Today’s scripture readings:
The story of the Good Samaritan is one most of us know well. We’ve heard it many times before. I wonder: Which character do you identify with in this story? Is it the person bruised and beaten along the side of the road? The priest or Levite who passes by the one in need? Or is it the Samaritan who stops to help?
In the final years of her life, my grandmother lived in the Good Samaritan nursing home in Pine River, Minnesota—the town where I grew up. The Good Samaritan Society is a Lutheran organization that provides senior care services in nursing homes and assisted living facilities all around the country. That’s just one of the places I’ve heard references to the Good Samaritan in the broader culture. Over the years I’ve heard about Good Samaritan awards that various communities give to citizens who have gone above and beyond to help people in need. Some states even have Good Samaritan laws that provide legal protection to people who attempt to provide help to someone who is ill or in danger. All of that makes me think that when most of us hear the story of the Good Samaritan we identify most with the person who stops along the road to offer help—or at least we think we’re supposed to identify with the Samaritan who stops to offer help. I’d guess most of us think that this story teaches a lesson about helping others, providing assistance, going out of our way to care for someone who is in danger, rather than ignoring them and passing along the other side of the street. Just like the Good Samaritan offered help, we should offer help when we come across people in need.
Those of us who know a bit more about the history of ancient Jews and Samaritans know it’s more complicated than that. Jews and Samaritans were mortal enemies. The source of the conflict between these two groups is a little complicated, but suffice it to say that they were not on friendly terms. An ancient Jew hearing Jesus tell this story would have found it shocking that a priest and a Levite passed by the man in need along the side of the road and that it was a Samaritan, of all people, who actually stopped to help. The Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine offers a retelling of this parable that helps us understand how surprising this story would have sounded to its original audience. She says, imagine there’s a man lying beaten and half-dead along the side of a road. A pastor passes by and pretends not to notice. Then a church council member comes along but crosses to the other side of the street and continues on their way. The person who stops to help is an undocumented immigrant; is a Muslim; is someone who voted for the candidate you despise. Amy-Jill Levine suggests that many of us read this parable as a warning against prejudice. We read this parable and think, “See, immigrants aren’t so bad. Muslims aren’t so bad. They are actually really nice! We should be more like them and show compassion on people who are mistreated.”
But Amy-Jill Levine says this interpretation is all wrong. She says that the original audience who heard Jesus tell this parable would have identified not with the Samaritan but with the person lying beaten along the side of the road. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was a notoriously dangerous road for ancient Jews. There are many stories in the Bible about bad things that happened to people on this road to Jericho. So an ancient Jew hearing this story would have thought, “Oh, I know that road well; I know exactly how dangerous it is. That person lying half-dead along the side of the road—that could be me. Who would stop to help me if I were in that situation?” Then the story goes on. It’s not the priest who stops to help. It’s not the Levite. It’s none of the people from our own community—none of the people who should have stopped to offer their help. It’s the Samaritan, the most hated of Israel’s neighbors. And at this point, an ancient Jew hearing Jesus tell this parable probably would have thought to themselves, “I would rather die than have a Samaritan come by and rescue me.”
Amy-Jill Levine suggests that the lesson here has something to do with the fact that it’s really hard to accept help from the people we hate. All we want to see in those people is everything that is wrong with them. We don’t want our picture of them as horrible, awful people to be tainted by something good like compassion or empathy. We don’t like things like this to be complicated. We don’t want to hear about a good Samaritan because we’ve already made up our minds about Samaritans and Samaritans are bad. Amy-Jill Levine ends her reflection this way: “Can we finally agree that it is better to acknowledge the humanity and the potential to do good in the enemy, rather than choosing to die along the side of the road? Will we be able to care for our enemies, who are also our neighbors? Will we be able to bind up their wounds rather than blow up their cities? And can we imagine that they might do the same for us? Can we put into practice that promise of not leaving the wounded traveler on the road? The biblical text—and concern for humanity’s future—tell us we must.”
I’d like us to take a few moments now to turn to a few people sitting near you and reflect together on this question: Who would be the hardest person for you to receive help from? Or, when have you received help from someone like that?
Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (New York: HarperOne, 2014).
The featured image for this post is “The Good Samaritan” from the Jesus Mafa collection, at Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville.