One time an expert in Jewish Law asked Jesus how one can live a life of the ages. To be included into the human family the way its Creator intended. It was a question everyone asked in their own way back then. We still do. Look at our world now, and observe how you instinctively wonder what it’s going to take for things to be better than they are. What will it take for our nation to improve, and in what way can you contribute your effort and ideas.
Who doesn’t want things to be everything they could be?
Perhaps the fact that a Lawyer was asking the question was noteworthy. He was supposed to know, wasn’t he? Amateurs could only repeat what they heard someone else say in a sermon or a blog post, but this guy’s entire calling was to give society the answer to the very question he was asking.
Jesus asked the expert what his own opinion on the matter was. The man’s answer was solid:
“Love God, love your neighbor as yourself,” he said. Jesus agreed.
But the man was apparently not sure he was on the right side of things, perhaps had that growing sense that it was going to take more than right answers to heal the world. So he asked a follow up question.
“So, who’s my neighbor?” the man asked.
In response, Jesus told the man a story. We may know the story as The Good Samaritan. The short version goes like this:
A guy got robbed on a busy road to Jericho. They took all his money and his clothes, beating him so badly they left him for dead.
Later, a Priest saw the man laying there and went around the bloody scene because he had religious duties to attend to. Touching his blood, his naked non-Jewish body, or perhaps his corpse, would make him ceremonially unclean.
Behind the Priest was a Levite, serving among other capacities as the Priest’s assistant. The Levite did as his boss did. Monkey see monkey do.
Then a Samaritan came to the scene and got involved. He took the half-dead, bloody, naked man, wrapped his wounds, put him on his own animal, got him some medical care and paid for his rehabilitation.
Jesus asks the expert on the Law who the neighbor to the robbery victim was in his story, the answer being obvious. Anyone with a cursory understanding of the Bible knew helping people who need help is religion 101. You can imagine the Lawyer nodding with the proverb “Whoever is generous to the needy lends to the Lord and the Lord will repay him,” already in his mind. What kind of monster walks by a man that obviously in need. The Priest and the Levite should've known better.
But the Lawyers answer betrays an important layer to the story.
“… the one who showed him mercy was the neighbor.”
Why didn’t he just say “The Samaritan?” Why instead phrase it, “The one who showed him mercy?”
Perhaps he couldn’t bring himself to say “The Samaritan.” Perhaps the last thing he wanted to do is find out that underneath easy answers about what’s wrong with the world that there are underlying issues about how we rank people in society. Perhaps he wouldn’t say it because he was hoping to employ the privilege of not talking about race because he doesn’t have to.
Samaritans were an ethnic minority in the first century. For context, understand that some first-century Jews publicly derided Samaritans in synagogues, cursing them and calling them a counterfeit people. Jews weren’t permitted to try and convert Samaritans, believing that they couldn’t enjoy heaven anyway. Many Jews wouldn’t even pass through Samaritan towns for fear of exposure, let alone conversation. They’d rather inconvenience themselves by several hours and just go around. Out of sight, out of mind. The cultural norm was that Jews were at the center, and Samaritans were justifiably marginalized as a consequence of their ideas and for their blood and for their being all the wrong kinds of different.
The Lawyer wanted to discuss the enhancement of his own life, to make it part of what God was up to. And Jesus had to go and make it about race.
“The parable about the Good Samaritan tells how a Samaritan rescues a man who is mugged and beaten by robbers on the Jericho—Jerusalem road, a notoriously dangerous stretch of highway. To understand how this story must have shocked the Jews, imagine someone telling a story about “The Good Nazi.” The Jews and Samaritans hated one another.” —Paul Miller, Love Walked Among Us: Learning to Love Like Jesus
Mr. Miller raises a good point. But perhaps that comparison to Nazis is too far afield for us to learn from. Perhaps we should instead try The Good Muslim. The Good Lesbian. The Good Thug. The Good Syrian Refugee. Then see what stirs in us.
