I am not a Biblical literalist. I don’t read the Bible as a recipe for easy living. But when I do the Daily Office, I am struck by how a single part of scripture, or the combination of the scripture readings for the day, can help settle my mind into a contemplative place… and frame how I will live and move and have my being in the world.
Such is the case today with the Luke gospel story of the Good Samaritan, probably one of the most familiar to me from my Sunday School days in childhood. It was one of those stories that left an impression, and I think it’s because of the way the teacher read the story to us.
‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 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 while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.—Luke 10: 30-34
The teacher (and it was either Mrs. Whitney, or Mrs. McNeil) put the emphasis heavily on the fact that it was the Samaritan who was the "good person". And so, for years, I knew that "Samaritan" was synonymous with "good person." Because Sunday School had taught me so!
What I didn’t understand… until much later… was the broader, and much more meaningful, message Jesus was communicating through this story. This wasn’t about Samaritans as good people who were willing to stop and help another in distress when other people passed by because they were too busy or didn’t want to get involved. For starters, this story has a set up. A lawyer had posed the question to our man Jesus asking for the secret to eternal life (this is a set up to test Jesus). He responds in the way Jesus often answered such challenges… like a good teacher… by posing a question back at the man: "What do you read in the law?" The lawyer quotes a portion of what is known in Judaism as the Shema, the central prayer of morning and evening worship:
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 given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’ –Luke 10: 27-28
But that’s not where the test ends. Next, the lawyer insists on knowing, "So… who’s my neighbor?" And that’s where we start the story of the Good Samaritan. And Jesus’ selection of the characters (priest, Levite, and Samaritan) are intentional and meant to provoke the lawyer and anyone listening at that moment. Priests, and Levites, would be understood to be the "us", the "in crowd", the "good" people. Samaritans, on the other hand, were the "them". And not just any "them"; really low-rent, unworthy members of the "those people" class "them". To have a Samaritan be the hero of the story would certainly have made the lawyer swallow hard when he’d have to acknowledge that the one who was living the Shema, and sharing in eternal life, was the one thought to be "unworthy". You can even hear it in his response:
Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’ –Luke 10: 36-37
"The one who showed him mercy." Not, "The Samaritan" but "the one". I have this visual of this smug smirky lawyer guy shifting his weight back and forth and beads of sweat gathering on his forehead as he mumbles the "correct" answer.
In the world of 2009, this would be like Jesus telling the same story to a group of students at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, and noting "But a gay man, while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved by pity." (If such a story were told on the Lynchburg campus, having a gay hero would be exactly the choice to make the point!) It’s easy to make broad generalizations, but a good number of us who are gay tend to be sensitive and helpful to strangers. Perhaps because in some ways we are strangers in our own land, and know what it means to reach out to the one who is in need.
"Go and do likewise." Want eternal life? Live out that commandment and put it into action, not just recitation. Saying the words correctly is easy. Doing the action of the words means stepping outside yourself. Be like that "other" who didn’t turn away from a person in need, or quiz them on whether they had the same beliefs, political affiliation, color, creed, or sexual orientation. Don’t put your own self-interest, and self-preservation ahead of helping out a person lying in the ditch…. no matter who that person is.