We all know the story. A lawyer asks Jesus, What must I do to inherit eternal life?
And Jesus accepts the lawyer’s answer of loving God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and your neighbor as yourself. Jesus affirms the man’s answer as a good one.
The scene would be over except that the lawyer was having trouble with the “neighbor” part. He asked, Who is my neighbor?
Jesus then responds by describing the scene where a certain man, traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, is robbed, beaten and left for dead by the side of the road. Three people pass by—a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan.
The first two for reasons of their own pass by on the other side. Those two are the more respectable ones, the ones you would expect to do the right things. It is the unexpected one, the one despised and rejected, the Samaritan, who responds with kindness and proves himself to be a neighbor.
That’s the story from the Bible. But even if a person has zero knowledge of the Bible, they know who the main character is and what he stands for.
If you ever watch the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, you know that from time to time they send someone out to ask people on the street questions about current events, history, the Bible, things like that. One question was, Do you know who the Good Samaritan is?
The answer was, He was some guy who did a good deed.
Oh, the reporter says, I see. Do you know anything else about him?
Yeah, the man answers, I think they named a hospital after him.
The reporter continues, Did you know he was also a character in the bible?
No, the man says, I wouldn’t know about that.
You don’t have to know anything about God or the Bible or anything like that to know who the Good Samaritan is and what he stands for: doing a good deed, helping out a person in need.
I’m sure you heard about the man who drowned in the Trinity River near Trinity Park last Monday afternoon. The man and his family were walking across the rocks of one of the low water dams and one of the children fell in. The parents jumped in to save her, and all three of them ended up in trouble.
A cyclist was passing by—Jeff Harrison—, and he was able to pull the mother and daughter out of the water, even performing CPR on the mother.
When this story was reported on Channel 8 news, they referred to Jeff Harrison as a Good Samaritan. A Good Samaritan came along and helped the mother and her child.
When we think about the meaning for us of this Good Samaritan story, we tend to think that what Jesus is saying in this story is, OK everybody, I want you to go out and be just like that Good Samaritan. He cared for someone in need; I want you to imitate him. Go and do likewise. Be a Good Samaritan.
That’s good advice, but the problem with all of this is that it is not enough to just let this be a simple moral story. Be a Good Samaritan. There is more to this story than that.
One reason we can’t just leave it at that is that the reality is most of us can’t do it. We can’t or won’t or don’t imitate the Good Samaritan.
Some years ago a famous experiment was conducted with seminary students. Researchers gathered a group of ministry students in a classroom and told them that each of them had an assignment. Their assignment was to record a talk about the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
The thing was, the recordings were going to be done in a building on the other side of the campus, and because of a tight schedule they needed to hurry to that building.
Unbeknownst to the students, on the path to the other building the researchers had planted an actor to play the part of a man in distress, slumped in an alley, coughing and suffering.
The students were going to make a presentation about the Good Samaritan. But what would happen, the researchers wondered, when they actually encountered a man in need? Would they be Good Samaritans?
Well, no, as a matter of fact, they would not. Almost all of them rushed past the hurting man. One student even stepped over the man’s body as he hurried to teach about the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
[Thomas G. Long, “Meeting the Good Samaritan,” July 15, 2007, http://www.Day1.org]
We can’t be too judgmental about these seminary students. I think we all know that simply knowing what is the right thing to do does not mean that we will do it, can do it.
So one problem with thinking that this story is only about being a Good Samaritan is that by ourselves we’re usually not very capable of doing that.
The other problem is that there are other characters in this story besides the Samaritan. Remember? We know who the Samaritan is. We know all about him. But what about the others?
Sometimes it is helpful in getting new insight into a familiar Bible story to think about which character in the story you identify with. Have you noticed that when we think about this Good Samaritan story, we most of us tend to identify with the Good Samaritan?
Or at least we put ourselves in his place and hope that we would be able to do what he did. We talk about being a Good Samaritan. Maybe, some of us might occasionally identify with the priest and the Levite who passed by and didn’t help.
But what about the one in need? Do we ever identify with the one hurting by the side of the road?