How painful it probably was for the Expert in the Law to hear that there’s more to love than to be another man’s savior if the opportunity presents itself. That instead, you yourself might need to be saved from your underlying assumptions about what you are and what "they" are. People like the Lawyer, who knew to say that Love of God and others were paramount, could still believe on some level that other human beings were less so for their ethnicity, their gender, their sexuality, their economic situation, their mistakes and their beliefs. And when he was challenged on it, he resisted to some degree speaking what he plainly saw. Can't we talk about something else? Besides, he'd hate to have to go into all the reasons Jesus's story was incomplete theology, and bad sociology.
I don't mean to shape Jesus's personality into my own, but I find myself wondering how much uncomfortable silence there was before the Lawyer answered "The one who showed mercy" and what Jesus did in that silence. As the Lawyer searched for a way out of the parable's only conclusions, I can't help but imagine Jesus's grinning face daring the man to qualify his answer and add something stupid like, "But he'd still have to change his beliefs, right?" or "But he wouldn't be the model for Divine Will in real life because of where Samaritans are from and what they believe, right?" or "But he'd still have to pray the sinner's prayer, right?" I can hear Jesus thinking it as he waited for the man to speak; I dare you to suggest that Love of God and Neighbor is enough summary for someone like you, but others must submit to yet a third commandment that says "Thou shalt become like the majority." Say it. I dare you to imply that your streamlining of God's will only applies to folks like you.
In reality, he probably prayed and wasn't an ass about it; God, don't let this dear man who has so much power in society, say something as foolish as "Good story, Jesus, but people like that can't really be heroes unless they..."
”On the basis of this parable we must deal with our own racism but must also seek justice for, and offer assistance to, those in need, regardless of the group to which they belong.” —Klyne Snodgrass, Author, Theologian
I find it facepalmingly ironic that, all these generations later, an organization named Samaritan’s Purse exists today and does great work around the world in aiding people’s physical needs. Yet, its founder, Franklin Graham, thinks that it’s a Christian duty to be the opposite of kind and loving to gay children, to not even invite them into your home because they are the enemy. A man at the helm of an organization that bandages wounded human beings because of this very scene in the Gospel of Luke, very enthusiastically defended Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson when Phil said Muslims and Chinese people believe what they believe because their minds are controlled by Satan and that women should be made to marry as children to keep them from straying from the faith as adults. They stop and help those hurting by the roadside, but refuse to understand the pain their attitudes and influence cause so many others still standing.
That is, some people are so dull they can only recognize pain and suffering when there’s blood.
I find that we too often forget the precision intended in “Love your neighbor,” as it’s designed to put a particular, specific person(s) in our mind. “Love people,” as the knock-off version goes, makes love a generalized social virtue that can be so lacking in practical specificity that good rarely ever comes of it. Let’s admit it; we have a far easier time serving someone beaten up and bleeding on the roadside than we have allowing another ethnicity, another belief system, to be our absolute equal. Perhaps this is the major problem with phrases like, "I don't see color." It seeks to generalize the human experience rather than understand, with particularity, that specific others may be living at the expense of your blindness.
Perhaps that’s the deeper significance of Jesus’s story for anyone who wants to address the real world and be earnest about making it better: Let’s not merely help those too weak to help themselves (let’s do that!) but also those we’re too weak to admit might be suffering, if even accidentally, because of ourselves. It’s painful to confront the inequities and prejudices running, and perhaps being maintained, in the background of our lives. But why else does Jesus bring up racial/ethnic disparity to a man asking about the Good Life? Maybe because there will never be peace for anyone if we think loving our neighbor doesn't chiefly demand we observe how we might be contributing to the plight of other human beings whose suffering is systemic rather than roadside. And if your faith demands you marginalize certain people because you got a Bible verse for it, then Jesus, whom you may recall was killed by self-righteous majority power, has a hard story to tell you.
The Lawyer saw that the one who showed mercy was the neighbor. We can only hope that he subtly meant that in that moment he became more aware of the limits of his own mercy to those systemically vulnerable folks in the margins. The "them" that gave "us" much of its shape. Perhaps, like me and hundreds of others I know, the next time he inquired about inheriting the Kingdom of God to supersede a world full of fractures and tension, he raised his hand and admitted he might be part of what needs repairing.