Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” ((Luke 10:25-37)
Today we are going to look at another famous story from the master story teller. The parable of ‘The Good Samaritan.’ This story is so famous that the very term “good Samaritan” is today used as a common metaphor:
“The word now applies to any charitable person, especially one who, like the man in the parable, rescues or helps out a needy stranger.” ~Dictionary of Classical, Biblical, & Literary Allusions
You might recognize the name because it is used for countless charitable organizations and hospitals including: Samaritans, Samaritan’s Purse, Sisters of the Good Samaritan (to name a few), along with more than a handful of Good Samaritan Hospital’s spattered through out the entire globe.
You might recognize the name because you have heard of the common law with the same name:
Good Samaritan laws were established to offer legal protection for people who give assistance to those who are injured, ill, in peril, or otherwise incapacitated. This protection is intended to reduce bystanders’ hesitation to assist, for fear of being sued… wiki
This story has been depicted by famous artists from Rembrandt to Van Gough, Conti, Hodler, Wynants… to name a select few of famous historical pieces.
As you can see — this is an extremely famous and therefore extremely important parable. But, I wonder if we have not mis-read it and even mis-named it for over 2,000 years. What if the parable is not really about a “good” Samaritan? I would like to argue that Jesus’ parable, as usual, is about Jesus (who, by the way, was not a Samaritan) and I wonder if a fresh look at this famous parable will effect us in a much more powerful way. I pray that it does.
Robert Farrar Capon refers to ‘The Good Samaritan’ as the first of the misnamed parables. Because it is not primarily about a Samaritan, in the same way that the ‘Prodigal Son’ is not as much about a boy’s wayward life as it is about a father’s forgiveness, and ‘the Laborers in the Vineyard,’ as it is called, is not as much about laborers as it is about a generous vineyard-owner who pays much more than he should for last minute laborers.
But before we begin lets just lay all of our cards on the table. How do you understand the parable of the Good Samaritan?
DISCUSSION: What does the parable mean? How do you interpret and apply it?
DISCUSSION: How does that fit into our theme of being Last, Least, Little, Lost, and Dead?
To answer that last question. Capon comments, “The Good Samaritan is a veritable (genuine) paean (song) to lostness, outcastness, and even, in a certain sense, death.”
Why does he say that. I think it might be obvious. There are 4 characters in this story. The man, the priest, the levite, and the Samaritan. The unnamed innocent man is the first character introduced. The next 2 characters are religious leaders. They intentionally avoid the half dead man. Why? Because they are winners. Too important and too cool to offer help to this loser. Then the 4th character is introduced. He is a Samaritan. Samaritans, in that day, where outcasts. That particular race was despised by Jews. So, we got 2 winners and then a big ol’ loser. And, shockingly, the hero of the story, if you want to call him that, is the loser, the outcast. So the themes of least, last, little etc are very clear in this story.
But… then again… there is one in the story who is even a bigger loser. in fact he is more than just a loser, he is beaten, lost in the wilderness and left for dead. Jesus literally says he is ‘half dead’ or ‘practically dead.’
Now, I know that the parable is called “the Good Samaritan.” And I know that the most common interpretation and application of this parable has been to encourage us to be more like the Samaritan. But I want to set our eyes on the half dead man as the main character. Lets explore how that might change the way we apply the parable in our lives. Here’s a question. How has the parable of the so called ‘good Samaritan’ effected you thus far? I mean… do you think its a powerful story that moves you to action? Or, has it become sort of like a nice little story about the goodness and niceness of human kind. In other words, “Most men are bad, but there are some nice guys out there. Be a nice guy!”
Jesus is the Main Character, Again…
I want to entertain the idea that Jesus is the main character in this story, as he usually is, but the main character is not the Samaritan, as we often suspect. Rather the main character is the first character mentioned. Jesus is the innocent man who was robbed, beaten, and left for dead.
That runs counter, of course, to the better part of two thousand years’ worth of interpretation, but I shall insist on it. This parable, like so many of Jesus’ most telling ones, has been misnamed. It is not primarily about the Samaritan but about the man on the ground. Capon
Now, Lets look at the parable again, perhaps with fresh eyes, and see what that does to it.
And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And 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.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Luke 10:25-29
We’ll come back to the Lawyer but lets move on. Jesus then launches into this parable.
Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Luke 10:30
“A man”, that’s it. That all we get. He has no name. He’s a nameless man. And he seems innocent enough. Just traveling on the road. But then he is overtaken by thieves, beaten, and left for dead. Now, I don’t want to make too much of it, but I do think it is worth noting that later, in the biblical story, Jesus will be beaten within inches of his life then hung between two thieves and left there to die. In fact, Luke is the only gospel that mentions Jesus and the 2 thieves. So there’s that. There are some similarities between Jesus and this nameless man in the parable.
