Chances are if you grew up going to church you know the parable of the Good Samaritan. It’s up there with the Prodigal Son as the premier parable. It’s a good one. It’s my favorite parable of all parables. For one thing, it’s a good story. It’s timeless in its message and its challenge. It’s a multi layered story that we oversimplify. It’s a lot like an onion. We have to peel it to get to the core of the message.
At the outer layer, the first message lawyer’s simple question, “ what do I have to do to obtain eternal life.” This question is like the question that causes teachers to cringe when they hear, “What do I need to do get an A?” Just give me the formula to get the letter to pass. Good teacher’s hate this question. They much prefer the question, what will I learn? Or how I will I improve?
Now to be fair, this is a loaded question. If the Bible said that a man on the street asked this question we might be more apt to believe that this was a genuine question. But it’s not just anyone who asks. It’s a lawyer. And lawyers back then and today are taught to never ask a question in which they already have an answer. And the lawyer has the answer. And Jesus knows that the lawyer thinks he already knows the answer and so he says, “you know the law, tell me yourself”
The lawyer answers quoting law. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might. And love your neighbor has yourself.
Jesus says, “good job.”
The lawyer presses, “but who is my neighbor?”
The onion begins to be peeled.
You see it’s one thing to respond to the question: “Are you a Christian?” and say, “yes I believe, I go to church, I have values based on the teaching of Christ that guide my life choices.” A lot of Christian religion stays on the surface. It doesn’t allow for critical thinking or space to ask questions. It just asks, “have you been saved?” Yes. “Do you believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and savior?” Yes. “ Good deal. You are good to go.” That’s all the law says you have to do. Don’t think about it. Just obey the rules.
But then what if you have questions? Like, “but, who is my neighbor?”
Jesus tells a story.
The story takes place on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. This road was, and still is a notoriously dangerous road. The road between Jerusalem and Jericho is a seventeen-mile hike of narrow rocky passages, and of sudden turnings, which made it easy for robbers to take advantage of travelers. This would have been common knowledge for the original listeners of Jesus story…and no surprise that a human being was mugged and beaten along the side of the road.
That’s all we know about victim. That he was a human being. We don’t know if he was Jewish or a Gentile, if he was wealthy or poor, a conservative or a liberal, a good person or a bad person. He’s just a naked, completely vulnerable, beaten person, for dead on the side of the road. The only thing we know about the victim was that he was a human being.
We know more about the people who passed him by, or at least we know about their professions. The first passer by was a priest. The priest, was the most knowledgeable of the law and knows that if he would touch a dead man, he would be made unclean and would lose his role in the temple. The priest abides by the rule book of an ethical and theological system. – His life was a system of do’s and don’ts. He doesn’t stop and help because he wants to save his job. To be fair, he may have had compassion for the man, but job security kept him from doing the right thing. The listening lawyer would have understood this.
The second passer-by was Levite. The Levite would not have had as many restrictions as the priest. He could have rendered aid and not been legally in trouble. – And we see that he does approach the man. Luke says, the Levite came to the place.
Scholars speculate that there are three reasons why he passes by:
First, in all likelihood he knew the Priest had passed by before him, and if the Priest did it, then shouldn’t he also? Or maybe he was afraid the same fate would fall on him, so scurries on by out of fear. Lastly, maybe he doesn’t know his religion or class, and does not see him as a neighbor, or deserving of help. The listening lawyer would have understood the Levite’s predicament.
The third passer-by was a Samaritan. This is like saying, “the low-life, good for nothing, scum of the earth came by.” The centuries of animosity between the Jews and the Samaritans is reflected in the wisdom of Ben Sirach which was written in 200 BC which says:
There are two nations that my soul detests, the third is not a nation at all, the inhabitants of Mount Seir,(Edomites) and the Philistines and the stupid people living in Shechem. (Samaritans)
The Samaritans were cursed daily in the synagogues and prayers were lifted up hoping that the Samaritans would not be partakers of eternal life. That’s pretty significant hatred, if you pray for someone to go to hell.
This Samaritan goes above and beyond reasonable expectations in helping the beaten man. He binds his wounds, gives him his clothes, puts him on his horse, takes him to an inn, pays for his room and food, comes back to check on him.
Having told that story, Jesus now says to the lawyer, “So, you now define the term ‘neighbor.’ Who proved to be the neighbor in this story?”
The lawyer cannot bring himself even to spit out the word “Samaritan.” He simply mumbles, “The one who showed mercy.”
“Go and do likewise,” said Jesus.
We are at the second layer of the onion. The point of the story isn’t “what do I have to be good with God.”
