What if I were to stand here this morning, after reading what may be Jesus’ most well known parable, and say, “Jesus does not really want us to be ‘good Samaritans’?” What if I were to tell you that is not exactly the point of his famous story? What if I were to say that he is not merely telling us to be kind to others in need, to show mercy and compassion to those who are hurting, to be gracious and generous and helpful toward the poor and suffering?
I think we all know those things already, don’t we? We talk about “common human decency” that recognizes when another is suffering and in need of attention. I think Jesus may have had more in mind than simply reinforcing common human decency, especially when the subject is, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Furthermore, I think the man to whom Jesus told this parable was a good, moral man who understood the need to have compassion on folks in need. He was an expert in the Jewish law. He knew that God’s law is filled with commands and instructions and exhortations to help the hurting. He also knew that kindness was to be extended not only to his fellow Israelites, but to the aliens and strangers, the foreigners who lived among them as well. Even in this encounter, when Jesus asked what he thought God wanted from him, he gave a good answer and Jesus commended him for it. He said one should love God with all one’s heart and love your neighbor as oneself. He knew that loving God must be lived out in our love for others.
The people of Israel were, by and large, a generous and caring people. They valued life and took care of the needy. They placed a high value on giving alms and other kinds of charitable giving. And I’m sure this man, a religious leader, went right along with the program. Works of charity and mercy were a given in the life of the devout in Israel. This man didn’t need a lesson in that.
Moreover, the text indicates that this teacher was “testing” Jesus and engaged in an effort to “justify himself.” I don’t think simply telling him to help the needy — like he already knew he should do — is much of an answer to that.
No, there is something else going on in this parable. It is not simply about being do-gooders to our neighbors, which is the meaning we usually assign to the term “Good Samaritan.”
So let’s start by discussing that term. Over the years, “Good Samaritan” has become an established part of our vocabulary. In our minds, “Samaritans” are good folks. We even name hospitals and other charitable organizations after them. “Samaritans” are the ones who devote themselves to helping others.
But before we go any further, we need to realize something. Jesus’ first listeners — Jewish people in the first century — would never have heard the term “Good Samaritan.” In fact, if they had heard those two words spoken together — “good” and “Samaritan” — it might have made their jaws drop and their skin crawl. You see, in the eyes of Jewish people that phrase was a complete oxymoron. There was no such thing as a good Samaritan! Samaritans were evil. Samaritans were bad people. Samaritans were to be avoided. Samaritans were to be shunned. You didn’t let your kids hang out with Samaritan kids. You didn’t go to places where Samaritans hang out. The last person you would ever expect to be honored as a hero by a Jewish teacher would be a Samaritan, because everyone knew they were the bad guys. “Good” and “Samaritan” simply didn’t go together.
Think about the animosity between the Israelis and Palestinians today, and you will have some idea of the relationship. The Jews and Samaritans hated each other and avoided having anything to do with each other. For a Jew to call a Samaritan “good” would be like would be like telling a member of the John Birch Society a story about “the good Communist.” It would be like telling an African-American a story about “the good Ku Klux Klan member.” It would be like standing at Ground Zero in New York City and telling a story about “the good al-Qaeda terrorist.”
In my part of the world, here is a way of understanding this: It would be like telling an IU grad a story about the good Purdue Boilermaker, or a Purdue alumnus talking about a good Indiana Hoosier! It might even be like telling an Indianapolis Colts’ fan a story about a good New England Patriot!
The parable of the so-called “good Samaritan” is not just a nice moral tale about helping people in need. It was shocking to those who first heard it. They were used to hearing stories about religious Jews like priests and Levites being the good guys. They liked those. They could handle those. In Jesus’ story, however, those Jewish religious leaders are the scoundrels and the Samaritan — the hated enemy — is the hero!
What I am saying is that Jesus is telling this devout, Jewish spiritual leader that if he wants to know how to inherit eternal life, he should learn it from a Samaritan. He is telling this man that if he wants an example of someone who knows truly what it means to respond to God’s call to love one’s neighbor, he should learn it from a Samaritan. That would have been tough for this man to take.
