Monday, March 16, 2015

The Good Samaritan Redo

Luke 10: 25-37
During this Lenten sojourn we have been looking at some of the valuable, but often confusing parables of Jesus.  Confusing because we hear one message and then, in the end understand it in another way.  Parables are tricky that way.  This Lent we’ve heard about the sower who went out to the field to sow seed and where it fell was anyone’s guess but to be sure, our sowing God was plentiful and did not withhold one iota of seed to the mostly unforgiving soil. 

Then we heard about a pearl and a mustard seed and Elliott talked about the pearl parable that encourages us to give it all that we have, and the parable of the mustard sees encourages us to give it all up or rather how the Christian life requires a balance between active and passive courage. Today we will hear another old chestnut that Jesus tells his followers from the Gospel of Luke.  Let’s see what meaning that we can squeeze out of this often-told parable.


An individual in today’s religious and secular society would be hard pressed if they did not know this parable or at least what a ‘good Samaritan’ is. The term ‘Good Samaritan’ has been used to describe someone who comes to the aid of another.  And, well let’s face it, that’s a good thing.  Right?  Can’t argue with that. 

It’s the name of a roadside assistance group who rescues stranded motorists, several hospitals and social service agencies are named after it and a few years ago now a law was made called the Good Samaritan Act that protects a person for giving emergency, volunteer aid to someone in dire need, just in case they do something wrong and get sued.  This is the antithesis, of course, to this beloved parable but I guess we ‘gotta’ protect ourselves in the litigious world in which we live.
 So the story goes, a man travelled from Jerusalem to Jericho.  It a tough journey, really rotten terrain.  It’s a steep descent into the Judean dessert where bandits ready to mug could hide out in the crevices and jump on travelers at any given time.  We don’t know anything about this traveler’s identity except that his luck had run out and most likely a Jew.  He was robbed, beaten, stripped and left to die on the side of the dusty, rocky road where scorpions and all manner of wildlife could have at him. 

Now indulge me for a minute, when I hear this parable what sometimes goes through my mind is a joke formula like, “a priest, a rabbi, and a minister walk into a bar”.  Are you with me?  Three clergy persons all of similar callings with similar expectations in their work performance.  Three of a kind.

But Jesus’ version was, “Did you hear the one about a priest, a Levite and a Samaritan?” A priest, a Levite and a Samaritan were not three of a kind. His followers would have expected to hear, “Did you hear the one about a priest, a Levite, and an fellow Jew”, now that’s three of a kind!   But Jesus upends them, their jaws probably dropped, he turns their expectations and their world upside down.  The Samaritan was not a Jew, similar yes, but they didn’t qualify.

Now this was not a slam against the Jews.  There is a certain orderliness to ALL cultures and religious in defining who they are, and there are assumptions that are made about who’s on the inside and who’s on the outside.  Jesus challenges them to think about their stereotypical thinking.  He challenges them to think about the “other” being nice, the “other” giving aid, the “other” being the one to reach out to an almost dead man.

The first two men flub up completely.  The priest does not bother to help the beaten man.  Sad. Wrong, unacceptable.  The priest passes on by.  In fact not only does he pass on by he crosses to the other side of the road.  That’s akin to you walking down Chapel Street in New Haven and averting your eyes away from the beggar who will be approaching you soon.  Are you with me on this one?  The priest would have been expected to help him because life trumps all, and he would have been expected to bury the man had he been dead.

And the Levite – same thing.  Descended from the tribe of Levi, the Levites assisted in the Temple.  He would have known the law, he would have known what to do with the man if he were dead.  But nope, like the priest, the Levite passed by the man in the ditch on the other side of the road, too preoccupied or maybe just didn’t want to be bothered.
He Qi
So its here that Jesus would have launched into what the good Jew did had the ‘typical first century’ scenario been told by Jesus – a priest, a Levite, and a Jew.  But no!  It’s a Samaritan that was the good guy.  It was the Samaritan who was a good neighbor.  A Samaritan who interpreted Torah differently, who worshipped up north rather than coming to the temple in Jerusalem, a man of mixed racial lineage, an enemy, it was a Samaritan who was hero.  He was a good, ethical man who saw that there was another human being in need.  He broke the boundaries, crossed the picket-line, and risked his life, his limb, his social status to help another.  It was not a quid pro quo, this for that kind of conditional help.  He gave all, expected nothing – this outsider.  This is the story we know.  We get this story.

Where would you place yourself in this parable?  Would you walk by like the priest and the Levite?  Would you be the Samaritan man who stops?  Or would you be the person in the ditch in dire need of assistance. 

Well, probably some days you would be the priest or the Levite or we feel as if you’ve been beaten up and left for dead.  But often we place ourselves in the dusty sandals of the Samaritan.  And that’s really great when it happens doesn’t it?  The Samaritan was practicing philanthropy and who doesn’t like to think of themselves as a philanthropist showing love and mercy for others.  But then that is all about us. 

I’d like for us to think about this parable they way in which the Christians of the first century would probably have understood it because I think over the years, the millennia we have glossed over the poignancy of the message of this parable. In context the Greco-Roman listeners understood Jesus’ parables as allegory about God: one character in the story represented God and events in the story pointed toward our rebellion, divine judgment, or God’s forgiveness.[i]  Jesus always wanted them to know about God all of the time.  He never pointed to himself but to God.

In the Lukan narrative, showing mercy and compassion is a divine privilege and so the Samaritan, who showed mercy for the man in the ditch, is acting in God’s capacity or as God’s agent.  So if God is the fine Samaritan then this is a parable about God and God’s compassionate acts of love.  And for us it is a call from Jesus to be Godly compassionate in our actions.  Not because it just feels good to be doing nice things for others but because we are acting on God’s behalf which is serious business, not our own.  Because it’s just what God would do.

So when Jesus says, ‘Go and do likewise’, he is challenging them, and us, to be agents of love and compassion for God in all situations, because that’s what God would do in ALL circumstances.  Acting on God’s behalf is weighty and mighty work and we will be and are called to do something that might just turn our stomachs or minister to someone whom we deem ‘untasteful’.

Would you still choose to be the good Samaritan?  Would you still choose to act on God’s behalf?  This is what it is to be a Christ follower.

So there are choices to make and this ancient story becomes a mighty call upon our lives.

May we be granted the grace to fulfill all that we are called to do in our lifetimes.


[i] “Hearing Parables with the Early Church” in The Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University. 2006. Kruschwitz, Robert

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