3 scandalous things about the good samaritan
If you’re looking for life as it was meant to be - life that hums with reverence, life that is deeply in tune with the Universe, life that is falloff meaning, wonder, and purpose - well, there’s a really old story in the Bible that’s meant for you.
It’s probably the most famous and well-known Bible story of them all: the parable of the good samaritan.
But before we get into the parable, it may be a good idea to reacquaint ourselves with it because one of the things that can happen with these really well known Bible stories, these stories we just kind of know and can tell from memory, is that in the re-telling, we actually forget them. We can become so used to just knowing it that we forget how the story actually goes. Dallas Willard would put it this way: "familiarity breeds unfamiliarity and unfamiliarity breeds contempt.” It's his way of saying that when we lose sight of the original plot, we begin to miss out on the story’s weight and power.
I wonder if we have that problem with the Parable of the Good Samaritan. So many of us can just tell it from memory: there’s a guy dying in a ditch, two super religious people ignore him as they walk by, but a Samaritan sees him, helps him up, drops him off at this inn, and saves his life.
I know, right? Such a heart-warming tale that leaves us with the warm fuzzies.
But here’s the thing:
Parables shouldn’t make us feel that way. They should do the opposite. Parables should make us really uncomfortable. They are supposed to shock us into new ways of thinking, seeing, and being in the world. Thats why Jesus told them. He wanted to draw us into a new way of being human. What we can forget here is that the Good Samaritan is supposed to be a really scandalous story. We’re not supposed to like it. If we find ourselves liking it, if we find ourselves been comforted by it, chances are, we’re reading it wrong and missing out on the truth and wisdom it’s offering.
So let’s rehear this parable and after, I’ll flesh it out a bit and offer three things that should shock and challenge us, make us squirm and give us pause, and that, if we let them, can pull us into that new way of being human and alive in the world.
So the parable is told as part of this conversation Jesus is having with a lawyer - think of him as a scripture expert. Now let’s assume the best of this lawyer. Some translations make him seem a bit skeezy, but I like to be generous with him because his question is our question. He’s asking the same question so many of us are asking: "what do i need to do to inherit eternal life?”
Now before you’re all, “I’ve never asked that before,” remember: ‘eternal life’ doesn’t mean what we think it means. ‘Eternal Life’ isn’t talking about life afterdeath, it’s talking about life before death. It’s life right here and right now, but it’s life that that hums with reverence. It’s life that is full and meaningful. It’s life that's deeply connected to the ways and presence of the Divine. If any of us have ever wanted something more out of life, we’re talking ‘eternal life.’ We’re asking the same question as this guy.
So Jesus tells him to go “love God and love your neighbour” and he’ll find that life. But that isn’t good enough for the lawyer. He needs more info. He really wants to make sure he can get it right. So he asks, “yah, but who is my neighbour?” And Jesus does this really annoying thing he does, he answers the question with a parable:
There’s a person dying in a ditch on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. The person’s been robbed, beaten, and left for dead. Eventually a super religious person comes, sees them, and crosses to the other side, ignoring them completely. A second religious person comes and does the same. Then a third person comes. Now at this point we kind of expect Jesus to say it’s a lawyer because that’d be the savvy teacher thing to do - make this person have the same profession as the person he’s talking to to really drive the point home, but instead, he has a Samaritan coming down this road. The Samaritan sees the Jewish person dying in a ditch, but instead of stepping over them like the other two, the Samaritan goes over, helps the person up, and drops them off at an Inn, basically giving the Inn Keeper a blank cheque to pay for whatever is needed, and then leaves.
When Jesus finishes he asks the lawyer, “who was the neighbour here?” The lawyer answers: "The one who showed mercy.” And Jesus says “Yes. Now, go and do likewise."
scandalous thing #1:
This is one of those stories where the bookends really really matter. Let’s remember how it begins: the guy is asking about enteral life. He wants to know what he needs to do to find life as it was meant to be. Not life up in heaven after we die, but life with God, right here and right now. So Jesus tells the story, and it ends with Jesus saying “if you do this, and you’ll find what you’re looking for.”
Well, do what exactly?
