The problem with Jesus is that we have heard these stories many times. The parable of the good Samaritan is one of those Bible stories that we have heard many, many times. We already know all about it. We know the plot: a man is mugged, a priest and then a Levite pass by the pulverized man. Then a Samaritan, a person from Samaria, stops and provides help. What is there left to know?
The problem with Jesus is that he talks in parables … and parables have many meanings. There are twists and turns, contextual nuances, and they don’t always mean what they say. Suppose, for example, that
we are the person who is mugged. Our clothes have been torn off of our bodies, our bones are broken from a violent beating; we are bruised, bloody, naked and half dead by the side of a dusty country road. Who might come by, and when? Will anyone help? HELP! A priest not only walks by, but crosses to the other side so as not to appear to have seen us. We know this type of action. We have done it ourselves when we saw someone we were not quite ready to see, at the park, in WalMart, or huddled next to a building in a city. We turn our heads and pretend not to see. When WE are the one who is broken and a priest turns away, our faith plummets. A priest will not help? Please, God, if you are there, save us! God? I knew there was no God … THIS is what I despise about organized religion … that person is paid to help … and doesn’t. Thanks, God, for not being there.
A friendly-looking person happens by and does the same thing. Why won’t anyone help? What is wrong with people? Please, if there is a God … help.
We hear footsteps, a traveler coming by; the footsteps are from a mule. A glimmer of hope touches our pain-filled body … until we realize that the traveler looks like a member of Hamas. Hamas – our enemy! Hamas is an organization dedicated to the destruction of Israel, to murder. We are doomed! Surely this person will torture us, kill us, maybe blow us up. We sink into the misery of our impending death … this person will kill me. No wonder we hate Hamas.
The problem with Jesus is that he doesn’t know about who we hate; he knows nothing about the rules of the day. Jesus says that it is the Samaritan/Hamas person who tends to our wounds, cleanses them, anoints us with medicine and the touch of caring hands. This stranger who was going to kill us – and who we hate – saves our life, takes us to an inn and provides us with days of lodging, food, and care. Medicine. We live.
The most jaded of us are thinking, “we know.” Jesus tells us that we are supposed to help others, even those people we think that we hate. The message is to help others, that everyone out there is our neighbor.
Uh, oh. Have we forgotten that the Bible is the living Word? That Jesus might be speaking to us, to you, and to me? Jesus tells this parable, Jesus, who likes to ask questions, difficult questions, of us. We are called to dig a little deeper, to let the parable live with us, perhaps in a new way. Let’s go:
The mugged man is anonymous, a “certain person” in Greek; he is a generic somebody. A nobody.
It is a lawyer, a first century lawyer, who approaches Jesus. We do not know the lawyer’s name, but we know about him from the naming of his profession. Writer Scott Hoezee reminds us that this lawyer is “a religious man trained not at law school but in a seminary. He became a lawyer not by taking the bar exam but by taking a Bible exam in which he had to demonstrate his nimbleness in stringing together long and complex verses about God’s rules for life. It was a perfectly legitimate area of scholarship but it did have one drawback: when you spend your life parsing rules, commands, statutes, and laws, you sooner or later conclude that the life of faith is all about doing certain things and not doing other things.”
Okay, we modern Christians say. The Samaritan did what he was supposed to do. He helped the stranger. The mugged, injured man at the side of the road is his neighbor. The people who I do not like are my neighbor. I’ll give something to the food pantry. In first century lawyer terms, we do help others; we do not leave them by the parabolic side of the road.
The problem with Jesus is that he is not very straightforward. Jesus does not answer the question “who is my neighbor.” Jesus tells us about a nameless, anonymous crime victim and then asks “Which of the three passersby acted as a neighbor TO the man” at the side of the road?”
“You see, we tend to think like this lawyer: we think that what we need to do is scan the society around us to see who out there counts as my neighbor. But here Jesus says that figuring that out is less important than making sure that you yourself act as a neighbor to everyone you meet.” Who those other folks out in society are, how they treat you, what they look like, whether or not they seem like folks with whom you have some stuff in common is not nearly so important as making sure that whoever they are, you are their neighbor.”
We who are the ones in the ditch are called NOT to go about our lives identifying our neighbors “out there” and occasionally reaching out to the people we think give us righteousness for helping. We are called to act with compassion toward everyone we encounter. The message is about BEING a neighbor, about what is inside of ourselves, and not looking “out there” for what counts. Theologian Amy Levine reminds us that the lawyer asked not only a very cunning question but also the wrong question. “Who is my neighbor” means “Who can I hate?” “Who is my neighbor is an obnoxious question, one that begs for life to be set up as what can we do this one time, rather than what and who it is we are supposed to BE.
And the problem with Jesus is that he gave the lawyer an answer that did not tell him what to DO this one time. Jesus tells us what to do in our whole life that we might live our lives with Him. What we are to BE inside of ourselves, what we Christians seek to have, is a heart and mind and soul so full of love for God that acting with perfect love to everyone is part of who we are. Therefore, love is what we exhibit in our lives.
“Go and do likewise,” Jesus says. Jesus is telling “this very proper, very Jewish, very pious man to go and be a Samaritan. He’s telling him that what the gospel is all about is becoming what you once despised. It’s becoming what you have never been and for a long time at least never even wanted to be.” Who would volunteer to be Jesus’ hands and feet in this world? Jesus, we recall, is walking toward Jerusalem. Who would volunteer to suffer in that way that Jesus does? Why would our Creator take on physical flesh and walk within our sinful, broken world?
The problem with Jesus is that he knows exactly who we are. We are unknown, ordinary folks, broken and near death. We are terrified to tell our truth, to be as naked as that man by the side of the road; we are terrified to let someone help. We are passersby on a road, we know all the rules, and we allocate “our” grace as if it were ours to mete out and bless. We wonder what is wrong with the other. The truth is that when the difficult question “who is my neighbor” becomes irrelevant, we are on the right path.
Oh, the problem with Jesus …