Let me pause the story just to highlight the danger of this journey. The journey from Jerusalem to Jericho was extremely harsh. That road is steep and treacherous. Jerusalem sits at an elevation of about 2,500ft and Jericho is -850 ft below sea level. That means that the path from Jerusalem to Jericho which is only 18 miles long. Declines over 3,600 feet. That’s steep. But that’s is not all. The physical journey was indeed exhausting and dangerous but it was also the perfect place for criminals to hide in the wilderness, then jump out and rob anyone who was traveling between these 2 major cities. This was a dangerous journey. In fact, the path between Jerusalem and Jericho was called The Valley of the Shadow of Death. It is believed that this path is the valley that David wrote his famous Psalm 23, “Though I pass through the valley of the shadow of death…” Death is your shadow on this valley. Beware. Back to the parable.
Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. Luke 10:31-33
As I mentioned before, the first two character are the winners. It is only by chance that there are even on this road. They are too important to risk their lives to help this guy. No way no how. They pass by the other side. Self preservation and all. Gotta go!
“But…,” Jesus the says, “A Samaritan came.” Already this parable is extremely offensive. The religious so called “good” guys are clearly bad guys and the outcast loser Samaritan is set up as the actual good guy in Jesus’ story. This is offensive. I think its interesting that the Samaritan isn’t passing by by chance. He is journeying. He is used to the hood. He’s a loser and when he sees another loser he has compassion.
The first question which the priest and the Levite asked was: ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But… the good Samaritan reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’ Martin Luther King, Jr.
It takes an outcast to love an outcast. It takes a loser to love losers. Do you see why we need to embrace what it means as Christian to become least, little, last, lost and dead in this world.
He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Luke 10:34-35
Jesus spends 2 verses of this short parable to explain in vivid detail the kind of care the Samaritan gave to the man. I think it is safe to say that he went all out to care for this stranger. It cost him a lot. It begins by wasting oil and wine on his wounds.
Again, I don’t want to make too much of it. I realize there are dangers in allegorizing parables. But, now that I see it I think it is almost hard to miss. There is something about oil and wine in the Bible. These 2 elements surface quite bit in other stories that surround Jesus’ death. Oil is used in a symbolic way to refer to Jesus’ death. And wine is a perpetual symbol of the blood poured out for us in the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist. Like I said. I don’t want to push allegory, I just think its worth noting. Jesus ends the lesson.
Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” Luke 10:36-37
If Jesus is the nameless half-dead man, then the Samaritan is the one who proves to be neighborly to him. That is what Jesus asks the lawyer. Who was neighborly. Who showed love. Jesus concludes the entire scene with a command. “Go, therefore, and do like wise.”
So Much More Than Being Good & Nice
For most of my life the parable and the phrase ‘good Samaritan’ has always meant, quite simply, “Be nice to others and help people when they need help.” You might have even said something like this before, “I hope someone will be a good Samaritan and help me jump my car.” or “I was a good Samaritan today and helped a little old lady cross the street.” That is what I think the phrase means for almost everyone one who has ever used it. Be nice and help people – especially along the road. And so, in that way, Jesus’ parable has been boiled down to a call to imitate the hero in the story, the “good” Samaritan.
But let me point out, again, that when Jesus told this parable, there was no such thing as a “good” Samaritan. The Jews despised and avoided Samaritans and Samaria like a plague. But I’m not sure if Jesus’ meant his main point to be, “Go, therefore, and be like a Samaritan.” If anything it might be, “The Samaritan is your neighbor. Go, therefore, and love them.” But I really don’t think that was the main point either. That’s why i think its important for us to see Christ as the half-dead man.
It is almost always our temptation to read the bible as a book about heroes who we should imitate. The Samaritan is good. He is the hero. So the command is to imitate him. But the bible is not about heroes. Its about one hero. At least once a week I get to hear these words from the Jesus Storybook Bible as we tuck our boys into bed. I love it every time.
Some people think the Bible is a book of rules, telling you what you should and shouldn’t do. The Bible certainly does have some rules in it. They show you how life works best. But the Bible isn’t mainly about you and what you should be doing. It’s about God and what he has done.
Other people think the Bible is a book of heroes, showing you people you should copy. The Bible does have some heroes in it, but (as you’ll soon find out) most of the people in the Bible aren’t heroes at all. They make some big mistakes (sometimes on purpose), they get afraid and run away. At times, they’re downright mean.
No, the Bible isn’t a book of rules, or a book of heroes. The Bible is most of all a Story. It’s an adventure story about a young Hero who comes from a far country to win back his lost treasure. It’s a love story about a brave Prince who leaves his palace, his throne–everything–to rescues the ones he loves…
And how does Jesus rescue his children? Does he do it by being nice and helping people who need help with their flat tires? No he does it in an altogether left-handed kind of a way. He rescues us by dying for us. So you see, the bible is not about following good examples. It is actually more about following bad examples. Like the “stupid example of a Samaritan who spends his livelihood on a loser, and by the horrible example of a Savior who, in an excruciating death, lays down his life for his friends.” Here is what I’m getting at. this parable is about so much more than just being nice. Its about dying and selflessness and being wiling to be last, least, little.
