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.” (Luke 10:25-37)
Do good, and be a good neighbor
The term “Good Samaritan” has come to mean acts of mercy for the sake of others. There are “Good Samaritan” laws protecting strangers from liability when they try to help in times of crisis. The church I grew up in had a “Good Samaritan” ministry (and a truck that went along with it) delivering clothes and furniture to families in need. Plenty of hospitals and care centers bear the name “Good Samaritan” to convey the value of their work. News reports, while full of stories featuring the pain and heartache of the world, also feature “Good Samaritan” stories of strangers helping strangers, making a difference in their communities. Being a “Good Samaritan” is seen as a virtue – something we promote both within and outside our church communities.
This is a great lesson to learn from Jesus’ famous story. Certainly a takeaway from the parable is to answer the question, “who is my neighbor?” and live differently by its answer. But I think we’ve lost a certain “shock” to the storytelling that Jesus conveyed since so many of us recognize being a “Good Samaritan” as a virtue.
Let’s look at each of the characters in the story…
We should remember the parable Jesus tells is in response to a question. That question is posed by a lawyer who asks a legal question, “What must I do?” Jesus responds with a legal answer, “What is written?” The lawyer responds by quoting scripture, “Love God with all your heart, soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus responds, “Do this and you shall live.” The interchange could have ended there, but instead the lawyer probed deeper, asking another good question, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds with the parable, and turns the question around to the lawyer, “Which do you think was the neighbor?” The lawyer responds, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus responded, “Go and do likewise.” The technical question, “What must I do; check off the list; show proof and evidence for?” is given a more open-ended response, “show mercy, whenever and wherever it is needed.”
The Traveler and the Robbers
Travel was not a safe venture in the ancient world. It would be foolish to travel alone since the threat of attack was real, especially around turns in the terrain where one could not see. Travelling in groups would be a much safer, prudent choice, even on a short trip from Jerusalem to Jericho (about 15 miles). One could argue, and perhaps the lawyer may have considered, that being robbed and beaten was the fault of the traveler who took this unnecessary risk. While not the point of the story, I am reminded of how easily we write off the needs of others because we think somehow the circumstances people face are a deserved outcome of bad choices. I am all for taking responsibility for ourselves, but in this regard I think Jesus is also stretching our imagination when it comes to seeing other people.
The Priest and Levite
Both priests and Levites were part of the religious hierarchy. We would expect the religious guys to stop and help the traveler, but in the story they walk on by him. Perhaps this is an indictment of the “religious” people Jesus was so often at odds with – who tended to focus on the wrong things. It is also an indictment of us – how often do we get caught up in our churches about the things that don’t matter all that much, and we miss out in contributing something helpful and valuable to the things that do matter? I often imagine the priest in one of two situations. In the first scenario he walks by the beaten traveler while singing his favorite hymn and thinking about an upcoming meeting – he’s not intentionally not helping a person in need, as he is so preoccupied that he doesn’t even see him. In the second scenario the priest sees the man but is scared. He knows how to run a worship service and be nice to people at coffee hour, but is ill equipped when a situation like this happens. He runs away, back to his faith community where he can close the doors and be safe among friends. In either case the priest misses something important. So do we.
There was nothing good about Samaritans; at least not in the view of first century Jews. The prevailing wisdom about Samaritans in Jesus day were that they worshiped incorrectly and in the wrong place, their perceived heritage and morality were suspect, and Jews and Samaritans did not get along and should never, ever mix. It is interesting that Jesus picked the protagonist in his little story to be a Samaritan, because the very idea would have been outrageous. It would have been harsh and painful to hear, that your most despised enemy was the one who “got it” when your own religious leaders did not. This is the shock of the story – it is not a Jewish lawyer seeking answers to his faith-centered questions, it’s a foreign, immoral heretic that does the right thing. The Samaritan does more than the right thing – he takes him to place where he can heal, provided funds to cover the expenses, and comes back to check on him to make sure everything is OK. The point Jesus is making is twofold – mercy can come from the least likely of places, and Jesus’ mission is much wider than his heritage. These are good lessons for the church to be reminded of as well.
To stretch our imaginations even further I offer this: What would this story sound like if we substituted the word “Samaritan” for “Muslim?” (There is no connection there; I just want to make this point…). We might assume in our contemporary context that this outsider is scary, angry, violent, backward, fanatical, and even evil. Yet this character is the one who exhibits love and mercy. That would be shocking for some of us to see, wouldn’t it? Maybe Jesus’ real intention behind making the hero a Samaritan is to not only push our buttons but also push-back against our assumptions. After all, the legacy of this story is that this foreign, heretical, immoral loser is the one deemed “good.”
That’s Jesus’ legacy for us too – he is “good” not because his actions meet our expectations, but because of his mercy so often exceeds it.
Go and do likewise.