Judith Brain of Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Lexington, Massachusetts tells a story about herself. She says:
My son is a jazz musician. My husband and I went to hear his band one night, at a club in Roxbury. It was a warm, inter-racial, friendly spot.
At the table next to ours a big friendly African-American man attended to a tiny, twisted, human being on a wheeled cart. A paralyzed man with a puppet’s body and large misshapen head lay on the cart sipping his drink through a straw and watching the musicians attentively. He seemed alert but only his eyes moved so it was hard to tell how much he really took in.
His friend captured our attention. He seemed alive to every nuance of this poor, deformed man. He leaned close to hear him speak in that noisy club and his manner proclaimed love.
I thought about how wonderful this scene was. The club that embraced this broken person. I felt part of that embrace. I too was reaching out in some way with a friendly smile. “I accept you,” I was saying.
The room was smoky and my contact lenses gave me trouble. I popped them out, sloshed them in my water glass, and put them back. In a few minutes, the big African-American man came over to our table and gave me a bottle of contact lens solution. Here, you need this.
Oh, thanks, I gushed. You noticed.
No, my friend did, he said, pointing to the man on the cart. On that crooked face was big grin.
He took pity on me.
I came out of my arrogant Pharisaical fog. “I accept you.” What presumption! I thought I was whole and he was not. I thought I was the giver and he was alien, the last person in the world who could help me. But the tables were turned.
[PRCL, July 9, 2001]
Am I so presumptuous as to think I am always the Good Samaritan in the story, the
one who is saving the helpless hurting one?
I’m going to say something scandalous to the typical application of this story. Maybe in this parable, I am not the Good Samaritan. Maybe I am the one by the side of the road. You are the one by the side of the road.
This was St. Augustine’s interpretation of the parable: The traveler is every one of us.
The Samaritan, the outsider greeted with suspicion if not hostility, is Christ.
And the inn is the church, the people of God, where broken travelers can rest and be refreshed.
Before we go rushing down the Jericho road imagining ourselves to be the hero of the story…
we need to know the care and compassion of the one
who comes to us and tends to our wounds.
Before we can even think about going and doing likewise,
we need to know the care and compassion of one
who lifts us up and cares for us.
Before you can “be a Good Samaritan,”
you need to
tingle with the healing sting of wine in your
be calmed under the soothing touch of oil,
exhale with the relief of someone taking charge
of what has become a nightmarish situation, and
experience the gracious welcome of being
checked into God’s Hotel Compassion.
[J. Patrick Willson, “Living by the Word,” Christian Century, June 26, 2007]
This story is not just a simple morality tale, a moral lesson about being kind. It’s about more than that somebody did a good deed. Maybe the actions of this Samaritan stranger open a window for us to see nothing less than the extravagant care and compassion of God.
What we discover—if we’re honest—is that we are helpless to be Good Samaritans on our own strength. And before we can assume the role of the Good Samaritan, we have to realize that in many cases we are
the one by the side of the road,
the person in the ditch,
the one who lies helpless and wounded,
the one who needs to be rescued.
And along comes a Good Samaritan, a Good Samaritan named Jesus –despised and rejected by men—who
comes to rescue us,
speaks tenderly to us,
lifts us into his arms, and
takes us to the place of healing.
As Paul said, while we were still God’s enemies, God saw us by the side of the road and had compassion.
The lawyer in the story asked Jesus the question, Who is my neighbor? Who is the one I’m supposed to help and rescue and love? And that is
a great question,
an important question,
a question we must all ask.
But there’s another question from this story that we don’t ever even think of. And that is this:
Who is my Good Samaritan?
Who will help and rescue and love me?
Who will come to me by the side of the road?
Who has been or will be neighbor to me?
Before you can be a Good Samaritan,
before you can be the hero of the story,
before you can take responsibility for everybody
before you can rescue all the people you come
you need to be
found by Christ yourself,
taken in with compassion and mercy.
Christ has been neighbor to me. It’s a stunning thing—it almost brings tears to my eyes just to say it. Christ has been neighbor to me.
The crucified one has been neighbor to you.
The one despised and rejected has been neighbor to you.
Have you felt his mercy make your own heart merciful?
Then and only then will you have in your heart what it takes to truly become a Good Samaritan.