Most translations have it as ‘show mercy.’ Some have ‘show compassion.’ But either way, one way to think about those things is this idea of ‘drawing near.'
To be compassionate and to show mercy, it means drawing near. It’s to move towards the other. It's to be present to and be with the other.
Let’s just sit with that for a sec and put it all together cause we’re entering into the whole scandal of it: to find that life we’re looking for, it means we have to enter into the lives and worlds of others. These fundamental ways of God, things like compassion, mercy, justice, and love, aren’t things that can be done from a distance. They aren’t things we can do from the comfort of our homes or churches. They aren’t things that fit into our schedules. To do compassion, mercy, justice and love, it means being interrupted. It means being inconvenienced. It has a cost to it.
Jesus seems to be offering a really scandalous truth here: that this life we’re here looking for, that life of depth, meaning, and truth, it doesn’t just magically happen. It actually requires something of us. It requires drawing near. It requires us to move towards the other. It requires us to live with our heads up, eyes open, and hearts soft. It means if we want that life, we need to do what the Samaritan did. We need to draw near.
I know, right?
Considering the stakes, I have to wonder if “go and do likewise” is the most scandalous thing for us in this parable because it asks us a pretty huge question: "are we willing to draw near to others in order to find that life we’re looking for?
scandalous thing #2:
The whole story takes place on this road between Jericho and Jerusalem and this road was infamous for two reasons: First, it was quite narrow and rough. It was just wide enough for one person to walk down, and walk carefully at that. Second, it was super dangerous. Not just because of the road, but because of the robbers who took advantage of those conditions. It wouldn’t have been surprising to the original audience to hear that someone had been beaten, robbed, and left for dead there. What happens in the story is a pretty predictable. Chances were that if you went down this road alone, you’d get mugged and maybe even killed.
It was thinking about that part of the parable that Martin Luther King Jr had this to say:
"We are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside … but one day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that a system that produces beggars needs to be repaved. We are called to be the Good Samaritan, but after you lift so many people out of the ditch you start to ask, maybe the whole road to Jericho needs to be repaved.”
One of the scandalous things this parable does is remind us of the scope of compassion we’re called to have. We aren’t simply called to do what the Samaritan did for that beaten and robbed person, we’re also called to see why that person was beaten and robbed in the first place. We’re called fix the broken systems, structures, and attitudes that cause the hurt to happen in the first place.
My tradition has this really powerful way of putting that: we’re called to “repair and restore the universe.”
The UNIVERSE. The freakin’ UNIVERSE.
That’s the job. That’s the level we are supposed to operate at. We’re called to see the unpaved roads to Jericho, those causes of loneliness, racism, discrimination, poverty, and climate change, and do something about it. The scandalous truth this parable offers us is:
We don’t stop at thoughts and prayers, flipping coins, donating money, or buying someone a lunch. It’s not enough to leave it at the personal. We must always take it to the universal.
scandalous thing #3:
Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of the lawyer for a second. To him, and to any of the original audience, really, what do you think would be the most scandalous part of the story?
Samaritans were the cultural arch enemies of the Jews. It all goes back to this theological difference that caused a split in a community, but all we need to know is that in most of the minds of Jesus’ audience, and certainly for this lawyer, all Samaritans were bad. That we call this parable the ‘Good Samaritan’ gets at that. It's a first century oxymoron. You can get a sense of this tension in how the lawyer can’t even say the word ‘Samaritan.’ He just says “the one who showed mercy.”
The original scandal of this parable is that the person showing God’s love and God’s presence, the person through whom God’s Spirit is moving, the source of new life here, isn’t just the person you’d least expect, it’s the person you would have said it’d be impossible to happen through.
Can you hear the scandal beginning to sink in? Can you begin to sense how the message of this parable can still be shocking for us today?
The shocking and scandalous truth this parable offers us today is the same thing it offered people 2000 years ago: we can experience the Divine not only in the ways we'd least expect, but also in the ways we think are impossible.
Again, let that sink in because as beautiful as it is, it’s pretty scandalous. It leads us with a question we really do need to sit with:
“Am I ready for when God shows up in something I don't like?”