This is more than just a story about morality and about being nice.
Because anybody can be good. But a Samaritan? Can a member of the Teaparty? Can a member of Move On.org, a member of Pita, a member the NRA, a kid in a hoody buying skittles, a neighborhood watchman, a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew, a Hindu, a Muslim, a democrat, a republican, a skinhead?
Wait. Who again is my neighbor?
If Jesus just wanted us to take home the golden rule from this passage the title of the parable would have been “the Good Person.” It’s not. It’s the Good Samaritan.
It’s a parable, and parables always have something shocking, surprising, unexpected, something to be wrestled with and puzzled over, and in this story, it is the fact that an unwanted, rejected Samaritan is the one who shows mercy to his enemy.
There is a story that is told in the movie Ghandi in which A Hindu man came before Ghandi one day and reported that a Muslim had killed his eight your old son. The grief-stricken man told Ghandi he was going to kill a Muslim in return for his son’s life. Ghandi stopped the man, and told the Hindu instead to a find an orphaned eight year old Muslim boy and adopt him as his own. With disbelief in his eyes, the man stood up and went searching for his new son. That is what it means to show mercy to your enemy.
We are at the third layer. It’s one thing to know the right thing, it’s another thing to do the right thing. Remember the lawyer? He knows the right thing to say, and Jesus probably knows he is being condescending in his questioning. But Jesus pushes him to think not with his mind, but with this heart and this is what the parable is about: a change of heart.
Robert Wuthnow, a professor at Princeton University, once conducted some research about why some people are generous and compassionate, while others are not. He found out that for many compassionate people something had happened to them. Someone had acted with compassion toward them, and this experience had transformed their lives. For example, Wuthnow tells the story of Jack Casey, a rescue squad worker, who had little reason to be a Good Samaritan. Casey was raised in a tough home, the child of an alcoholic father. He once said, “All my father ever taught me is that I didn’t want to grow up to be like him.”
But something happened to Jack when he was a child that changed his life, changed his heart. He was having surgery one day, and he was frightened. He remembers the surgical nurse standing there and compassionately reassuring him. “Don’t worry,” she said to Jack. “I’ll be here right beside you no matter what happens.” And when Jack woke up again, she was true to her word and still there.
Years later, Jack Casey, now a paramedic, was sent to the scene of a highway accident. A man was pinned upside down in his pickup truck, and as Jack was trying to get him out of the wreckage, gasoline was dripping down on both of them. “Look, don’t worry,” he said, “I’m right here with you, I’m not going anywhere.” When I said that, Jack remembered later, I was reminded of how that nurse had said the same thing and she never left me. Days later, the rescued truck driver said to Jack, “You know, you were an idiot, the thing could have exploded and we’d both have been burned up!”
“I just couldn’t leave you,” Jack said.
We are at the center of our onion now. You see at the core, we are all the man in the ditch. Yes our dear listening lawyer represents the man in the ditch. Naked, vulnerable and in need of help. We all have moments when we need someone to reach out pick us up and give us hospitality, even at great cost to themselves.
You see in order to love your neighbor you have to let your neighbor love you.
What if in this parable the lawyer represents the man in the ditch and the Levite and Priest represent law and order? Then guess who Jesus might be? Could Jesus be the Good Samaritan. Now I’m not saying that Jesus wants us to place him there in this text. I’m not suggesting it’s intentional. I am suggesting that Jesus always is in the other. He is always in the eyes of the person we cannot look upon. He is the one people despised and rejected, but who comes to save us, speaks tenderly to us, lifts us into his arms, and takes us to the place of healing. As Paul said, “while we were still God’s enemies, God saw us in the ditch and had compassion, and in Jesus came to save us.”
You see I think it’s one thing to put ourselves in the role of the Samaritan and hope that we would model his behavior. It’s another thing to put ourselves in the role of the man in the ditch and hope that we receive help from the person we see as our enemy. When Jesus says “go and do likewise,” he means to see the unseen. Love the unloved. And allow for someone to see and love you.
Teacher, what do I have to do to have eternal life?
“My dear child, you must love me with your whole heart and you must love your neighbor. And by neighbor, dear one, I mean people you don’t trust, don’t like and don’t want to be around. And by being a neighbor I mean you have to also let them be a neighbor to you. Let them serve you, as you serve them. As you do, you will know me. You must let me love you. Let me look up you with mercy, pick you up out of whatever ditch you are in, and give you healing. And then dear one, go and do likewise.”
Acts of Compassion: Caring for Others and Helping Ourselves
Princeton University Press, Aug 23, 2012