(Ok, this is mostly Nick's work. I did help somewhat in the formulation, but he did most of the writing. I think it is quite a new, refreshing way to look at the Good Samaritan story!)
How many of you have ever heard a sermon based on the parable of the Good Samaritan? Usually, the response to that question is that every hand in the church goes up. “Good Samaritan” has survived 2,000 years of history to mean someone who goes out of his or her way to aid another. We have Good Samaritan Hospitals, Good Samaritan laws, and even the Good Sam Camping organization. One of the problems with such familiarity with a Biblical parable or event is complacency. We think we know it so well that, when it comes up, we tend to preach it, teach it, discuss it, or think about it the way we always have – without giving it a chance to reveal new or different meaning in our lives. The reality for preachers is that these very familiar passages are more challenging than the obscure. That being said, let’s dive into the story and see what it teaches us.
The story that Jesus tells in this passage comes as part of an exchange with a Pharisee. This religious leader wanted to test Jesus to see how learned he was. So he asked a question that has been repeated down through the ages – “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus, being wise, asked the Pharisee, “What do the scriptures say?” Obviously, the religious man quoted the passage, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your soul and heart and strength and mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus complimented the man on his knowledge and told him to go and do what the text says.
But the Pharisee, not wanting to be sent away so easily, pressed Jesus further, “But who is my neighbor?” That also is a question that has survived the ages. What he was really asking ever so politely, was, “What is the least I can do and still get in?”
People and, sadly, some churches, spend much more time debating salvation and what it means to be a Christian than they do living salvation and being Christian. The religious right of today talks about being Christian, but they so often spend more time judging and excluding people for one reason or another than they do spreading the inclusive love that Jesus lived, taught, and expects of us.
Now, Jesus was not going to let this guy off so easily. Jesus responds to the Pharisee’s with what we now know as the parable of the Good Samaritan. But as we look at the story, I want to look at the various characters and see how they relate to us as the people of God, both as the church and individually as believers.
The first character we encounter is the traveler who was going from Jerusalem to Jericho and was attacked by bandits. This guy was robbed, beaten, and left in the ditch for dead. In this traveler I think we can see much of the world. We have all been robbed of our joy, beaten by the trials and troubles of life, attacked on all sides, and often can be found bleeding and broken in the ditches along the road of life. You can probably see what I am driving at here – the world, by and large, is suffering and many people have been overlooked and, in essence, left for dead. We will come back to the traveler in a bit, but for now let’s look at how others responded.
Let’s see how the rest of the folks responded to encountering a broken and bleeding brother or sister in need. First, along came a priest hurrying on his way to be about his priestly duties. When he saw the wounded traveler, he crossed to the other side to avoid him. There are a couple of reasons for this reaction. First, there was probably some concern that by stopping to help, he might suffer the same fate. So, partly out of fear, he hurried on his way. How often do we – the church – fail to respond to those in need out of fear? If we speak out against the injustices we see in the world, someone might paint us with the same brush and cast us out. You know, that whole guilt by association thing. Sometimes our fear is that we might succumb to whatever caused those others to be in need. Will getting down in the dirt with those in need makes us dirty too?
There was also a ritual reason for his unwillingness to help. If the traveler were indeed dead, which was possible, any contact would make the priest “unclean” and unable to perform his priestly duties. Likewise, if we stop to help, we might not have the time or resources left for the ‘important’ work of BEING the church.
The second traveler to come along was a Levite, one of the “chosen” people, someone who was important (more likely SELF important). To help this wounded traveler was beneath him. The second traveler wouldn’t associate with “THOSE PEOPLE”. Have any of us ever met people or even churches like that? The love of God and neighbor has no room for divisions that label anyone among “THOSE PEOPLE.” But sadly the divisions exist – whether the divisions are racial, sexual, gender, or economic, whether they are the addicted or those suffering mental illness or some physical challenge. How often do churches and people cross to the other side of the road just to avoid reaching out to “THOSE PEOPLE”? You know, quite often I think that WE are often among “THOSE PEOPLE!”
Now we come to the Samaritan! He was one of “THOSE PEOPLE” too. He knew the pain and hurt and hopelessness of the world. He and his people were Samaritans!!! They were despised, even loathed, by the Jews. He truly knew what it meant to be left for dead. He had a heart of compassion because of his own experience. How many of us know the pain of rejection, even hatred and loathing? I am sure many of us have felt that pain and I would hope that we can use that experience to energize us to be like the Samaritan, to transcend our fears, our privilege, and our need to be right, I would hope that the total love of God would empower us to go out and spread that love that we have found to those we encounter.
Then there is also the innkeeper. You know, he often gets overlooked in the story because we tend to focus on the three people who pass by. But imagine his confusion and surprise when this Samaritan showed up with a half dead traveler. The Samaritan passed over a few coins and instructed the innkeeper to care for the man, and promised to pay if the cost exceeded those coins.
Would we be willing to be as trusting? Would we be willing to get involved even when a total stranger presents us with such an odd situation? As I thought about the innkeeper’s role in all this, I realized that, while we all have traits of the three travelers, in reality we are the innkeepers! It is Jesus who is the Samaritan – Jesus was oppressed and rejected by the religious institutions of the day. It is Jesus who rescued the world two thousand years ago, and entrusted its healing and ongoing care to us. And it was Jesus also promised to return. In the meantime, we are called to be about continuing his work, WE are called to be the ones caring for a world that is suffering. We are the ones who are called to take care of the world that has, in so many ways, has been left for dead.
We need to be careful not allow ourselves to become like the Pharisee who tried to trap Jesus with the questions that brought about this parable, and we need to be careful to avoid the fear and worry of the priest or the pompous self importance of the Levite. What we are called to do is to embrace the love and presence of Christ evidenced in the Samaritan and to fulfill our destiny as the innkeepers until Christ’s return.