(Luke 10: 25-37)
So Jesus is asked, What must I do to inherit eternal life?
And Jesus replies, Well, what do you read in the law, what does it say?
Answered like a good Rabbi, don’t you think? Barbara Brown Taylor evokes the famous Woody Allen line about a man who comes to a Rabbi and asks, “Why does a Rabbi always answer a question with a question?” To which the Rabbi, after a long pause, replies “why shouldn’t a Rabbi always answer a question with a question?”
This new sermon series we’re launching into this morning is, in itself, a question. We’re calling it: Sound Familiar? You are more than welcome to answer it with a question if you like. Grace and Bill and I certainly will be, because the passages we’re digging into over the next month are passages we all know very well. The Parable of the Good Samaritan. The Tower of Babel. Noah and the Flood. The Parable of the Prodigal Son. They are familiar to us; very familiar – which is part of the problem. Because sometimes the “very familiar” winds up becoming the unfamiliar, simply by virtue of the fact that we know it so well, or at least the surface of it, and therefore fail to dig deeper into the greater, more challenging meaning that lies therein, the meaning we’re meant to see all along.
So, just to set the stage for the next four weeks: The Parable of the Prodigal Son is not just about forgiving the sinner. The Tower of Babel is not just about drawing a hard line between divine and human. Noah and the Flood is not just a sweet little story about a bunch of cute animals cooped up in a big boat.
And the Parable of the Good Samaritan – today’s passage – is not just about helping someone in need. Although that’s what the vast majority of us tend to think, including nearly all of the students I had over six years of teaching college. Six years of Old Testament in the fall and New Testament in the spring. Which meant that sometime around February, when we had our exam on the four gospels, my college students would find this question in the essay section:
Reread Luke 10:25-37, Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan. Then, rewrite the parable in your own words, in a 21st-century context. Change the characters as needed to reflect the heart of Jesus’ message in the parable, while keeping the storyline grounded in the current day (i.e. – who would the priest be in our time? The Levite? The Samaritan? Etc. )
Now my students had a lot of fun with this question. Lots of creative retellings, lots of insightful commentary. But with every paper graded throughout every year, I came to realize that they, like most of us, still only saw the surface of the story, not the deeper meaning. What they focused on almost exclusively was this widely-embraced idea that this parable is about someone – a “good samaritan” – helping someone else in need.
Which is certainly a good thing, and certainly understandable. It is, after all, the de facto title of the parable. But more than that, “good samaritan” has morphed into a cultural expression that extends far beyond the Bible itself. Think about it. Just Google “good samaritan” in quotation marks and see what comes up. There are tons of hospitals around the world with “Good Samaritan” in their name. You can find “Good Samaritan” food pantries and “Good Samaritan” homeless shelters. There’s a “Christ Good Samaritan Church” and a “Good Samaritan United Methodist,” to name a few. And in the ultimate act of cultural syncretism, a “good samaritan” is an honor we bestow on someone who takes part in some great altruistic deed, like the boy scout who dutifully walks the little old lady across the street. People throughout society who’ve never read Luke 10 know what this “good samaritan” is.
And that’s the whole problem. Because while we pair those two words together without a second thought, the fact is that you will not find those two words together anywhere in this passage. And not only that, but the word “samaritan” is not indicating the inherent value of a person. It’s describing who that person actually is.
So a quick history recap: Samaritans were a race of people in Biblical times, distant kin to the Jews. Going back to my Old Testament class, they were descendants of the Northern Kingdom that broke away from the South right after the reign of King Solomon; forming their own capital city, known appropriately enough as Samaria, and building their own temple there. Over the years there was plenty of history between Samaritans and Jews, very little of which was “good.”
Jews saw Samaritans as the “black sheep” of the family tree, traitors to the true faith of their ancestors, B-list invites at the banquet table of life. Samaritans, not surprisingly, looked at Jews like an obnoxious cousin who thought way too much of themselves, who made a big deal of their “original” temple in Jerusalem, whose piety and arrogance served only to distance them from everyone else. We’re talking classic rivalry stuff here, folks. Capulets and Montagues, Hatfield and McCoys, Democrats and Republicans, Gryffindors and Slytherins, Tarheels and Blue Devils. It was deep-seeded, hard-core division; for which there was no middle ground.
So imagine – imagine that you and I are part of the crowd of Jews gathered to hear Jesus that day; to hear this lawyer guy pose the question that would start it all: Who is my neighbor? Imagine the story Jesus begins to tell – a solitary man beaten and robbed and left for dead “on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho.” A critically important detail he throws in there, because as good Jews, we would know that road and know that someone traveling on that road was almost certainly one of our fellow Jews.
Imagine then, as Jesus continues his story, the anger we feel when he tells about a priest and Levite passing this beaten man by – without even stopping to help. Grrrrrr! And you know what upsets us most about this? It’s not just that priests and Levites were religious types and would be the first people you think would stop. It’s that these two were Jews, just like us, just like him. And if there’s one thing you do as a good Jew, if there’s one thing that’s been ingrained in you since birth and drilled into your head countless times in scripture, it is that you help a fellow Jew when he or she is in need. You do not leave them to fend for themselves, under no circumstances. So frankly, we’re a little offended when Jesus tells this part of the story.
Oh, but that is nothing compared to how we feel when we hear what Jesus says next:
But a Samaritan came hear him. He bandaged his wounds and brought him to an inn and took care of him.
