A man lying in a ditch, stripped, beaten, left half-dead.
What contemporary images come to mind as you hear that description? Perhaps a homeless man, there’s likely at least one right now laying on one of the terraces surrounding the church, trying to sleep, seeking a little shade, a little comfort from what promises to be a hot, hot day. He’s certainly been abandoned, and yes, left for dead, by our merciless, uncaring, and unforgiving society. Or perhaps other more distant images come to mind—the bodies of a father and son who drowned as they tried to cross over into the US, or the many videos and images we’ve seen of children in cages, people crowded together in inhumane conditions…
Today we heard the parable of the Good Samaritan, and whether or not we’ve ever heard the story before, we know all about Good Samaritans. They’re the people who stop when they see someone with a flat tire, and help them change it. They’re the people who selflessly come to the aid of people in need. We all think we would do the same thing, even if we never do when we’re confronted with those circumstances. The Good Samaritan is one of those myths that help us believe in the goodness of humanity when the reality is quite different.
In fact, the cultural myth of the Good Samaritan is a world away from the parable of the Good Samaritan. The parable is not about the importance of helping those in need, however worthy such actions might be. It has a very different purpose, and to understand what it’s about, one has to begin with the setting in which Luke places it.
Jesus tells the parable in the context of a conversation, a debate really with a lawyer who approaches him to ask “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Now Luke tells us that he asked this to “test” Jesus, but we should be a bit skeptical about thinking that he is trying to trap or outdo Jesus. He addresses him respectfully, calling him “Teacher,” Rabbi, which offers a clue that this is the sort of conversation that could take place among devout Jews throughout the first-century world. It was conversations like this, over interpretation of Torah, that would be later compiled beginning in the second century, into the Talmud. And they were conversations very much like this one about the meaning and application of the law, the Torah.
While many commentators begin their criticism of the lawyer with the question he asked, it seems not to have bothered Jesus. His response was, “What does Torah say?” The lawyer responds “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your strength, with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”
In the version of the story recorded by Matthew and Mark, these words are said by Jesus, not the lawyer. Jesus praises his answer, “Do this and you will live.” It’s one of the few times in any of the gospels where Jesus praises the words of a member of the religious establishment.
But let’s be honest, there’s at least one ambiguous term here, neighbor, and the lawyer, being a lawyer, probes for clarification, “And who is my neighbor?”
That’s the question, isn’t it? We have an inkling what it might mean to love the Lord our God with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind, even if we know we cannot, in this life, ever really do it. And loving our neighbor as ourself. To love others as much as we love ourselves? Well, our family members perhaps, but our next door neighbors? Does that extend to the guys across the street or the ones over in the next block who are inclined to sit outside well into the night and play loud music? Let’s be frank, in my neighborhood, we pretty much all look the same, all come from the same socio-economic background, I hope I can at least tolerate them, but love them? And it only takes something like the controversy over the Edgewood stadium to show how fragile our community and sense of neighborliness are.
So the lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?” Only now does Jesus tell the story, and if you think carefully about it, it doesn’t really answer the lawyer’s question. Even Jesus’ question to the lawyer at the end, seems somewhat off-topic, “Which of these three was neighbor to the man who fell among robbers?” Off-topic, because it requires an imaginative leap. The lawyer was hoping that Jesus would define the limits of the category “neighbor.” Instead, Jesus’ story exploded those limits and the category.
You know that Samaritans were reviled by first-century Jews and that the feeling was at least somewhat reciprocated. There was a set of complicated reasons for this, partly religious, partly ethnic. Samaritans regarded only Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, as authoritative, the Word of God. They had a built a temple on Mt. Gerazim, outside of Jerusalem, in competition with the Temple in Jerusalem. They were suspected to be the result of intermarriage between Jews and non-Jewish populations. Jews regarded them as impure and unclean, as heretics. Interaction with them made Jews ritually impure.
But the story is not about a Samaritan falling into a ditch and being helped by a good Jew. The story is about a man (whose religious and ethnic identity is not specified) who is robbed, beaten, and thrown in a ditch. He lies there suffering while two representatives of the Jewish religious establishment pass by. He lies there suffering. Does he even hear them as they walk by? Has he abandoned hope? Can he cry for help, even moan in pain? He lies there and a Samaritan comes to his aid, binds his wounds, takes him to an inn, and pays for his care. We can be certain that he welcomed the Samaritan’s actions; we can’t be certain how he would have perceived the Samaritan had they encountered each other in different circumstances.
The lawyer, too, gets the point of the story. Who was neighbor to the man who fell among thieves? The one who showed mercy. The priest and levite walked by. They saw the man and did nothing. The Samaritan came by and he sees, too. But he also takes action. He is moved with pity, a phrase that’s used only two other times in the Gospel of Luke, once of Jesus when he meets the woman grieving the death of her son, and once in the parable of the Prodigal Son, to describe the father’s response on seeing his son return.
Where do we locate ourselves in this parable? We want to be the Good Samaritan, moved with pity, who shows mercy. Too often, of course, we are the priest or levite, to busy going about our business to take notice of someone in need. Perhaps even more, especially now, in the face of all the injustice, hate, and evil that unfolds before us, we feel impotent or perhaps have grown callous, averting our eyes to the suffering and dehumanization of others.
But what if, sometimes, we are the one in the ditch, stripped, robbed, and left for dead? And what if, at that moment, Jesus comes to us in the guise of someone we hate because of the color of their skin, their sexuality, their ethnic or national background, immigration status?
Jesus, the victim, lies in the ditch. He lies alongside children in cages, mothers separated from their children, victims of gun violence. Jesus is also walking down the road to Jericho. Jesus the physician is moved with pity and offers mercy. Jesus reaches out his hand and breaks down every barrier that divides us—barriers of ethnicity and nationality, barriers of gender and sexuality, and brings us together into one fellowship. May we have the strength and courage to join him, in the ditch, alongside the victims, and on the road, moved with pity, and offering mercy.