupt the audience’s expectations… although good ones do that carefully and intentionally.

Here’s one more: Priest, Levite, ________________.

We say Samaritan because that’s how the story goes that we’ve received. But that’s not what Jesus’ audience would have been expecting. According to Amy-Jill Levine, a professor of New Testament, the expected order at this time would have been Priest, Levite, Israelite.

Priest, Levite, Israelite. Boom, boom, boom. Expected.

So imagine Jesus spinning this yarn, as the lawyer and other people listen on. They know what’s coming. And they’re probably starting to feel pretty good about themselves, until:

Samaritan. Boom again.

“Samaritan” would have been a complete reversal of expectations. It’s the last thing they would have expected Jesus to say.

We often hear about the Samaritans as the down and out, the persecuted; but according to Levine, Samaritans were not just the downtrodden people. They were enemies of the people of Israel.

Imagine if I had disrupted the rule of three in our little test... if I’d said, “Larry, Curly, and Bubba.” Or “gold, frankincense, and paper towels.”

That would be a little uncomfortable. It would feel a bit wrong.

Now imagine if I stood up at the end of the service and blessed you all in the name of Father, and of the Son, and of the Prophet Muhammad. Boom.

Now, as I’ve said many times to you, I do not see Muslim people as our enemy. The problem is with fundamentalist radicals, regardless of their religion. Still… that benediction coming from me would be… concerning. That’s not what the Christian minister is expected to say. At best, you may wonder if I made a slip-up. Like you would question my theology and fitness for ministry.

That is the level of disruption that Jesus’ words would have elicited in his listeners.

How dare he elevate one of “those” people? How dare he make the priest and the Levite the villains and the Samaritan the hero of this story?

And yet there he is. The person who fulfilled the greatest commandment—to love God and love neighbor—is the last person you’d expect it to be.

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Why do we not go and do likewise? What keeps us from behaving as the Samaritan does in this parable?

In keeping with our rule of three, I’ll suggest that three things keep us from “showing mercy”:

The first is time. I’ve shared with you before about the Good Samaritan study at Princeton Seminary. Read about it here, but what the researchers found is that the primary predictor for whether someone will stop to help someone else is whether they think they have time to do so. The busier we get, the less likely we are to respond with compassion to someone in need. That’s not good news in our world of perpetual motion.

The second is the sheer immensity of the need. Who is our neighbor? Potentially everyone and anyone. We know that. Technology has connected us in amazing ways, but it also connects us to tragedy like never before. It gets to be too much sometimes. So we shut down, tune out, ignore. Pope Francis preached recently on the Good Samaritan story and lamented “the globalization of indifference,” which “makes us all ‘unnamed,’ responsible yet nameless and faceless.”

The globalization of indifference.

The third is a sense that we can’t do anything. The needs of the world are great, and our abilities seem so small. And yet… take a look at the Samaritan’s response. He goes to the man, tends his wounds, takes him to a safe place…

…And then he leaves.

My whole life with this story, I’ve always wondered where he goes. Isn’t he supposed to drop everything and devote himself to this man’s full-time care and healing? He’s the Good Samaritan, after all!

Well, apparently not. The Samaritan helps him, he pays for the man’s care, and then he goes about his business. His part in this drama, important as it is, is over.

What does this suggest about our call in such situations? What does it suggest about God's ability to work through the lives of many, many people, neighbors to one another? We respond as we are called and able, and we do what is ours to do. But we don’t do it all. We cannot be God… and we do this work together.

We think we have to do everything, which too often keeps us from doing anything.

*          *          *

About 12 hours ago, a jury reached its verdict in the George Zimmerman case in Florida. As you’ve no doubt heard, Zimmerman was found not guilty of murder (and a possible verdict of manslaughter) of Trayvon Martin. It’s very hard to comment on the case itself, because only two people know what really happened that night, and one can no longer speak for himself. It’s also hard because I was not in the courtroom and I did not hear every last bit of evidence offered.

What I can comment on—and as a minister of Jesus’ gospel, I feel I must comment on—is the reaction, and the emotions and pain this case has unleashed. Many people I know are heartbroken, or downright irate, at what looks like a travesty of justice. And I also know people feel satisfied with the decision was made. So what do we do now?

My friend Ashley-Anne Masters, a pastor and a writer, wrote late last night about an experience of being called a racial slur. Ashley-Anne is white. Her husband, Reggie Weaver, also a pastor and a friend of mine, is black. She wove together her experience with that of the Zimmerman verdict and spoke directly to this business of feeling overwhelmed and indifferent to our neighbor, of going something rather than nothing:

Choosing to raise children teaching them that all faces are equal and valued regardless of color can change something. Not standing for being called a racial slur, or calling out others when they use one in our presence, can change something. Not categorizing every person in any given race as the same as one particular person of that race can change something. Not being afraid of each other can promote equality among races. Killing negative stereotypes and racial profiling would change something. Not killing each other would change a lot.

My face is white. My husband’s face is the same color as Trayvon Martin’s. Our future children’s faces will likely be some shade of mocha or khaki similar to George Zimmerman’s biracial coloring. One day they will hear about the verdict in George Zimmerman’s trial and ask us about it. We will be aware that how we respond as representatives of two races will directly impact our children’s view of multiple races. And that changes everything.

*          *          *

About a month ago, a woman named Eliza Webb found her car ransacked near her home in Seattle. The car had been left unlocked—no windows broken—so at first she thought her husband must have been looking for something. Then she saw the unfamiliar cellphone on the seat and discovered that her gym bag had been rifled through, and her running shoes and sunglasses were missing.

She opened the phone and began going through text messages and phone contacts. She pushed the contact listed as “Mom” and reached the prowler’s mother. The owner of the cell phone was 19 years old and of course, had left it behind by accident.

At that moment, Eliza faced a choice. The normal course of action would be to call the police, but something stopped her. Instead, she showed the boy mercy. She asked the woman whether she might meet with him, ask him to acknowledge what he’d done, and seek some kind of alternate resolution. The mother said she would support whatever Eliza decided.

When she arrived at the house, she met the teen, who quickly and tearfully confessed. He said his actions had been fueled by alcohol and boredom, and he apologized.

Webb’s husband, who had come along with Eliza, then told the teen his own story.

When he was 20, Blake Webb was charged and convicted of underage drinking after he went out partying with friends. Now, 12 years later, that stupid mistake follows him on every job application, rental and school application. The Webbs wanted to spare the boy that outcome.

But there were consequences for the boy. He had ransacked many cars and had lots of items to return to their owners. So the Webbs went with him, house by house, to explain what he’d done and ask for forgiveness. At the neighborhood block party, he and his friends who’d been involved read a letter of apology to the neighborhood.

The boy later said, “It felt terrible to hear that people are worried and feel like they have to lock the door because of what I did. In a funny way, I feel closer to my neighbors and kind of look forward to seeing them around in different circumstances.”

His mother said, “I’m deeply grateful to Eliza for taking the time to become personally involved with my son and giving him the chance to go face-to-face with the people he victimized and make amends. Kids need somebody besides their own parents looking at them and holding them accountable. She did a beautiful thing.”


A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. A teenage boy was shot in Florida. A young man in Seattle made a very stupid mistake.

A holy man walked by. A lawyer threw the book at him. And then a follower of Jesus showed up.

What happened next? You get to decide.