“Good Samaritan”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

March 5, 2017

Luke 10:25-37


There’s Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian international aid organization.

There’s Samaritans and Samariteens, hotlines where people experiencing emotional distress and suicidal thoughts can reach out for anonymous help.

There are Good Samaritan laws, which offer legal protection to bystanders who try to help people after car accidents and the like.

There are any number of Good Samaritan hospitals and medical centers located all across the country.

In Australia, there’s even the Good Samaritan Donkey Sanctuary.

The term “Good Samaritan” has come to be understood in common usage as a kind stranger, a charitable passer-by.  The parable we just heard has come to be understood in common usage as a simple morality tale.  A person falls into dire straits, and a kind stranger, a charitable passer-by, stops to help.  The moral of the story is obvious:  we, too, should be kind and helpful when we happen across a person in need.  Right?

But if that were all there is to this story, then there would be no reason for us to spend several weeks during the season of Lent delving into this passage and probing its depths—which is what we are going to do.  Because the parables of Jesus, this one included, are like onions, filled with layer upon layer of meaning.  The deeper we go, the more layers we discover.

The brilliant Biblical scholar Amy-Jill Levine, whose work I highly commend to you, writes this:  “The Gospel writers, in their wisdom, left most of the parables as open narratives in order to invite us into engagement with them.  Each reader will hear a distinct message and may find that the same parable leaves multiple impressions over time.”[1]  The parables are stories that use concrete images from daily life to teach a deeper lesson.  But that lesson is not revealed directly or immediately.  They are stories that are designed to stick in our craw, stories on which we must ruminate, stories that take up residence within us and surface to reveal new meaning from time to time.

Levine explains that when he taught in parables, “Jesus was requiring that [the disciples] do more than listen; he was asking them to think as well.”[2]  The parables are not like Aesop’s fables; they do not come with a tag at the end that says The moral of the story is…  Occasionally, the writers of the gospels offer this kind of interpretation as they frame the teachings of Jesus, but Jesus himself most likely left the stories open-ended and enigmatic on purpose when he taught them to his followers, because he knew that the stories themselves would do the teaching, and his disciples would learn more by wrestling with the parables than they would if Jesus handed them an explanation that wrapped it all up with a tidy bow.

The same is true for us today.  As we delve into the parables, if we do so with open hearts, we will find that they also delve into us.  To quote Levine once more:  “What makes the parables mysterious, or difficult, is that they challenge us to look into the hidden aspects of our own values, our own lives.  They bring to the surface unasked questions, and they reveal the answers we have always known, but refuse to acknowledge.  Our reaction to them should be one of resistance rather than acceptance. … If we hear a parable and think, ‘I really like that,’ or, worse, fail to take any challenge, we are not listening well enough.”[3]

So, in the spirit of listening and thinking, of peeling back the layers, of letting the parable interpret us even as we interpret the parable, we will engage this story throughout Lent, as we explore our Lenten theme of “Who is my neighbor?” (which, of course, comes directly from the lawyer’s question to Jesus that elicits the telling of this parable).  And I promise you, the story will have much to teach us.

For today, let’s peel back just one layer.  Setting aside aid organizations and suicide hotlines and hospitals and donkey sanctuaries, and digging into the first-century context in which Jesus told this parable, who was the Samaritan?

The story tells us nothing about him except that he was a person from Samaria, a region located to the north of Jerusalem.  In the time of Jesus, there was a great deal of enmity between Jews and Samaritans, and it had been that way for centuries.  Jews and Samaritans were what you might call cousins—related both religiously and ethnically, but with some important differences in heritage, theology, and religious practice.  Think Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland a couple of decades ago, or Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq still today.  Jesus’ Jewish audience would have thought of a Samaritan as a bad guy—the despised enemy, the Other with a capital O.

This is why the man in the parable is called the Good Samaritan—because the audience of the parable would have assumed that he was bad.  To say Good Samaritan would have sounded like an oxymoron.  It would be like saying good murderer, good terrorist, good KKK member, good Al Qaeda operative, good Nazi, good ISIS fighter.  This was not the sort of person whose presence you would welcome.  This was the last person you would want to see if you were lying bruised and naked and vulnerable in a ditch.

Yet this despised enemy, this Other with a capital O, is the person Jesus lifts up as behaving in a neighborly fashion toward that wounded traveler.  “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” Jesus asks.  The lawyer answers, as if through gritted teeth, “The one who showed him mercy.”  And if this despised enemy, this Other with a capital O, this Samaritan is the neighbor in this story, then according to the lawyer’s earlier exposition of the law, this despised enemy, this Other with a capital O, this Samaritan is also the one whom Jesus’ hearers—and we—are called to love as ourselves.

There is much, much more that could be said.  In fact, I wrote several more paragraphs to explain and interpret this challenge.  But then I realized that I was falling into the very same trap that preachers have fallen into across the centuries—trying to interpret the parable instead of letting it interpret us.  So I left those paragraphs on the cutting room floor, and I leave you—as Jesus did—with a story that, if you’re like me, might stick in your craw and give you something to ruminate about for a while.


[1] Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus:  The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (Harper One, 2014), p. 1.

[2] Ibid., p. 3

[3] Ibid.


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