On this Christmas eve-eve day, I want to honor Jesus by remembering one of his most famous teachings, the parable of The Good Samaritan. If this story is familiar to you, please resist the urge to be bored for a moment. I promise I am heading somewhere new….
About two weeks ago, I published this holiday card on the internet, and it got a bit of a viral reaction:
An overwhelming majority of the responses to this card were positive, and many people let me know that the card’s message encouraged them to make a donation to organizations assisting Syrian refugees. However, I also had the unfortunate opportunity to read through a surprising amount of anger and hostility. Some of it was directed at me, but most of it was directed at Middle Easterners, Syrians, and Muslims.
As I’ve attempted to make sense of those comments, I’ve often thought about Jesus’s story about “The Good Samaritan”. Let me set up the context for you here:
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
And how does Jesus respond? By telling a story that portrays a Samaritan – a religious and cultural group despised by most Jews at the time – in a positive light.
In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.
A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side.
So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.
But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii [a decent sum of money] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
This story would have left Jesus’ audience with their jaws on the floor.
A Samaritan as a spiritual hero??! Two noble Jewish professionals cast in a less than esteemsble light??! These two ideas alone would have turned the world upside for many of the people standing there that day.
So, then Jesus turns the original question back on the questioner, an “expert in the Law”, and asks him to answer for himself:
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
To me, this story has several lessons:
- One: the people outside of your cultural and religious groups are also your ‘neighbor’.
- Two: your assumptions about others can often be wrong.
- Three: if someone needs help, and you are able to offer it, do this.
- Four: your own religious identification is meaningless if you are unwilling to practice it’s decrees.
Now, for the millions of people out there that don’t believe in Jesus’ teachings, I have absolutely nothing to say to them about how they should or shouldn’t feel about these instructions. But for the people who claim Jesus as their savior or their teacher, it seems pretty clear to me.
I often wonder if we might be well-served to imagine updating this story with modern references, and renaming it “The Good ________”. (Fill in the blank with whatever your personal, cultural, or religious biases may be).
How then would we be able to respond to each other?