The Good Samaritan is a parable about the other. It is one of the most common stories in scripture. Most non-Christians know the gist of the story. In some ways, the story is the essence of the Christian message. We, who follow Christ, are to have compassion on the other. The challenge can be identifying the other and understanding what compassion looks like in a world that bites back. Stopping to help someone can just as easily expose our vulnerability to being robbed and becoming the victim. With such suspicion, we greet the other and go through our world afraid, even though God says, “Fear not” numerous times, and Jesus’s final words in the Gospel of Matthew are, “I will be with you always, even unto the end of the world.”
Too often, we hear this parable as a banal appeal to celebrate or welcome strangers. When we sanitize the story, we miss the shock or scandalous overtones present in Jesus’ words. What does ‘Samaritan’ mean to us today? Not much, outside of this parable. For Jesus’ listeners, saying ‘Samaritan’ would jolt their attention. People might have been listening in on this exchange between Jesus and a lawyer. When they hear Samaritan, they jump. What did he just say? Before that, though, there is conflict from the start. The lawyer who questions Jesus uses the Greek word ekpeirazo, which means test thoroughly or tempt. It is only used four times, and each one has rather severe connotations. The lawyer’s question is not academic. He is setting up this un-credentialed Galilean.
Jesus never disappoints. The lawyer accepts Jesus’ response from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, “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.” His answer works until the lawyer presents a follow-up question (lawyers are clever), Yeah. Okay, Jesus, but ‘who is my neighbor?’
Does anyone admit to being pious? Do we pin our faith on lists of dos and don’ts? Not consciously. We have seen how Jesus responds to Pharisees and others who just want a rule. As a matter of fact, we have one such exchange going on right now. The lawyer wants a definition. Cynthia Jarvis writes about people who make the gospel into law. She writes, “To caricature us all, the many for whom the law is the gospel seek refuge in rules, glorify boundaries, enumerate norms, and codify discipleship.”
Have you ever seen someone codify discipleship? Spotting such Pharisaic activity can be tricky because it looks holy. To an untrained eye, people who make the gospel into a law appear to be a good Christians. When the gospel becomes our law, it moves from the gut or heart to the head and lacks conviction. Juan Luis Segundo writes,
Contrary to all the previsions of those who possessed divine revelation, God’s judgment is based not on the law promulgated, studied, and elaborated over centuries, but on the help offered ‘the least’… Perceived human needs thus become the key to interpreting what revelation is trying to say to human beings.
All of the rules are nice. They give us guidelines for faith, but when we replace God with a list of rules, we miss the point. We are to be animated by the Holy Spirit. Sometimes the Holy Spirit leads us to go beyond the boundaries, to reach, to exercise radical hospitality.
We are praying for and honoring police officers today. There are countless stories of police officers going beyond the boundaries and working tirelessly to build community. Last week was another bloody week. Two horrible deaths monopolized the news cycle. We may not know the details behind the deaths of Philando Castile (Minnesota) or Alton Sterling (Louisiana). We do know that a group of people gathered on Thursday night to peacefully protest. Police officers were present for the protesters’ safety. There were stories of officers taking selfies with protesters; activities like taking selfies together and talking build community.
Suddenly, the officers were like the traveler in Jesus’ story. They were under attack. The traveler fell into the hands of robbers. The officers fell into the hands of a lunatic with a gun. No one deserves that.
Jesus jolts his listeners with this story. He does not provide an excuse for the priest and Levite for passing by the injured traveler, but when he utters Samaritan, why would Jesus’ listeners jump? Samaritans are not just the other; they are enemies. In Ernesto Cardenal’s Gospel of Solentiname, a woman named Olivia comments: “[Jesus] gave [the lawyer] as an example of [a neighbor] a person of another race and another religion so we can know that everybody is a neighbor. He gave as an example one who wasn’t a neighbor but just the opposite, an enemy.” The historical roots of this conflict between Jews and Samaritans goes back centuries to 2 Kings 17:24-31, when the King of Assyria brought people into Samaria to settle and displace the Israelites. The bad blood goes way back, but what does it mean to us?
Amy-Jill Levine answers this question for us. She writes:
We should think of ourselves as the person in the ditch and then ask, “Is there anyone, from any group, about whom we’d rather die than acknowledge, ‘She offered help’ or ‘He showed compassion’?” More, is there any group whose members might rather die than help us?
If the answer to that question is ‘yes’, then we can understand Jesus’ listeners’ response to ‘Samaritan’. Perhaps we should replace ‘Samaritan’ with member of Isis or Al-Qaeda.
I remember, as a young person, during the Cold War talking with an adult about our enemy, The Soviets. Since it was a ‘Cold War’, most of the fighting was ideological. In my naiveté, I said, “Couldn’t we talk to them? Couldn’t Reagan and Gorbachev sit down and discuss their differences?”
“No,” he replied, “The Soviets are monsters.”
At that time, they were our culture’s Samaritans. Now, we have new Samaritans. Each one of you has a Samaritan. What does Jesus say to the lawyer? The Soviets are not monsters. They are human beings, and just like you, they are made in the image of God.
The good news of Jesus Christ is tough sometimes. But, it is a message of love.
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.
Who is my neighbor? Open your eyes. Look around. See as God sees. Sisters and brothers, that’s the gospel of Jesus Christ.
 Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3, page 240.
 Juan Luis Segundo, The Historical Jesus of the Synoptics, trans. John Drury, vol. II, Jesus of Nazareth Yesterday and Today (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1985), 129.
 Ernesto Cardenal, The Gospel in Solentiname, Volume 3, trans. Donald D. Walsh (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1979), 97.