Can you feel the hair rise on the back of your neck, the tightening of the pit in your stomach, the blood begin to boil in your veins? Can any of us put into words how we feel when Jesus tells us that a Jew like us is saved from death by a hated, despised, maligned, God-awful Samaritan?
The truth is that we can’t. We can’t put it into words. Because despite that fun little role play we just took part in, we are not first-century Palestinian Jews – we’re 21st century North American Christians. We have no context with which to understand the full weight of the story Jesus shares and the earth-shaking plot twist he describes.
Which is why I asked my college students on their exam to retell the parable of the Good Samaritan in a 21st century context. I wanted to see if they could forego the typical “good-samaritan-helping-someone-in-need” motif and instead grasp the deeper, more challenging meaning within. I have to say very few of them did. Most were nice vignettes that simply recast the characters in a modern context, but still held to the same surface storyline.
Except for one student. She nailed it and I gave her a big fat “A.” I present to you now Katie’s 21st century version of the Parable of the Good Samaritan:
One day, on the way down Tobacco Road, a Carolina fan decked out in a Tarheel t-shirt and baseball cap was beaten up and left for dead by robbers. Now by chance, a certain man by the name of Roy Williams was going down that road, but when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So likewise Michael Jordan, when he happened upon him, passed by on the other side as well.
You see where this is going, right?
But then, Mike Krzyzewski, while traveling on the road, came near him; and was moved with great pity. And he put the man in his car and drove him straight to the hospital. He gave the doctors and nurses his credit card and said, “Whatever this man needs, pay for it with this, tend to his every need.” The word of the Lord…
Now I gotta say – as a Wake Forest fan, i.e., in this rivalry, “Switzerland,” I love the fact that some of you gasped out loud or started laughing nervously when I said “Mike Krzyzewski.” I imagine Grace would do much the same thing if it were Jim Harbaugh and Bo Schembechler who passed over a Michigan fan and instead helped by Urban Meyer. I actually love that response, because I promise you – that is exactly the response Jesus got from the crowd when they heard his story. They were mortified. Some were furious at Jesus, that he would even suggest such a thing. It was insulting, it was offensive. It was convicting.
And I love the way the lawyer, the one who started this whole thing, responds to the question that good rabbi Jesus asks at the end, So who was most neighborly to this man? The guy cannot even bring himself to say the word “Samaritan!” All he can say is, the one who showed him kindness. To which Jesus calmly suggests that he “go and do likewise.”
Go and do likewise. Man, that’s a hard, hard thing, isn’t it? And I’m not even talking about being in the position of the Samaritan here: helping someone in need who happens to be your rival, your nemesis, a real pain the butt. I’m talking about the deeper meaning of this parable that Jesus intended to convey to his fellow Jews; the one we have missed: the unsettling and uncomfortable notion of being at the lowest of the low, when you are at your worst and need help the most; and it is not a friend who comes to your aid, it is not one you’d expect who helps. It is, instead, the very person you disagree with, contend with, avoid, shun, malign, think and speak ill of. That is the person who quite literally saves your life, and there is nothing you can do about it.
When we create for ourselves, outside of God’s purview, an understanding of how our world is supposed to operate – of who is in and out, of who is acceptable and not, of who is worthy and unworthy – when we delicately fashion all of these things into a comfortable and self-serving structure to base our life upon, it is as if Jesus comes in with a sledgehammer and smashes it to pieces. That’s what this parable does, when we see what’s really there beyond the familiar surface story. It’s what noted Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan likes to call a “parable a provocation” that “challenges listeners to think long and hard about their social prejudices, their cultural presumptions, and yes, even their most sacred religious traditions.” It compels us, as it did Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, to ponder which of the two questions we ask ourselves: the question of the priest and Levite – “what will happen to me if I stop to help this man” – or the question of the Samaritan – “what will happen to this man if I don’t stop to help?”
There is a reason Jesus told this parable, and it wasn’t just to compel his fellow listeners to help people. It was to lovingly and emphatically relay a foundational component of the kingdom of God he had come to build – what writer Anne Lamott captures beautifully when she says: “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image if it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
This parable nags on us uncomfortably like a splinter, forcing us to ask some very important questions of kingdom-living, most notably: who is our Samaritan? Who is the person or persons we least want to associate with; who in our hour of greatest need would least want by our side, with whom in our culture of heightened vitriol and divisiveness we’ve lost the ability to dialogue meaningfully and disagree agreeably? And not only that, but what is our Samaritan – what are the perceptions and biases and beliefs we hold onto not because they’re right, but because we don’t know how to let them go? What are those parts deep within that keep us from experiencing the fullness of God’s grace, and from sharing that grace with everyone, and not just some?
That’s how you answer a question with a question, my friends. It’s what you and I encounter every time we’re on that road from Jerusalem to Jericho, or Tobacco Road, or the many roads on which we travel. For on those roads we encounter a journey that constantly calls us not simply to help someone in need, but to be transformed in mind and in heart; so that the lives we live will reflect that, so no one gets passed over and no one walks by, so the real story of the “Good Samaritan” parable becomes our story as the people of God.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 http://www.barbarabrowntaylor.com/newsletter374064.htm, visited on 6.6.2016.
 John Dominic Crossan, The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction About Jesus (New York: HarperOne, 2012) 62.
 Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” speech, delivered April 3, 1968.