The Good Samaritan

Reading: Luke 10:25-37
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

Jesus 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 Jesus 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."

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This parable has for generations been taught in Sunday School classes as God's way of telling us to help other people. 'Don't be like the Levite and the priest, who pass by the half-dead man, be like the Samaritan.'

This interpretation of the story, while appropriate on one level, misses out on at least two perspectives that enrich our reading of the text.

First, it ignores the radical idea that the Samaritan and the half-dead man--who we can assume is Jewish--are socially constructed enemies.

Samaritans and Jews, for the centuries leading to Jesus' generation, were next-door ethnic neighbors who hated each other (in effect, Samaritans were Jews until they were conquered and forced to intermarry with non-Jews, which made their descendants seem impure to Jews, who almost never intermarried).

The late Baptist preacher David Bartlett wrote that if we rewrote the parable in the early 21st century, the beaten traveler might be American and the helper might be al-Qaeda. "The Parable of the Good al-Qaeda"!

In other words, the ethnic distinction isn't just a convenient way to give the helper a name, it is the story offending our exclusionary sensibilities and forcing us to see God's universal neighborhood. If you got to update the parable, and placed yourself in the role of the injured traveler, who would be the most surprising and shocking person to help you?

Second, to say that the story teaches us to help others is to reduce it to a mere moralistic lesson. Sofia Cavaletti, the Italian Christian educator, likened such a reduction to throwing away a beautiful gift and playing with the wrapping paper. The moral lesson is shiny but has little depth to transform us, while the story has power beyond a moral lesson to take root in our souls.

The story not only should offend us but also stick with us and challenge us from all angles. The 'lesson' assumes we are the Samaritan, but we can also be the injured person, the Levite or priest, the robbers, the innkeeper, or none or all of the above.

Bartlett's attempt to update the story leads us to other interesting insights. If this event took place today, how would the public hear about it and what would its response be?

I imagine a highway gas station security camera capturing the whole drama as it unfolds.

In that case, video of the assault might be shown near the top of the local news, urging people to be on the lookout for the robbers.

Or perhaps near the end of a newscast there would be a 15-second human interest piece about the good Samaritan--unless it got bumped by a viral cat video. 

How about video snippets posted on social media of the Levite and the priest passing by the injured person, with hashtags like #Levitetheloser or #priestbeast, shaming the two for not helping the man on the road?

All of these would miss the exhortation of Jesus, who, without reducing the story to a moral lesson, does force the (Jewish) expert of the law to identify the Samaritan as the one who was the neighbor and whom we should emulate.

Jesus tells this story as one who, like the characters in his parable, is on a journey.

HIs journey, however, is not away from Jerusalem but toward Jerusalem.

Jesus does not linger in condemning the robbers or the priest or Levite. He has no time for detours into outrage or shame. He only has time to lift up love on his way to be that love for all of us--Jews and Samaritans, perpetrators and survivors, all of us falling short of God's hopes for us, but all of us saved by God's healing love through Jesus Christ.




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