Rarely will a couple of weeks go by without hearing something like this on the local news:
(Co-anchor): That’s right Mike. A young woman finds a wounded cat lying by the side of the road and she took the initiative to get the cat the help it needed. We will hear her heroic story, when we come back.
Or maybe it sounds like this:
(News anchor):Good Samaritans are hard to find these days, but Jessica Peterson from Woodbury is glad that one was nearby on Friday night. Jessica was hanging out at the local mall with her friends, when her purse was ripped from her fingers by a man running by. At the same time, a different man eating at nearby food court, saw everything and chased the man down,safely returning the purse to Jessica.
(Co-anchor): Mike, Jessica certainly was lucky to have that Good Samaritan nearby!
The Good Samaritan parable is one of the two most well-know parables from the Bible, the other being the parable of the Prodigal Son. Virtually everyone knows the story, or at least knows what it means to be a Good Samaritan. It is one of those stories that has jumped off the pages of the Bible and landed right in the middle of our society. We have Good Samaritan Hospitals, March 13th is Good Samaritan Day. And we even have a Good Samaritan Law, protecting the people who choose to help those in immediate need.
While I think it is great that we can see influences of the Bible present within our culture, I think there is a problem with it too. Much like anything that becomes too prevalent in society, the story has lost its punch. It has lost its shock value. And I think, it has lost the heart of its message. Preachers will often turn this story into another moralistic tale about how we simply ought to go and help people. “Will you be a Good Samaritan today?” they ask. It is turned into how we should be polite and nice, and if someone seems in need of help, well then, we ought to help. But the problem is that I think we all already know this. I think we all are readily aware of what we should and shouldn’t do. So I am unconvinced that this story is simply about getting someone to be better a person and to do more good.
Thomas Long, a famous preacher, makes a good point. If this story were really about simply being good and taking care of people, Jesus would have told the story differently. He would have left out all of the business about the Samaritan. He would have simply said, “A guy was lying in the ditch and three men passed by. The first two didn’t do a thing and the third one did. Which one was the neighbor to the man in the ditch? That’s right, the third one. Be like him.” No need to say anything about the Samaritan at all.
But Jesus doesn’t tell us the story that way, does he?
Just after Jesus tells the lawyer that the way to life is to love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and your neighbor as yourself, the lawyer asks Jesus another question, “But who is my neighbor?” It seems like the lawyer is trying to qualify the law. As if what the lawyer is really asking is, “Who isn’t my neighbor? Who don’t I have to love?”
And so Jesus tells him story about a man on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. The man is given no race, no religion, no regional distinction, and no indication of occupation, which means he could be any of us. And on this road to Jericho, which is notoriously dangerous and littered with criminals, to no surprise, the man is stripped beaten and left for dead. Then by chance, along comes a priest, an expert in the law of the Scriptures – one with whom the lawyer could identify. The priest sees the half dead man, and then crosses to the other side of the road. Then along comes a Levite, another expert in the law, who also sees the half dead man, and then crosses to the other side of the road, leaving him there. And then…..and this is the moment when everyone surrounding Jesus leans in to listen. Like any good story or joke, in a series of three, it is always the third one that will break the pattern to make the point or give the punch line. And so with everyone leaning in…Jesus says, “But then came a Samaritan…” And with a communal gasp, everyone jumps back, shocked at the turn in the story. If you listen closely enough, you can hear everyone’s back straighten and their jaws clench. Along comes a Samaritan – the enemy of the Jews, the hated unclean one. And now, everyone knew how the story would end, the Samaritan would be the one to help, the one to truly see the man in the ditch. And not only would he help, but he would go above and beyond the call, by paying for this man’s lodging and other expenses, and even coming back to check on him. A Samaritan – the enemy of the Jews, the hated unclean one – becomes the hero of the story. There is no way around it. And yet, in the common culture of the time, to combine hero and Samaritan would be like mixing oil with water. They don’t go together. It shatters the Jews moral universe because suddenly that which was bad is now good.
And then Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which of the three was a neighbor?”, the lawyer couldn’t speak the word Samaritan, so he resorted to, “The one who showed him mercy.” The lawyer asked a question that would build walls – “Tell me who my neighbor is. Define it for me, give me parameters.” And in response, Jesus told a story that tore down all the walls. A story in which the enemy becomes the hero, a story in which those listening are forced to see a different landscape. A different view…a reality without walls.
This story isn’t about simple morals and being a good person. If it were Jesus would have told it differently, without all the details. But this story is about seeing. It’s about how your eyes work.
Immediately before this text, in verse 23, Jesus says to his disciples, “Blessed are the eyes that sees what you see!” In the next chapter Jesus says, “Your eye is the lamp of your body. If your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light; but if it is not healthy, your body is full of darkness.” In chapter 19, Jesus meets a man near Jericho (remember the man in our story was going from Jerusalem to Jericho), and the man is blind. Jesus says, “What do you want me to do for you?” and the man says, “Lord, let me see again.”
Blessed are the eyes, the eye is the lamp of your body. Lord, let me see again. This isn’t about doing, it is about seeing. This story is regaining your sight. How’s your eyesight? How do you see the world?
The summer season is often youth mission trip season for many churches around the country. And I have been on my fair share of mission trips. The thing that always ate away at me was when we would come home from a mission trip and it was as if nothing had changed in how we saw the world. We felt good about ourselves, because we had helped poor people. We were really thankful for manicured lawns and big tvs, because some people aren’t so lucky. Sure, while high on gas station candy and McDonalds, we’d talk about the idea of doing service projects back at home, but we never would.
As one of my professors (Andrew Root)has said, we exploited the poor to make we middle class kids religiously and spiritually rich. We came home and were solely focused on the good we had done and how luck we are to have all of our stuff, and nothing happened to our eyesight. We used the poor people to feel good about ourselves. Rarely would we talk about how those we met in Milwaukee, or Denver, or Green Bay, helped us, served us, loved us, changed us. Rarely would we say that we are beginning to see the people we met as no different then ourselves, children of God.
The parable of the Good Samaritan isn’t about being good or doing more. It is about learning to see again. It is about tearing down all barriers that try to qualify and limit our connection with one another. Who is my neighbor? Eveyone. Who is a child of God? Everyone. It is about learning to see as God sees. For God, like the Samaritan, breaks beyond all barriers and dares to draw near to us.
I look forward to the day when I hear a news story like this:
Up next, a young man being mugged is saved by a locally convicted sex offender, whose neighbors had previously tried to kick out of town.
Or on like this:
Later in the hour, we will tell you story about a woman convicted of murder who is donating her kidney to her victim’s father.
I look forward to the day we hear a real Good Samaritan story on the nightly news, one in which the enemy becomes the hero, because it just might help us to see again.