25Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
One day a man discovers a magical lamp, and upon rubbing the lamp, a genie appears offering him three wishes. But there’s a catch. Whatever the genie does for the man, he must do twice as much for the man’s worst enemy. The man thinks about it for awhile, and (quickly forgetting the catch) wishes for a billion dollars. The genie grants his wish, and the man is now a billionaire. This makes him tremendously happy…until he discovers that his most hated enemy is now a multi-billionaire. Furious and green with envy, the man goes back to the genie, and this time he wishes for great fame. His wish is granted, and the man is happy…until his fame is eclipsed by his greatest enemy, who becomes twice as famous. Finally, he returns to the genie, who informs him that this is his final wish. The man looks the genie in the eye and says, “Genie, I wish to be beaten half to death.”
Today’s parable is the story of a man who is beaten half to death. Literally. The Greek word describing the traveler in verse 30 is ἡμιθανῆ (hemi-thanos), half-dead. This is actually pretty ironic, because the whole story comes about when a lawyer comes up to Jesus and asks him what he can do in order to have a life that is αἰώνιον (aionion). We usually translate that literally as “eternal” but the sense of this word when it is used elsewhere in ancient Greek is actually “full,” “whole,” or “complete.”
So a man comes up to Jesus and says, tell me how to have a full life, and Jesus proceeds to tell him a story about a man who was found only half alive.
The parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the most well known stories of the entire Bible–so much so that we have named laws after it: “Good Samaritan” laws that require drivers to stop and give assistance to those who are injured or in danger. In common, everyday language, “good samaritans” are those who rescue or help others, even when not obligated to, and sometimes even at the risk of their own safety.
I think we’re so familiar with this story, with the idea of a “Good Samaritan” that we don’t really hear it anymore; we miss the radical and shocking nature of the parable, and especially the message about life and death and being “half alive.”
Hopefully, a little historical context can help.
First of all, the road from Jerusalem to Jericho in the first century was a dangerous one. It was known as the road of blood. It was known for exactly the sort of violence and robbery that Jesus describes in his fictional story. The idea that a traveler would fall into the hands of robbers wouldn’t have surprised anyone in Jesus’ audience.
Neither would the next part of the story. In verse 31, we read that a priest comes by, sees the half-dead traveler, and crosses to the other side of the road in order to avoid getting caught up in the incident.
Now, before you judge the priest to harshly, you should know that a Jewish priest, by Biblical law, was forbidden from touching the body of a dead person. What’s the difference, in appearance, between someone who is dead and someone who is half-dead? I don’t know. Maybe not a lot. Maybe not enough to risk breaking the law. What laws would you be willing to break in a dangerous place, in order to help someone who might already be dead?
And so the priest does exactly what Jesus’ audience (the lawyer) would have expected the priest to do. He keeps on going. No surprise there.
The next person to walk by in verse 32, also crossing to the other side of the road to avoid an incident, is a Levite. If this were a Presbyterian story, the pastor would have walked by first, and then one of the church officers. In other words, the most religious, churchy, ethically-minded people. The ones who show up every Sunday. And this, once again, would not have surprised anyone listening to Jesus’ story. Think about it. Most of us wouldn’t even dare to GO somewhere dangerous…like, maybe Afghanistan, or even Juarez, if we thought our lives would be at risk on the journey.
What if the robbers are still in the vicinity, waiting for their next victim? What if the injured person is really just another robber, faking it in order to prey on some naive, unsuspecting…good samaritan! In the era of television, internet and mass-media, most of us turn a blind eye to pain and suffering in the world every single day, not because we’re inherently bad people, but because we just don’t really know what to do. Or we think there’s not really much we can do. Or we’re afraid. Or busy. Or distracted.
Still, no surprise here, in our time or in the time of Jesus. But what happens next IS a surprise, more than I think we realize. We have named this story the “Parable of the Good Samaritan,” after the one who actually stops and helps, the man from Samaria. By naming the story after him, we acknowledge that the Samaritan is the real hero of the story, and that he is GOOD. That seems obvious to us, with the benefit of hindsight. But for a Jewish audience in the first century, this would have been a sudden punch to the gut.
Because the person they would have been expecting next was the “good Israelite.” That’s how all the stories went. Just like we have all these jokes about the Rabbi, the Imam, and the Priest who walk into a bar. Or Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. We know how those stories are supposed to go. We know who the characters are supposed to be. And in first century Israel, the typical story was about the Priest, the Levite, and the Good…Israelite. Who saves the day. And the moral of the story is “be a good Israelite.”