I got into trouble once when I preached a sermon that used Mother Teresa as my main example of loving service to others. A man in the church was rabidly anti-Catholic, and he thought it shameful for me to point good Bible-believing Protestants like we were to a heretic like Mother Teresa to make my point.
Another time I mentioned a prominent Jewish author, and used the story from a children’s book he wrote as the main theme of my sermon. I received a letter from a woman in the congregation admonishing me that this man was certainly not a Christian and we shouldn’t be promoting his ideas in our congregation.
These people would not have liked to hear Jesus preach about a Samaritan who was good, a Samaritan who showed he had more of a heart for God and others than the Law-keeping Jews of his day. This parable undermined the entire worldview of its first listeners. It called into question their assumptions that “we” are the good folks, people like the Samaritans are the bad folks, and that “they” have little or nothing to offer us by way of example or instruction.
The second observation I want to make is about the end of this parable. Did you notice how Jesus changed the man’s question through telling this story?
In the first part of the text, the man asked Jesus what he could do to inherit eternal life. Jesus then had him supply his own answer, and the man answered well. But then the man asked another question: “Who is my neighbor?” He wanted to know where the boundaries of his duties were. Where do I draw the circle so that I know who is inside my area of responsibility? Who should I include in my definition of “neighbor”? Who is my neighbor? Who are the people I should love and serve?
Now notice how Jesus ends the story: “Which of these three, do you think, WAS A NEIGHBOR to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” Jesus changed the question! In the teacher’s eye, the “neighbor” was the needy one, and it was his job as a good Jewish religious person to love him. But in Jesus’ story, the “neighbor” is the Samaritan, who acted like a neighbor by giving help to the needy. The “neighbor” is not the one in need, the one who is served and helped and healed. The “neighbor” is the one who does the serving! The “neighbor” is the one who acts, the one who loves, the one who shows compassion. The “neighbor” in the story is not the Jewish man by the side of the road who needs help. The “neighbor” is the Samaritan who helped him.
As long as we think of our “neighbors” primarily in terms of God’s law and God’s commands to love them, that makes us the givers and makes them the takers. They are the needy ones, and we give them the help they need. But Jesus defined the “neighbor” as the one who helps us when we are in need.
Jesus’ parable totally subverts this man’s pride and self-justification and it addresses a temptation that everyone who is religious must face. When we think of others as our neighbors, and we frame it in terms of the Law, that means we are the ones to love and serve them. We are the givers, they are the takers. We are always on the top, they are on the bottom. We are the ones in control; we do the helping. They have no control; they are dependent on us for their well being. We define our “neighbors” as the ones we are responsible to serve.
We kind of like that, don’t we? We like to see ourselves as the givers and others as the receivers. That makes us feel good, doesn’t it? We are the ones who love God and therefore we are to love our neighbors and serve them. But… what if I’m the one who needs to be served? What if I’m the needy one? What if I need a neighbor to help me? And then… what if that neighbor who comes to serve me is a Samaritan? That is not so comfortable, is it?
It may be that Jesus tells this parable as an example of the Gospel. Interpreters from the earliest days of the Church had a suspicion that the Samaritan in the story might actually be Jesus himself. The man by the side of the road represents all of us, deeply wounded by sin and the world’s brokenness. The priest and the Levite represent the failure of Israel and the Law to provide a complete remedy for our need. Then a savior comes along who extends mercy and grace to us, making great sacrifices so that we can be healed and restored. But, surprisingly, this helper, this one who proves himself to be a good neighbor, is like a Samaritan, an outcast. He is rejected by his own people, treated like an outsider. As the Gospel of John says, “He came to his own, and his own received him not.”
So maybe in the end, Jesus is pointing to himself, and saying to each one of us, as he did to that man that day, Are you willing to stop thinking about God and others in terms of the Law? Are you willing to step down from your proud position of thinking that this eternal life project is all up to you? Are you willing to stop thinking that you are the good one and that others are the bad ones and that you have all the answers for them? Are you willing to give up thinking that you have to be the giver all the time and it is always your job to serve others? Are you willing to admit that you need neighbors to serve you? Can you see yourself as the man by the side of the road, desperately in need of healing and restoration?
And are you willing to accept salvation from a “Samaritan” like Jesus?