The Story of The Good Samaritan
What if being who we most dearly believe ourselves to be involves taking on the identity of our enemy?
Things happen when you’re on the road. Like some of you, I am a traveler, and so I know. We’ve got stories of the road, don’t we? We could tell tales of unexpected grace, and unbelievable bad luck too. There have been roads that sped me forward, and roads that blocked my way, there was one road I wasn’t sure I was going to get off of alive and I prayed to Jesus about it too, and another road deep in the jungle that was blocked by an elephant We just waited that out. Whether the roads you travel are around the world or around the block, we’ve all met people, helped, and been helped, experienced the unexpected, and laughed, and sometimes wept our way home. A lot can happen on the road, we know.
The Gospel reading for today takes us on a short road-trip from Jerusalem to Jericho. In the story, we will hear about three religious leaders, a man who has been badly hurt, some thieves, and an innkeeper. We will see that a lot can happen on the road. And, if we listen carefully, we might hear some first-century lawyers gasp in surprise at the way the story goes.
The setting for the story is, “an occasion.” Luke 10:25 does not tell us what kind of occasion, and that leaves us free to imagine. I think it was an informal time when men gather to talk about Torah. This is not at all what Episcopalians think of when they think of a Bible study. It’s loud. There are questions, answers, riposte to answers, laughter, and speculation. There’s a camaraderie about it which our western ears may not initially read in this story.
On this occasion, a lawyer “tests” Jesus with a question. The lawyer probably didn’t intend for Jesus to fail the test, or to lose his face. It was more good-natured than that. Jesus engaged him by lobbing a soft-ball question, “What does Torah say?” Any Jew would have been able to answer that in order to have life, “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.” It was too easy for the lawyer, so he kicked it up a notch by asking Jesus another question…
“And who is my neighbor?”
Well, that is the question, isn’t it? Jesus answered with the well-known and oft-repeated story of the good Samaritan. It’s a road-trip story about going from Jerusalem, the temple city of the Jews, down to Jericho.
The road from Jerusalem to Jericho is only about 18 miles long. In Jesus’s day, it was not a proper road but was a limestone path. If you look at it on a map, in fact, it looks like a nice day hike. You might even want to take a lunch and enjoy the scenery. That wouldn’t be a good idea, though. Here’s the first clue that the road is not what you might expect: Jericho is to the east of Jerusalem, and just slightly north. Why, then does Jesus say that the man in today’s story was, “…going down” to Jericho? If it were slightly north, wouldn’t he say that the man in today’s story was, “going up” to Jericho, or even “over” to Jericho? Consider this: Jerusalem was about 2,500 feet above sea level, but Jericho was 825 feet below sea level. That’s a drop of about 6/10 of a mile. Getting to Jerusalem would have been an uphill trip, and going north to Jericho would have been a downhill trip. Thus, the man went down to Jericho.
There is a pass along the road. It’s about 13 miles outside of Jerusalem and both Eusebius and Jerome have said that there was a castle there. Jerome even speculated that it is where today’s story takes place.
There is a certain way of telling stories. In the USA we might hear a story that begins with a Baptist, a Methodist, and an Episcopalian… and in the story, they are probably either changing a light bulb or walking into a bar. The reason the story is funny is because we identify with one of the characters. Jesus was doing the same thing. In his storytelling, he wanted to guide his listeners to identify with one of the characters in the story. The lawyers would not have identified with the priest or the Levite. They probably shook their heads in wonder that these religious men seemed to be so unconnected to Judaism that they would walk by someone in need. They were expecting Jesus to pause and say, “Finally, a good Jew came by…” or, “Finally, a lawyer came by…” That would have held up a mirror of recognition to his listeners. They would have thought. “Oh, I’m a good Jew… I would have stopped to help the man too!” But, that is not what Jesus said. Instead, Jesus called them a bad name. He called them Samaritans! (Did you hear the collective gasp?)
There are still Samaritans living on Mt. Gerazim. I have met some of them. They don’t hate the nearby Jews, and the Jews don’t seem to hate them either. But, in the first-century things were different. By making the final character in his story a Samaritan, Jesus was making the proposition that the lawyer and his friends might not be who they think they are.
This is not what the lawyer and his friends expected. There must have been a frisson of existential shock as they realized that the story was not about how they were better than the religious leaders, but about how they were not who they thought they were at all!
We all want to believe that we are the good Samaritan. But, what if we change Samaritan to immigrant, Muslim, refugee, Iraqi, foreigner, Republican, Democrat, cop. What if being who we most dearly believe ourselves to be involves naming the ones we imagine to be our enemies and seeing that we are exactly like them?
If we held up a mirror to ourselves we could see that we are the immigrant, the person with a different faith, the refugee, the foreigner, the other. To somebody else, we are the one who is different beyond comprehension, the other, dangerous, to be avoided.
So, who is our neighbor? There is no neighbor because there can be no person who is not our neighbor. At the end of the day, we are all in it together. Everyone has a claim on our generosity and benevolence, and we can receive care and healing from unlikely fellow travelers. Instead of avoiding one another, we might look into the face of the other and see ourselves staring back.
Linda McMillan is in Texas this week. This essay was originally posted on July 10, 2016.
Image: By Gunnar Bach Pedersen (Own work (Own photo)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Some Notes of Possible Interest
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.” – Deuteronomy 6:5
We have been down this road before… The road between Jerusalem and Jericho is also the escape route that David used to get out of Jerusalem when Absolem declared himself king, and King Zedekiah used it too when he was fleeing the Chaldeans.
- David used the road to Jericho to get out of Jerusalem after the coup by Absolem – 2 Sam 15.23–16.14
- King Zedekiah flees the Chaldeans – 2 Kgs 25.4
You can read about the road between Jerusalem and Jericho here. I found it very interesting. Most of the information I’ve given you about the actual road comes from this article.
This map shows the roads in first-century Israel. You can see how the road comes out of Jerusalem, goes by Bethany, and then continues on to Jericho.
Here is another good map.