I am, of course, aware of the fact that Jesus ends the parable precisely on the note of imitation: “You, too, go and do likewise.” But the common, good-works interpretation of the imitation to which Jesus invites us all too easily gives the Gospel a fast shuffle. True enough, we are called to imitation. But imitation of what, exactly? Is it not the imitatio Christi, the following of Jesus? And is not that following of him far more than just a matter of doing kind acts? Is it not the following of him into the only mystery that can save the world, namely, his passion, death, and resurrection? Is it not the taking up of his cross?
But that kind of imitation almost never enters into our minds we talk about the subject of imitation. What our minds instantly go to is something more like ‘pay-it-forward’ or random acts of kindness to complete strangers, like paying the bill for the car behind you in the drive through. All of which are grand things. Sure. I’d love it if some stranger paid for my next Starbucks drive thru. The problem with that interpretation is that then we get to chose your neighbor, on our time, and whether or not the get to have a face, or voice. And to top it all off, we then we get to congratulate ourselves for being winners. This parable is not about being a winner in your niceness it’s about become a loser and identifying, in a real costly way, with the least of these.
Besides, everyone knows, nice guys finish last. Good Samaritans are sued with alarming regularity; and if one of them does manage to stay out of court, he probably goes home and loses all the benefits of his goodness in a fight with his wife over putting some deadbeat’s expenses on Visa. ~Capon
WHO IS YOUR NEIGHBOR?
This parable is about loving your neighbor. This professional scholar of the Jewish Law, or ‘lawyer’ as Luke calls him, wants to justify himself, which must mean that he wants to prove that he has indeed loved his neighbor. So he asks, what seems at first to be a silly question, “And who is my neighbor.” Jesus, with out even a pause, tells this parable. So to be sure. This parable is about loving your neighbor. Who is your neighbor?
Jesus’ answer to that question is this parable. And it can be read in two ways, both get you the same answer. Your neighbor is either the Samaritan or the guy left for dead. Both of them are neighbors. It takes 2 people to have this thing called ‘neighbors.’ And both of them represent the least, last, little, the loser or the outcast. So, one way to read it is like this.
Question: Who is my neighbor?
Answer: The outcast samaritan is your neighbor.
Did you notice that when Jesus asked him, “ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” The lawyer cant even say the word ‘Samaritan?’ Instead he says, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus set him up to say “the Samaritan” but he wouldn’t do it. The second way to read it goes like this.
Question: Who is my neighbor?
Answer: The half dead man, who might represent Jesus.
He is your neighbor and you should love your neighbor like the Samaritan loves the half dead man. It is not a cheap, easy, passive kind of love. It is identification with and a willing to suffer with – kind of a love.
So let me drive home 2 huge points. Don’t miss these.
#1 – you don’t get to chose your neighbors. They are chosen for you. The spirit of the OT law, “love your neighbor as yourself” means we should love the least, the last, the little, and the lost.
“Psychiatrists’ couches are not kept warm by patients complaining of the depredations of total strangers.” ~Capon
It is so much easier to love complete strangers than it is to love say… the people in your family or workplace. But people aren’t complaining to psychiatrists about the wrong done to them by complete strangers, they’re there to sort out the deep hurt caused by people they know. In other words, it is easy to be compassionate to the Denny’s waitress, but then go home and be a jerk to your family. You don’t get to chose your neighbors. God has already placed them in your path.
#2 that kind of love is not to be trite cheap gestures of kindness. Love is costly. You must make the losers’ burden your own. This means it is going to cost you everything. That is why I asked at the beginning of this message how this parable has effected you so far? Because I don’t think that we have really grasped the command to “go and do like wise.”
Last night I was sitting down in a little room with nothing to do so I skimmed my twitter feed. Relevant Magazine tweeted an article about things that keep us from loving our neighbors. I agree with the article. It highlights that we want loving our neighbors to be easy and neat. Which means, essentially, that we are selfish, not selfless.
1. We Find It Exhausting
As an introvert, I feel like I am at a disadvantage at this whole “loving others” thing, especially when they’re people I don’t know well. It can be draining, but service usually is, and that’s not an excuse not to do it.
2. We Lack Motivation
We have constant opportunities to love, but we may not recognize them when we engage technology over people or when we’re consumed with our own problems.
3. We Care About Ourselves Over Others.
David Foster Wallace said, “It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.”
Let me conclude by centering this whole thing back on Christ. If you want this parable to really shatter all your selfishness and lame excuses I think you need to leave here today seeing Jesus as the man on the road. He is the biggest littlest loser of them all. He’s just laying there dead – and that is the way, I believe, Jesus wants to identify himself. Jesus seems to identify with the least, last, little, and lost in the most alarming way. He says, essentially, “I am them and they are me.”
“When I was hungry you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me…” “Lord, when did we see you hungry, or thirsty…”
‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me… And as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ Matthew 25
“If there is any ministering to be imitated in the Good Samaritan’s example, it is the ministry to Jesus in his passion, as that passion is to be found in the least of his brethren, namely, in the hungry, the thirsty, the outcast, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned in whom he dwells and through whom he invites us to become his neighbors in death and resurrection.” ~Capon
Don’t you see? This parable is about so much more than niceness. It is about loving and ministering to Jesus who is, btw, found in all the losers around you that you tend to avoid like the plague.