But Jesus doesn’t do that. Instead he picks someone who would have been universally acknowledged by his audience to be…bad. Imagine if I told you a story about the Good Nazi, or the Good Al-Qaeda Terrorist. Because that’s what the Samaritans were to the First Century Jews. They were mortal enemies. They were the embodiment of evil.
What are you saying Jesus? You meant to say “Good Israelite,” right? No? Ok, well maybe… maybe the Samaritan first repented of his evil ways, turned to God and had a conversion experience, THEN helped the injured traveler, right? That would make more sense. But Jesus doesn’t say that. The Samaritan remains a Samaritan… and the unlikely, unexpected savior in this story.
Last week I said we have a natural tendency to ask ourselves, “Who am I in this story?” And in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, when we ask this question, I think we often focus in the wrong direction. We certainly hope that we’re the Good Samaritan; we want to see in ourselves the capacity to be a hero, to help those around us.
But our inner guilt leads us to fear that we might actually be the priest or the Levite; that in our busy-ness, our desire for safety and security, we might be the ones who cross to the other side of the road and keep on walking.
I think we are none of the above. Let’s go back to the beginning of the story…the real story outside the fictional parable. Remember the lawyer who comes to Jesus and says “What can I do to have a life that is full, whole, and complete?” In asking this question, he reveals himself to be one whose life is NOT full, NOT whole, and NOT complete. He is, in fact, only half alive. He’s a lawyer, so Jesus points him to the law: Love God with all your heart, soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. Do this and you will live.
But you see, the lawyer thinks that he is already doing all these things. I’m a good person. I go to Church. I pay my taxes. I come to a complete stop at stop signs when no one is looking. I’m nice to my next-door neighbor, Bob, who looks a lot like me and has two kids like me and lives in a house that’s about the same size as mine and goes to that other church down the street. Bob’s a pretty decent guy. That’s who you mean when you say MY neighbor, right? I mean, I only have two. Fernando, on the other side, well he’s Catholic, and his kids are already grown up. I wish he’d take better care of his yard, but I’m still nice to him anyhow. So we’re covered, right, Jesus? That’s what you mean by “neighbor,” right?
Jesus tells a half-dead man this story in order to answer his question: “Who is MY neighbor?” At the end of the story, he asks the lawyer, “So which one of these three was a neighbor?”
If you’re wondering who you are in this parable, I hope it’s obvious by now. You and I are the half-dead traveler, beaten down by life, not as “in control” as we think we are, trying to figure out how we can save ourselves, when what we really need is a savior, someone to pick us up, to carry us to a place of shelter and refuge, someone to pay the price for our weakness and our healing.
And that savior is probably not who we’re expecting. In fact, if we’re honest, that Savior might be the last person we want to see and to rely upon. Yes, as Christians, we acknowledge Christ alone as our Savior. But can you see and accept Jesus in the face of the person you hate the most? Or put a different way, is there someone you would rather die than accept help from?
If you were dying on the side of the road, and Donald Trump was the one who stopped to rescue you (or maybe Hillary Clinton if you are of the opposite persuasion) are you capable of seeing Jesus in the face of the one you despise so much? Or is that just inconceivable to you? Would you rather die than to see Jesus in the face of your most bitter enemy?
We are, all of us, wounded and dying on the side of the road.
We are, all of us, living half-dead lives.
We are, all of us, in need of a savior.
And so we lift our eyes to heaven and look for God. But Jesus tells us, like he tells the lawyer, to look down again. Look around you. Because that’s where you’re going to find God, and God’s healing, saving love.
You cannot be whole unless we are, all of us, whole. If you want your life to be full, then work to make someone else’s life full. Start with your enemy, your neighbor. Because if you can do that, it only gets easier from there.
Maybe he’s an illegal immigrant. Maybe she’s a socialist. Maybe he’s a Republican. Maybe she’s a Muslim. Maybe he’s gay. Maybe God’s children are so much more than the labels we place upon them.
And when you can be grateful, thankful, for the un-loveable, unrepentant, un-like-you, low down, dirty Samaritan that God sent to SAVE you…maybe then we’ll all be just one step closer to the Kingdom of God, right here on earth.