Friday, April 30, 2010

Samaritans in the Ditch

Luke 10:25-37

The Revised Common Lectionary will not get to Luke’s retelling of Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan until mid-summer.  But this blog is discussing Luke/Acts in the sequence in which it was written.  By unfortunate yet serendipitous chance, the Parable of the Good Samaritan is especially timely.

The story of the good Samaritan is probably one of the most loved and misunderstood parables that Jesus told.  Nearly all of us identify with the Samaritan who stops to help a man who had been robbed and left for dead by the side of the road.  There are probably hundreds of homeless shelters, feeding programs, and free clinics world-wide with the name “Samaritan” in them, but they miss the original point of the parable.  See The Five Gospels, (Harper SanFrancisco, 1993) p. 324.  For a couple thousand years, probably starting with Luke’s community, people who heard this story heard it as changing the idea of a neighbor from one who receives love (the man in the ditch) to one who gives love (the Samaritan).

Luke throws the parable off point when he uses the story to answer a legal expert who tries to test Jesus by asking, “what do I have to do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus answers with his own question: “How do you read what is written in the Law?”  The lawyer quotes the founding rule of Jewish covenantal life: “You are to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your energy, and with all your mind; and [you are to love] your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus tells him he’s right.  “Do this, and you will have life.”  But the lawyer isn’t satisfied.  He wants Jesus to tell him who his neighbor is.  So Jesus tells the parable about the Samaritan.  At the end of the story, Luke’s Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which of these three, in your opinion, acted like a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  The lawyer answers, “the one who showed him compassion.”  Jesus says, “Then go and do the same yourself.”

Luke was writing for Roman citizens –  Gentiles, who accepted the Jewish God but not Jewish customs.  If Luke’s readers were also among the educated and rich, the story would have been perfect for challenging the conscience without challenging Roman authority.  Gentile readers, with no real idea about what Jewish custom or history was, would have been glad to blame the priest and the Levite for passing by callously on the other side because of “purity laws.”  Like 21st Century Christians, who have heard the story since childhood, Luke’s 1st Century community would have had no idea what it would have meant to the Jewish man in the ditch to be saved by an enemy Samaritan.  But Jesus’ original audience would have immediately seen the improbability of an enemy Samaritan helping a Jew.  In 21st Century terms, receiving such assistance would be like accepting donations from Hammas to the fund for 9/11 victims.  In Jesus’s original parable, roles are reversed, expectations exploded, and the playing field has been radically leveled.

Jesus’ contemporaries may have heard him tell the story at a banquet.  After the main course has been cleared and the wine and fruit brought out, the political discussions begin, interspersed with jokes and aphorisms about the occupying Romans, godless Greek pagans, Arab traders, and local riff-raff such as the tax collectors, dishonest merchants, and of course, those dirty, shifty-eyed Samaritans, who live in the hills and probably worship the old Canaanite gods and goddesses in contravention of God’s law.

Into the raucous profanity Jesus tosses this gem: “Have you heard the one about the man who was going from Jerusalem to Jericho who fell into the hands of robbers?  They stripped him and beat him up and left him for dead.”

“So what else is new?” the listeners gripe.  “The Romans refuse to secure the road.  We’re all at the mercy of bandits and murderers!”

“Well it just so happens,” Jesus goes on, “That a priest was going down that road.  When he saw the man, he went out of his way to avoid him.  In the same way, a Levite came to the place, took one look at him, and crossed the road to avoid him.”

“Probably thought he was dead. Unclean.  Can’t touch him.  It’s the law.”

“But this Samaritan who was traveling that way came to where he was and –”

“Hah!  Picked what was left of his pockets, right?”

“– was moved to pity at the sight of him.”

Jesus has everyone’s full attention at this point, and escalates the preposterousness of the scene with every following phrase: “He went up to him and bandaged his wounds–”


“–poured olive oil and wine on them.  Then he hoisted him up on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and looked after him.”

“Get out!”

“The next day, he took out two silver coins, which he gave to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Look after him, and on my way back, I’ll reimburse you for any extra expense you have had.”

The entire room falls out laughing.

It would be fun to remain a fly on the wall at this point and listen to the discussion among the listeners, who identified with the victim in the ditch, not with the people passing by.  The question was not to whom am I a neighbor, but from whom can I expect help?

The following chilling, contemporary example reflects the parable from both points of view.  First, a homeless man (Hugo Tale-Yax) came to the assistance of a woman being attacked.  Assistance came to her from a very unexpected quarter of the human terrain.  The rescuer was then stabbed by the woman’s attacker.  Both the woman and the attacker fled in different directions.  The homeless man lay in a pool of blood on the pavement for an hour and-a-half, while people passed by, looked at him, took cell phone photos of him, and turned him over to see if he was dead.  No one came to his assistance.  By the time somebody got around to calling 911, he was dead at the scene.

Taking the traditional reading of the parable, how much longer can we pass by on the other side?  Taking the more disturbing meaning, what happens to us when we are tossed into the margins? From whom can we expect help?  Apparently our fellow human beings are no more likely to come to our aid than are the institutions we thought we had created to help us.  Law enforcement, FEMA, the U.S. Congress – all fail us.  Even our 21st century equivalents of the priest and the Levite in Jesus’s parable – our institutional churches – look the other way when confronted with inhumane workplace conditions, unfair immigration laws, and war disguised as “preemptive strikes” against “enemies,” whom we are supposed to love.

Perhaps it has been more convenient for Christians to understand this parable as requiring selflessness on our part.  We are to be as compassionate as the Samaritan, and therefore worthy of “salvation” from Hell in the next life.  When the rich and socially-connected take care of charity cases, the need for expensive government safety nets is much less.  And when the “less fortunate” are convinced that it is their duty as well to care for their own, even better.

Oppressed people often side with their oppressors as a matter of survival.  The man in the ditch had to accept help from his enemy or die.  On that very personal level, it is easy to see that refusing assistance would have been stupid  But the stupidity is not so obvious when the choice for those in the ditch is to work for Walmart for minimum wage versus working overtime for unsafe mine operators while taking home upwards of $70,000 a year.  Accusations of collaborating with injustice are easy to make.  After all, we might be thinking, that "contemporary" incident mentioned above was nothing more than a criminal street fight.

But something else more radical than any of these scenarios is going on in this parable.  The playing field has been leveled.  The despised Samaritan is saving the equally despised victim of Roman oppression.  In the contemporary example, the whole altercation happened in Queens, New York, among people of questionable reputation at 5:30 a.m. on a Sunday.
Deeper yet, in the parable, both parties have surrendered to the reality of their individual humanity, and have acted from that common ground.  The Samaritan has treated his enemy as a friend; the Jew has experienced his enemy as a savior.

Do we no longer recognize humanity in 21st Century America?  How long must we lie in the ditch?


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