By: Eleanor Wellford, Priest Associate
It’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t know the story about the Good Samaritan. Most of us probably heard it first in Sunday School when the basic lesson of good and bad behavior was taught. But there is much more to this parable than that; and like all of Jesus’ parables, there are lessons in them that we adults have a hard time learning.
On the surface, today’s story is about a man who was traveling alone on a dangerous 7-mile stretch of road from Jerusalem to Jericho and who was robbed and beaten and left for dead in the ditch. Two men passed by and didn’t help the man at all. A third man came along and cared for him, dressed his wounds and took him to an Inn where he was safe for the night.
When we go below the surface, we learn that the man lying by the side of the road was a Jew; that the first man to pass by him was a priest; and that the second one was a Levite. The third man who actually helped him was a Samaritan. Once we begin to know a little more about who these characters are, it’s only natural that we would have expectations about how they should behave. And Jesus knew that his listeners would do that.
We would expect the priest and the Levite, both religious men and well-respected members of society, to have stopped to help the dying man. And we would have expected the Samaritan – an outcast of society who shouldn’t even have been on the same road as the other travelers – to have gone nowhere near the suffering Jew. But we would be wrong on both counts.
And this is when the parable gets interesting – when Jesus turns our expectations completely upside down, leaving us feeling uncomfortable and off balance in the process.
But what if we could somehow justify the characters’ actions to be more in line with our expectations. Wouldn’t that make learning a difficult lesson a little easier?
We know that the priest and Levite were trained in Jewish law, literature and tradition. It was their job to insure God’s presence in the Temple. Maybe they didn’t want to risk displeasing God by breaking a purity law if they touched the bleeding or dying man. Or maybe they were simply late for an important meeting or for dinner with their families. Would we able to excuse them for not stopping?
And what about the Samaritan? It was in his DNA to dislike any and all Jews. If the man in the ditch was so badly injured maybe there was no for him to have known that he was a Jew. Maybe he thought he was helping a fellow Samaritan. Maybe he wasn’t as good as Jesus was making him out to be.
The problem is that we don’t know what motivated any of these men to behave the way that they did. Jesus doesn’t tell us and for good reason. It doesn’t matter. The point is that there were two men who didn’t act like neighbors, or just decent human beings, and one who did. And the power of this parable comes from being surprised by the one who did. Jesus wanted his listeners to feel uncomfortable and foolish for expecting these men to behave in a certain way just based on who they were, what they did for a living and where they were on the social ladder.
Remember that this passage from Luke started when a lawyer in the midst of a crowd following Jesus around asked him what he had to do to inherit eternal life. It was actually a good question and maybe, for once, was not meant to trick Jesus. Jesus didn’t answer him directly but like a good teacher, asked the lawyer what he thought the answer was. Citing the Great Commandment to love God and adding the part about loving your neighbor, the lawyer got it right.
But then another thought occurred to him and he continued to engage Jesus by asking him who specifically was his neighbor. Was it the person living next to him, or the person he socialized with at the club or someone he worshiped with? Instead, the answer Jesus gave him by means of the parable wasn’t what he or any other listener was expecting. The neighbor was the one whom we go out of our way to ignore – like the homeless person we encounter on a street corner when the light turns red. The Samaritan was the last person anyone would have thought of as the exemplary neighbor – the one who acted with compassion.
And that was the glimpse that Jesus gave us as to what life in God’s Kingdom will be like. Many of Jesus’ teachings were about the Kingdom of God, yet these same teachings are among the hardest for us to accept because power and social standing and everything we work so hard to achieve, have no place there.
Good Samaritans can come in all sizes and shapes and can be found in the unlikeliest of places – even on the playground here at St. Mary’s. If we want further evidence of what life in the Kingdom is like, all we have to do is watch preschoolers at play. When I was watching them not too long ago, I saw a little girl fall and scrape her arm. When she started crying, the teachers immediately came to comfort her, and so did all of the other children. Several of them truly believed that they could kiss her arm and make it all better. It was so cute!
Not one of them stopped to consider whether she was a friend of theirs or if she was wearing the right clothes, or if her parents were friends of their parents or what her parents did for a living or what size house she lived in. It was a simple act of kindness that came as naturally to them as the air they breathed.
Because this morning’s parable is so well known, I think it’s hard to hear something new in it. It’s too easy to focus on who those men were, and to judge and even justify their actions. It’s easy to overthink it and miss the point. What we don’t want to miss in this parable is what Jesus said about being a neighbor. It’s not a hard lesson to understand. Mr. Rogers certainly knew what it meant. Preschool children get it. It’s we adults who struggle with it. The lesson is to be kind – not selectively kind but universally kind. Because when we are, we show the face of God to others. Through Jesus, we connect God’s love with love of neighbor, and that shouldn’t be limited just to people we know or like.
Jesus never told the lawyer who his neighbor was. What was at stake was how to BE a neighbor. Jesus left it up to him to figure that out. The lesson at the heart of Jesus’ story was to be kind and show mercy – no matter what – no matter how hard it may be. “Go and do this,” he said to the lawyer. And to us he says “Go and do likewise.”