…‘O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people … and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them.’ That’s the question from the lawyer in the story of the Good Samaritan. The story is so familiar that we probably think we know all about it. Can there be anything more to say about this story – even one so central to the message of Jesus? You probably know, for instance, that Samaritans in Jesus’s time were not like that nice guy with the halo on the campground billboards. As you know, there’s no fight like a family fight, and that’s what has gone on for generations between Jews and Samaritans. Samaritans are the descendants of the Jews left behind when the upper classes were taken into exile in Babylon. They were probably not very high-class people to begin with, and they intermarried with the non-Jews also left behind – and then didn’t give up those families when Ezra came back and told them they had to, to keep the nation ‘pure’. So they’re trash, nobodies, unclean, outsiders. A Samaritan is not somebody you want to hang around with if you’re a Jew trying to live right – and yet he’s the hero of the tale.
On the other side of things, the people Jesus’s audience would naturally think of as righteous – the priest and the Levite – strike us as in-sensitive and uncharitable, and maybe they were. Or maybe they were just on their way to their assigned duties in the temple at Jerusalem and couldn’t risk being made ritually impure by contact with a dead person, which would disqualify them from doing what they were supposed to do for that week. Things are complicated that way – ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters don’t just line up straight here.
And what it all means has some wrinkles in it too. That’s why you have a handout, so you can see it more clearly. It has the ‘X-shaped’ pattern common to all of Luke’s parables (we saw it in the story of the Prodigal Father during Lent); and that pattern is part of its power. Look at how carefully the second half of the story ‘unwinds’ the first. Each incident – even each little part of each incident – is spun out in the first half, then raveled up in the second. The robbers strip the man, beat him up, leave him; the Samaritan’s mercy systematically undoes everything they did, right down to their taking the man’s money and the Samaritan spending his own money to see him taken care of. It also shows us where the story’s center is, right in that sentence about the Samaritan’s compassion. Sure, we could have figured that out for ourselves, but isn’t it neat that the story is being told not just by its words, but by its shape too?
And perhaps the most powerful part of the whole scheme is how the story interlocks with the setup. ‘What should I do?’ says the lawyer, and Jesus says, first, ‘Do what is in the Law.’ But that’s not clear enough – the Law leaves room for interpretation, which the lawyer needs in order to understand it. So the whole story proceeds, and then at the end we’re right back to the question we started with. The lawyer gets one answer in part I: Love your neighbor. But who’s that, for heaven’s sake? People who live near me? People who are part of my ethnic or social or economic group? People who are in a position to do me a good turn as well? Now that’s another question, which maybe you thought you knew the answer to – but your neighbor, as shown by this story, can be anybody, even someone very remote from anything you could recognize as ‘yours’, even an enemy, as a Jew would call a Samaritan and vice versa. We Christians are big on not honoring ethnic and social distinctions (which I devoutly hope will be reflected in our response to this year’s political campaign) – if someone needs us, we consider them a neighbor, worthy of our compassion.
Except that’s not the question the story answers, is it? Look at your cheat-sheet again. What the lawyer asks is who he is supposed to help – ‘who is my neighbor?’ means, to him, ‘who is within the limits of being entitled to my help’. But Jesus’s question back to him doesn’t ask who needs help; it asks ‘who helped?’ Who was neighbor to the guy in the ditch…. A little different take on the situation, hmmm? I want to be the powerful one, the helper; I like to think of myself as the one in a position to give, not need, help. Even though it costs me something to help, it’s just money, or trouble, or effort – it doesn’t cost me my self-esteem. But if I’m the one who needs help – who needs a neighbor, as I’ve been defining neighbor to myself – then what happens to my sense of myself? To give help to someone I don’t like or respect very much is a virtuous act, on which I can congratulate myself – but to have to accept help from that kind of person gives me the heebie-jeebies. I don’t want to be in the ditch in the first place, and to be hauled out and put back together by somebody I despise makes it all ten times worse…. But that’s what the Lord’s question forces me to contemplate – not just how virtuous I might need to be, but how able I might be to let down all my barriers and accept a definition of myself that I just hate! Needy, helpless, weak, battered, poor – it’s not a pretty picture. That’s why the lawyer has to get another answer, from part 2, to his question from part 1.
The picture is, however, one that we’d better get used to as we accompany our Lord to Jerusalem and his death. We like to think of Jesus too – don’t we? – as the powerful one, the helper, the rescuer, the good example – the one who plays the role of the Samaritan in our story. And so he is – and that’s shocking enough, God knows: if we understand this story in its own context, I hope you realize by now that having a Samaritan for a hero here is like having a drug-dealer or somebody equally disreputable – which amounts to putting the Son of God in the position of an outcast from polite society, no one we would want to hang around with. That’s bad enough – but as we reflect on what’s ahead for him, he surely also shares the image of the man beaten up and left for dead, the one who above all needs help, the ‘neighbor’ the lawyer was talking about in the first place.
So we see how complex is this apparently simple tale, and the challenges it presents us. We start, of course, in the position of the lawyer – church-folk who know the rules of the game, or at least want to. We’re concerned about our neighbors who might need our help, and, now that we’ve heard this story, we’re also beginning to recognize that sometimes it’s us who need that helping neighbor. Like the lawyer, we want to know what God asks of us, and to be able to do it. That’s what the parables are for, to tell us that – and more: to stretch our minds and hearts beyond the easy answers. When Jesus asks us to visualize outcasts as heroes and upstanding citizens as helpless victims, he’s asking us to think outside the box, to imagine things we would never think of on our own, to be shocked and destabilized – and therefore maybe a little more open than we were before to what God really wants to do with us – which is nothing less than make us into new creatures.
That’s what the author of the letter to the Colossians has in mind too. He thinks that being nice to each other and even reaching out beyond our comfort-zones are just first steps. What he’s praying for is that his little community should be transformed into spiritual grown-ups, ‘filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and grow in the knowledge of God.’ He really thinks that these very ordinary people are capable of great things, not just trudging along without making any waves but being agents of change far beyond themselves. He knows that the church grows not by preaching but by showing people glimpses of a different way of living in the world. It’s supposed to live its life so that people who may have lost hope will understand that the world isn’t hopeless – because God hasn’t given up hope for it. It’s supposed to hold up to the injustice and deceit of the ‘consumer society’ the plumb line of truth – reality – that is God’s design for our common life. It is supposed to be a light in darkness, salt in food, yeast in the dough.
And so Jesus tells us wonderful stories that make our brains ache and our hair stand on end. And Paul prays for people who, he says, have been ‘rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred … into the kingdom of his beloved Son’. We’re not just changed on the inside, you see – we’re moved, now living in a different reality altogether from where we started out. ‘May you be made strong’, he says, ‘with all the strength that comes from his glorious power’ – we like that part – but then he makes clear that this strength is something we’re going to need, because things are not going to be easy. ‘And may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.’ In all you do in these days of growth and rest and gladness and pain, dear Christians, hold that thought, hang onto that wonderful, world-changing vision. Listen to the stories, ask the questions, and (as the hymn says) ‘ponder anew what the Almighty can do’ when what he has to work with are the open hearts and willing service of those he loves, and who love him in return – heart and soul, strength and mind – and their neighbors too.