The “Good” Samaritan?

Text: Luke 10:25-37

There is a real problem with familiarity. Stories that are simply part of the cultural consciousness, it seems pointless to retell them, because everybody knows them. Many Biblical stories fall into this category, tales that are so familiar that even people who are not familiar with Christian traditions are aware of them. The Good Samaritan is certainly one of them. We have “good Samaritan laws” which protect people from being liable for damage when they are trying to help. There is a Christian Charity organization called “The Samaritan’s Purse.” On the spell checker on my computer, I didn’t have to put in “Samaritan” because it was already there… complete with definition: “A person who voluntarily offers help in times of trouble.” We have associated this name with someone who does good deeds, and it is the good and, well, neighbourly thing to do.

The only problem is that as good and as noble as this understanding is… we are far too familiar with the parable of the Good Samaritan. We’ve totally missed the point that Jesus was getting at when he told it! If anything, the “cultural collective” that our society has developed around this story has whitewashed it. Yet this was once a very provocative and revolutionary parable. Maybe we need to hear it with a fresh set of ears. So let’s look at the story again… but first we need to get a bit of context.

The whole story is set up to answer the question “Who is my neighbour?” It’s not about how we should treat the less fortunate… Matthew’s Gospel covers that quite nicely, thank you very much. In a debate with a Pharisee, the classic summary of the commandments is raised “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength, and your neighbour as yourself.” This is all well and good, but then as a great debating point, this Pharisee asks the question “Who is my neighbour?”

Instead of giving a straight up answer, as we would perhaps like him to, Jesus begins to tell a story… a peculiar kind of story called a parable. Through this story, Jesus comes up with a far more controversial answer… one that many of the listeners would not like:

(Story, excerpts as taken from Eugene Peterson’s, The Message)

“There was once a man travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho. On the way he was attacked by robbers. They took his clothes, beat him up, and went off leaving him half‑dead. Not long after, a priest was on his way down the same road, but when he saw him he angled across to the other side.

Then a Levite, a religious man, showed up; he also avoided the injured man.”

This is the part of the story that we’re all familiar with. A man is attacked and left for dead at the side of the road. Two upstanding citizens… at least according to tradition, come by and both avoid this waylaid traveller.

These are the people that you might expect to stop and help… true… but people in the time of Jesus weren’t exactly on good terms with the authorities. The listeners were probably developing a smirk on their faces, as this story would be leading them to think that these rich folks who walked by would get their come-uppance. Yet there is also a growing sense of desperation and helplessness that those who are the powers-that-be aren’t stopping to help.

Yet, they may have their reasons… A priest or a Levite may have been in a condition of ritual purity, on their way to perform an important ceremony. Touching a dead body or blood would mean that they were no longer ritually pure. It’s not really a good excuse by our standards, but it certainly would make sense at a time. Imagine today if the priest or the Levite were a doctor travelling in response to an emergency call where they were desperately needed. Stopping to help someone who may already be dead would put the people they’re travelling to save in danger. For the wounded traveller, the end result is still the same. Nobody stops to help.

But… someone does stop to help… but not the person that they expect. All the while, Jesus is forcing the listeners to identify with the poor schmuck lying there at the side of the road. Help is not coming from where it’s supposed to… and then the unthinkable happens:

“A Samaritan travelling the road came on him. When he saw the man’s condition, his heart went out to him. He gave him first aid, disinfecting and bandaging his wounds. Then he lifted him onto his donkey, led him to an inn, and made him comfortable. In the morning he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take good care of him. If it costs any more, put it on my bill ‑ I’ll pay you on my way back.”

A Samaritan. That’s who stops to help. Not a Galilean, not a Judean… a Samaritan. It’s not one of us who stops to help… but one of them. One of those people. In terms of the impact, think of the person or even group of people that you find hardest to like… much less love. Fess up now… think of that one person that you loathe or despise for whatever reason. Now imagine that person or one of those people is the one who comes over the hill to help. That is the one who stops to help… the last person in the world that we want helping us is helping us, because we have no ability to help ourselves.

Imagine the anger that this would inspire in a society that actively disliked Samaritans… where people would detour around the whole province of Samaria so that they wouldn’t have to deal with those people. Christ’s words were entirely revolutionary…

“What do you think? Which of the three became a neighbour to the man attacked by robbers?”

“The one who treated him kindly,” the scholar responded. Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.”

The story does two things. It forces us to identify with the victim, although we really do want to switch out of that helpless identity and be the one who helps. When that last person comes over the hill, it is the last person that we want identify with, much less help us. Notice that the person with whom Jesus is talking can’t even bring himself to say “a Samaritan.” Remember when I said the parable of the good Samaritan should be provocative? That’s why! To those whom Jesus taught, everybody knew that there was no such thing as a “Good” Samaritan.

The parable forces upon us the question: who among us will permit himself or herself to be served by a Samaritan? Really, only those who have nothing to lose by so doing can afford to do so. It’s important to note that the victim in the ditch is given only a passive role in the story. Permission to be served by the Samaritan is given, only because he is unable to resist it. Put differently, all who are truly victims, truly helpless, have no choice but to give themselves up to the mercy of others. In this case, the Samaritan, the despised half breed, has become the instrument of grace.

While we want to identify with the person doing the helping… a consistent reading of the parable forces us into the role of a victim who is helpless to resist mercy and grace. Even when we try to identify with the helper, we are forced to identify with a person that we don’t want to be associated with. The power of the parable is to shock us into realizing the power and depth of God’s grace. We can never assume that we know where God’s grace will come from, or what it will look like. Jesus tries to open us up to see the world with God’s eyes.

It comes back to asking that question: “who is our neighbour??” Jesus casts a very wide net… showing that our neighbour is anyone through whom we encounter the living God. Our neighbour is someone who teaches us something new about ourselves and challenges our assumptions about how the world is… even if they are the last person that we ever expect.

Which gives us something to think about when Jesus tells us to “go and do likewise…”