The Good Samaritan Deuteronomy 30:9-14 | Luke 10:25-37 July 14, 2007
Anyone who sees me before a flight knows one thing: while I am willing to fly, I would generally much rather drive. I enjoy being on the open road, watching the world pass by my windows. Seeing the subtle--and sometimes not so subtle--changes in scenery is so much nicer in a car. Sometimes I get off a plane and get visual shock from how different the terrain looks. One of the things for which I am grateful, whether I am in a city dealing with traffic, at a toll both, or on the highway, are bumper stickers. While I have only owned one or two bumper stickers in my life, I appreciate that others are so willing to entertain me with theirs. A few years back, I noticed a round red sticker that appeared on a good number of our country’s recreational vehicles. The stickers have a red background and a smiling man’s face with a halo above his head. I had always assumed the stickers were a badge from a Christian association or club. While the imagery is there, however, the stickers indicate the car’s owner is a member of the worlds largest RV club, and do not have a specifically Christian message. What I thought was interesting about this RV club and its stickers is this: owners put these stickers on their Winnebago so other members of the club who are passing by will stop and help them if they break down. They understand the Good Samaritan parable to be about a stranger helping another stranger on the side of the road, a stranger who, I might add, is in the same club. In fact, most people see the story this way. Even the other Christian groups who use the name “Good Samaritan” seem to use it in one of two ways. The first way is helping fellow Christians get medical help or other care. The second way is to help another as an evangelism tool. But to translate the meaning of this passage into simply helping a distressed fellow club member or an everyday stranger, or to use the parable as an evangelical tool, is a poor understanding of this passage.
It seems that we, culturally, have become too far removed from the culture that Jesus lived in to fully appreciate this story. The man on the side of the road was a temple-worshiping Israelite. To understand this is important because the Samaritans were not temple-worshiping Israelites, and while they considered themselves to be followers of the ‘ancient’ practices of Israel, the rest of Israel did not agree. Samaritans are from the capital of the northern region of Israel, and the southerners blamed northern transgressions for the Babylonian exiles. The Samaritans taught their people that the southern areas of Jerusalem had perverted the faith to such a point that it was no longer permitted to speak with them. That may sound a little excessive to us, but the Israelites did the same thing.
It would be more accurate if we were to update the story like this. While a patriotic citizen of the United States was walking from Washington, D.C. to New York, a gang of thieves beats him up. With his badly beaten body and patriotic tattoos exposed, he lies on the side of the road. Shortly thereafter, a government official passes by but does nothing (this is obviously before the day of the cell phone). A bit later, a Chinese or Russian communist walks by (what they are doing in this country is beyond me, but there they are.) This stranger, who has learned his whole life to hate capitalists, stops. He applies first aid, and takes the man to a local care facility, paying for all the expenses.
You see, this story is more than a person helping someone he does not know. It is a story where a person reaches across political, religious, and ethnic chasms to help a person he viewed as an enemy, or as one somehow unworthy of help. The story becomes richer when we look at it in that light. The love that is shown becomes a radical, trans forming love, not just a simple act of kindness. Telling this story to a Jewish audience, as the Gospel writer would have done, would have been telling them personally and financially to love their enemy as their neighbor.
Before I get much further, I want to let you all know that this has been a setup for my real focus. As I was reading this passage I thought to myself, “Oh, great! The good Samaritan story...what on earth can I say that is new and interesting about this?” However, much to my surprise (and chagrin), I realized that, in fact, there is something here with which I can wrestle, something that is new to me. Rather than focusing on the Samaritan or the robber, I can focus on the priest—the one who walked by on the other side of the street.
I will assume that each one of us has been known simply to walk by people and things that are in need of our love and attention. I bet we even do this when we are in our hometowns—in fact, it may happen even more often in familiar territory. As we run from one place to another with our hectic schedules, we may purposely avoid getting involved with someone in need of help, or with something that needs doing. I can only assume it is because we feel that our needs are so much more important than the needs of the stricken stranger.
Who knows why the priest in the parable passed the beaten man by? Did he feel his life was in danger? Did he have an important meeting to get to? Any of us might have done the same.
When I was traveling in Greece, I noticed something. I would be looking around trying to figure out where to go or how to get there, with my map unfolded, knowing full well I would not be able to fold it back up properly. If I asked a local Greek person for directions, they would generally do their best to point me in the right direction. But only fellow travelers would stop and ask if I needed help finding something. There was something that the tourist or the foreigner understood about being lost and without local resources that created compassion in their hearts. The priest was a fellow traveler—so what was it that made him walk by?
All of the characters were on a journey in this parable. It is a journey each of us takes from time to time, and we do it without purchasing a ticket to go to Israel! To travel from Jerusalem (symbolically, the heart of faith) to Jericho (a border city, a city with trade and immigrants) is to journey from a place of deep inner love and faith to a more external and sensual understanding of our world. It means entering a perspective from which we care about the natural or physical world. We pay attention to those details and ideas that frustrate us. On that journey, we are attacked by ideas like rent, taxes, aggressive drivers, property, and so on. It is the place where, for example, we get upset when people walk across our lawn. When we travel to a spiritual Jericho, we slip into a world where our deep inner love of the Lord is pushed back. That love lies beaten up by the problems and fears of this world. And our souls lie half-dead, because we have pushed the Lord from our spiritual sight.
Why does the priest walk by? You could say that it is because the priest doesn’t see the man lying there--or, in our case, that we are so caught up with the world around us that we forget to bring the Lord into our midst. But I don’t think that is the case. In fact, as we can tell from our text, the priest doesn’t just walk by, he moves to the other side of the road. He avoids the beaten man. Why? I have seen a good number of disinterested people in my day. I know what they do; they walk right by things all the time. Disinterested people, however, do not move to the other side of the road. The people who move to the other side of the road are a certain type of people. They are frightened people, people who are attempting to avoid what they perceive to be a dangerous or uncomfortable situation, people trying to remain at the greatest possible distance.
In Swedenborg’s interpretation, priests generally represent the teaching of goods and truths. But in this priest’s case, for some reason, his lack of mercy does not signify this. It makes me wonder: have I ever been too scared truly to apply my faith to something in my soul, or even to someone in my life, because I was afraid of what would happen?
Sure I have. Mercy, faith, good, and truth can be so powerful that we are afraid to apply them to all the situations in our lives. The Lord in his mercy has given us a way to deal with the things we cannot fully face, by distancing ourselves and applying just as much good and truth as we can bear to our wounds. And then, we put the problem away and the Lord takes care of it for a while, until we can come back to deal with it.
The priest in this story is the part of our self that avoids the implications of truly living a spiritual life in this world, a life where we can really love one another. But the good news is this: the Lord loves us, really and truly, and has provided us a way to help in the face of all the tremendous pain of this world. He gives us the perspective of the Samaritan, the one who is not so concerned with purity regulations and temple worship, the one who sees a need and addresses it. This love and mercy from the Lord works with us, little by little, until we are ready to pay the full bill and deal with the issues of our spiritual life in this world. It means that each of us needs to love as much as we can possibly love; from there, the Lord’s mercy will guide us. He helps us return to those parts of ourself that we cannot face in their entirety, so long as we are willing to stop along our journey and pour a little oil and wine on the stranger’s wounds instead of walking by.
Go, then, and do likewise.