As I prepared for my sermon today, I was struck by the sheer amount of resources available for the story of the Good Samaritan. Apart from Christmas and Easter, I suspect that more sermons have been preached about this parable than anything else in the New Testament. Something about this story strikes a chord with us.
I believe that one of the reasons that it resonates with us so deeply is that all of us can see ourselves as at least one, if not more, of the characters in the story – the man set upon by thieves, the priest and the Levite who pass by, or the Good Samaritan.
Let’s try looking at this story from each of these points of view.
First, consider the Samaritan himself. Keep in mind that Jesus told this parable in response to a question. Luke tells us that a lawyer asked Jesus a question. Now, keep in mind that in Jesus’ time, a “lawyer” was not an attorney. A lawyer was an expert in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. It would be more accurate to paraphrase this is a Biblical scholar or theologian or religious leader.
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he asked Jesus. And Jesus, in good Jewish fashion, answered his question with another question, “What is written in the law?”
Do you know the story about the rabbinical student, frustrated because his teacher always replied to his questions with more questions, said, “Master, why do you always answer my questions with a question?” To which his teacher said, “So, what’s wrong with questions?”
Anyway, the scholar gave Jesus a perfectly satisfactory answer, “You shall love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.” “You got it,” Jesus said, “Do that and you will have eternal life.”
Now, the scholar’s next move may seem to be nitpicking. He had another question, “But who is my neighbor?”
It is said that the comedian W.C. Fields asked for a Bible on his deathbed. Fields was known to be a heavy drinker and not known for his interest in religion, so his friends asked why he wanted a Bible. “I’m looking for loopholes,” he replied.
Was the lawyer looking for loopholes when he asked Jesus who his neighbor was? I don’t think so. If we are told that eternal life depends on loving our neighbor as ourselves, then it is only reasonable to ask Jesus to define his terms. What does he mean by love? What does he mean by neighbor?
One of the most provocative interpretations of this parable comes from the late Margaret Thatcher. Something that is not well-known about the late Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s former prime minister, is that she was a sincere Christian. Her father was a Methodist lay preacher, and she herself did some lay preaching while she was an undergraduate at Oxford. She became a member of the Church of England when the Conservatives won the general election of 1979, partly because as prime minister, she would be involved in appointing the bishops of the Church of England.
One of Thatcher's favorite biblical stories was the parable of the Good Samaritan. This strikes some as very odd because she drastically reduced government spending on social services. But Thatcher's interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan was very different from most interpretations.
In a talk she gave at a church in London, Thatcher made the provocative comment that “No one would remember the Good Samaritan if he'd only had good intentions; he had money as well.”
It’s not a bad point, but I think Thatcher missed something. What she missed was the significance that Samaritans had to first century Jews.
Jesus was telling a story about who is our neighbor and what it means to love. And what really shocked the scholar was that Jesus designated a Samaritan as the one to act as a neighbor.
When Jesus had finished telling the story, he asked the scholar, “Which of these three was neighbor to the man who fell among thieves?” “The one who showed him mercy,” the man replied. He couldn’t even bring himself to say the word “Samaritan.”
The Samaritans were a group of Jews who long ago had intermarried with non-Jews. They differed from the mainstream of Judaism on many important points. So the Jews despised and looked down on the Samaritans. But Jesus makes a Samaritan the hero of his story, the one who shows us how to be a neighbor, how to do those things that will bring us eternal life.
Fifty years ago Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., launched his campaign to desegregate businesses in Birmingham, AL, and force them to hire black sales clerks.
White people in the deep South deeply resented the civil rights movement. They resented even more the way that they were portrayed in northern newspapers. They correctly pointed out that they knew many black people, that black people had worked for their families for generations, that they treated black people with kindness and respect. They had a point. Most of what they said was correct.
The problem wasn't that they weren't treating black people with kindness. The problem was that they did not want black people to enjoy the full dignity of human nature.
Jesus told this parable partly in order to make the scholar question his assumptions about Samaritans and to make us question our assumptions about those whom we regard as inferior to us in some way. The question is not so much, “Are we willing to reach out and help those in need?” Of course we are. But I don’t think that’s all that Jesus was saying. The more difficult question is, “Is there someone that we look down, someone we would not want to acknowledge as our neighbor?” And at times, all of us have felt that way about someone.
Now consider two other characters in this story: the priest and the Levite.
Consider for a minute the priest and the Levite. It’s easy to get worked up about them because here are two professional religious figures who see a man, bloodied and beaten, lying in a ditch, and they pass by on the other side of the road.
Many years ago, Clarence Jordan, a renegade Southern Baptist preacher, retold this story in a humorous way.
Once upon a time, he said, a man was going down from Atlanta to Albany, and a bunch of robbers beat him up and stole his money. In a little while a revivalist drove by in his big Cadillac. He had to be in Albany to preach a revival at the Assembly of God’s Holy Love in Christ that evening. He saw the man in the ditch but he was afraid that he might get the seats in his Cadillac dirty if he stopped to help him, so he just slowed down and said, “God bless you brother,” and sped on by.
A little while later, the man who was leading the singing for the revival also drove by. He saw the man in the ditch but was afraid he would be late for the revival. He didn’t stop either but did sing a chorus of “He’s got the whole world in his hands,” as he drove by.
But let me say a good word for the priest and the Levite. The priest and the Levite were on their way to Jerusalem to perform their duties in the temple. Contact with the man’s blood would have rendered them unclean and unable to perform their duties in the temple. They did not necessarily do anything wrong by avoiding contact with the man in the ditch.
But I suspect that Jesus had a subversive reason in including them the story. He was asking his listeners to evaluate their priorities. What is more important? Observing the letter of the law or caring for someone in need?
It was a good question then, and it’s a good question now. When have we hid behind a screen of rules instead of reaching out to someone in need?
Finally, consider the man in the ditch. It is easy, though uncomfortable, to see ourselves as the priest and Levite passing by someone in need. It is also fairly easy to think of times when we have acted the part of the Good Samaritan, going out of our way to help someone, spending our own money for the sake of someone who has no claim on our kindness. But it is probably rather difficult and uncomfortable to think of a time when we have found ourselves in the ditch.
But I think that may be the very point of this story.
The 4th c. theologian St. Augustine provocatively retold this story like this:
Adam himself is the man who went down from Jerusalem to Jericho; Thieves are the devil and his angels. Who stripped him, namely; of his immortality; and beat him, by persuading him to sin; and left him half-dead, because in so far as man can understand and know God, he lives, but in so far as he is wasted and oppressed by sin, he is dead; he is therefore called half-dead. Samaritan is Jesus himself; The binding of the wounds is the restraint of sin. Oil is the comfort of good hope; wine the exhortation to work with fervent spirit. The inn is the Church, where travelers returning to their heavenly country are refreshed after pilgrimage.
Notice that most of the parable is taken up with the actions of the Samaritan: bandaging the man’s wounds, treating them with wine and oil, lifting him on to his animal, taking him to the inn, paying the innkeeper, and so on.
Jesus is not giving us instructions in first aid; he is inviting us to let him care for us; to feel him soothe our wounds with the oil of his love, cleanse our sins with the sharpness of the Spirit’s fire, to let him carry us into the presence of the Father’s love. Or as one of my colleagues says, to let him check us into the Hotel Compassion, all expenses paid.
“Before we ‘go and do likewise’ or go and do anything at all, we are meant to know the care and compassion of the stranger who finds us abandoned, lifts us up and provides hospitality for us. The actions of the Samaritan open a window for us to recognize nothing less than the care and compassion of God. The parable tells us who we are, tells us of our deep need for God’s love. And that was Augustine’s point. The traveler is Adam, that is to say, he is each and every one of us; the Samaritan greeted with suspicion and even hostility is Christ; the inn is the church where broken travelers may rest and be refreshed.” (Patrick Willson, “Who we are,” The Christian Century, July 26, 2007)
We don’t really need this parable to tell us that we are responsible for the well-being of others. We already knew that we were meant to be our brothers and sisters’ keepers. What we need is to know that when we were in the ditch, when we had been beat up by life, when we had been abandoned by everyone, that God sent a Good Samaritan named Jesus to bind up our wounds and take us home.