There are some passages of the Bible that people have read (or at least heard about) over and over again so many times that it’s hard to look at them with fresh eyes. These passages bear the weight of certain cultural interpretations that aren’t easily discarded, even in the light of decent biblical scholarship. This morning’s New Testament reading is one such passage: the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
The toughest part about writing a sermon on passages like this one is that people think they already know what it means, so they switch on a kind of theological autopilot in their heads and then zone out so that they only ever end up hearing what they already expected to hear in the text. This is a dangerous theological habit to get into, although we all do it. We tell ourselves the same old familiar stories again and again. We never leave our spiritual comfort zone and so we rob the gospel of its radical power to touch and transform our lives.
Well, it just so happens that Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan is all about leaving your comfort zone and being radically transformed. We’re used to thinking of it as a tale about human kindness. We think Jesus was just telling people to do nice things for each other. We call people “Good Samaritans” when they go out of their way to help others in need. Some states even have “Good Samaritan laws” that require citizens to assist a victim when a crime has been committed.
But is that what this story is about? It is certainly a story that has human kindness in it. The image of the Good Samaritan has endured as a symbol for kindness in the intervening millennia since the story was first told. But is kindness the point of the story? I don’t think so.
Kindness is hardly the first word that would come to mind for a first century Jewish person who was hearing this story. Actually, the first word to come to mind would probably be, “Ugh!” or “Eww!” For first century Jews, the only Good Samaritan was a Samaritan that stayed very far away.
Samaritans, from a Jewish perspective, were heretics and half-breeds. They were the leftover dregs of society who had interbred and mixed religious practices with the invading Assyrians in the 8th century BCE. Not quite Jewish and not quite Gentile, Samaritans held a particular place of disgust in the first century Jewish mind.
Even more than that, this particular Samaritan in question appears to have been a trader by profession. He rode a donkey, carried supplies like oil, and possessed a considerable sum of money (at least 2 days’ wages for the average working man). Traders were also looked down upon in the ancient world. They were not rooted down by place or tradition and often went wherever the money took them. Like tax collectors, they were expected to be cheats and thieves.
Finally, this trader Samaritan takes his wounded stranger to an inn. This was even more despicable. In those days, an inn was not what we would call a hotel, it was a seedy dumping ground for the scum of the earth. Nothing good happened there. No respectable person would be caught dead in an inn if they could help it.
So that’s a little bit of background for you. I’m telling you this in order to flesh out just how uncomfortable and maybe even offended Jesus’ listeners must have been when they first heard this parable. It involves a Samaritan trader who books a room in an inn. That fact by itself would seem seedy. In today’s terms, Jesus might as well have told a story about a cross-dressing drug dealer in a crack house. That fact alone would make for a story that you wouldn’t want to tell in mixed company. But does that bother Jesus? Not in the slightest.
So, let’s turn and take a look at why Jesus felt the need to tell such an offensive story to his audience of listeners.
It begins with a conversation between Jesus and a lawyer. Now, the word lawyer here is a little bit misleading. When we talk about lawyers, we usually mean trial attorneys. But in this case, the lawyer that Jesus was talking with was probably more like a biblical scholar: someone who studied and interpreted the Jewish Torah. In today’s terms, this person might be a professor at a theological seminary. On the scale of religious and social respectability, this lawyer would have been the polar opposite of the Samaritan trader.
So, this lawyer (i.e. seminary professor) has some serious doubts about Jesus’ credibility as a rabbi. After all, Jesus was a working-class hillbilly with no formal education to speak of, yet people were flocking to him in droves to hear what he was saying. This scholar probably saw it as his professional and religious duty to expose Jesus, the unaccredited snake-oil peddler, for the fraud that he was.
The fight that ensues between the two of them is a battle of words and wits. It’s all about having the right questions and comebacks. The lawyer starts off with a question, “Teacher,” he says, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” In other words, “How do I live a life that’s really living, not just existing?”
Jesus answers his question with a question, “What does the Torah say?” The lawyer then proves his competence by flawlessly quoting two commandments from the Torah, one about loving God and the other about loving one’s neighbor. Jesus gives the lawyer a polite “golf clap” and says, “Bravo. Right answer. Do this and you will live.” But the lawyer isn’t satisfied. He’s proven his own competence, but he hasn’t yet stumped Jesus in front of his followers, so he keeps going:
“And who is my neighbor?”
This is an interesting question. It’s all about how wide religious people can legitimately cast their nets of inclusion. Different religious groups at that time had different standards by which certain people could join and others could not. To use today’s terms again, the more conservative groups defined neighbor in narrow terms while the more liberal groups accepted a broader definition. But there’s a problem with each of these definitions (the ancient scholar as well as modern liberals and conservatives) and it’s this: Asking the question about neighborliness in this way automatically assumes that the questioner is placing him/herself at the center of the circle (the center of the universe, in fact). Everything else happens around and is related to him/her. The lawyer’s question (“who is my neighbor?”) is an inherently self-centered question.
So Jesus, in response, tells this seedy, PG-13 story about a dirty, low-down Samaritan traveler who stays in inns. He holds up the Samaritan as a moral exemplar over and against a priest and a Levite, two Jewish religious leaders.
At the end of the story, when all is said and done, Jesus knocks the ball back into the lawyer’s court with yet another question, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” And this is where Jesus wins the argument. He stumps the lawyer by forcing him to admit something he doesn’t want to admit.
The lawyer’s response is priceless as he is unable to even bring himself to name the dirty, rotten, low-down Samaritan as his own neighbor. That would be unthinkable. All the lawyer can manage to squeak out are the words, “The one who showed him mercy.”
Leaving the lawyer with an invitation to imitate his enemy, Jesus is basically saying, “Let that which you hate become your teacher. Learn from what you despise. Let it throw you off-center, off-balance, and out-of-whack.”
Again, the problem with both conservative and liberal models of neighborliness is that both of them place the questioner at the center as the subject/hero, differing only in how wide they prefer to draw their respective circles of inclusion. Jesus, on the other hand, is inviting the Torah scholar (as well as all present-day culture warriors) to re-center their circles somewhere other than their own egos.
In Jesus’ parable, the Samaritan trader is not just a passive presence who is worthy of inclusion in the lawyer’s circle of neighbors, but an active agent who becomes a vessel of kindness to another (presumably Jewish) person. The disgusting, no-good, low-down, half-breed, heretic Samaritan is now at the center of the circle, graciously including Jewish people in his own circle of kindness. The lawyer’s moral universe has just been thrown off-center and now he has to adjust in order to get his bearings.
In Christian theological terms, this is exactly what God does in Christ. The incarnation throws the universe off-center as the divine Ground of All Being takes on our finite, fallen flesh. God’s own center of gravity has shifted in order for God to be experienced with us, here in the ordinary stuff of this universe. According to the Christian story, God is not content to stay enthroned in heaven but meets us here out of deep compassion and solidarity. In this way, God is more than simply loving, God is Love, as it says in 1 John 4.
As Christians in the world, I believe that we too are called to reorient our lives as our own little selfish worlds are thrown off-center. Christ invites us to dethrone ourselves from the center of the universe and live, as he did, for others. In doing so, Jesus says, we render to God the only kind of service God is really interested in: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
As you go out into the world this week, I invite you to challenge yourself and ask what/who do I truly despise? Who is your disgusting Samaritan?
Let that which you hate become your teacher, let your world be thrown off-balance, and may you discover the Spirit of the God who is love living and breathing in you, in everyone you welcome, and in all who welcome you.