I will admit that it can be challenging to hear this parable of Jesus and actually hear anything new. We have heard it so many times, of course, and more than that, there are so many overlays of interpretation and understanding — both cultural and otherwise — that it can be difficult to uncover Jesus’ true intent here.
Trying to hear this familiar parable in new ways this week, I spent some time with Amy-Jill Levine’s interpretation in her book, Short Stories by Jesus. I would recommend her treatment of the parable especially for her take on the ways in which for thousands of years it has suffered from inaccurate understandings which are rooted in antisemitism. Even more than that, she brings to it a point of view which perhaps only one deeply seeped in Jewish scholarship can bring. If nothing else, reading her perspective will surely slow you down enough that a new angle on this familiar parable might just emerge.
In the end, though, I Dr. Levine puts forth an understanding of the parable which I have always carried. To be a neighbor is to show mercy. It is to act in love, not only to feel compassion for the suffering of another. And in the explosive-for-the-time example Jesus offers, this way of being comes alive through the actions of a Samaritan.
Now it is so that I am given opportunities to emulate the Samaritan most every day — although it is also so that usually the circumstances of the neighbors I am asked to help do not appear to be as immediately life threatening as the one described before us now.
There was, for instance, the couple living in a van who took up residence in the parking lot behind our church a few weeks back. I went out with a bottle of cold water, some McDonald’s gift cards, a gas card, and the suggestion of a better place to park for the rest of the day so as to avoid getting towed. It seemed like the right thing to do, and perhaps was in keeping with what is before us now. but my meager offering does not compare to the Samaritan’s who, at his own expense, saw to the long term healing of the who he had come upon on the road to Jericho.
And there is the woman who calls every month or so. Her car keeps breaking down and those repair bills make it hard for her to pay other bills. And so she calls me or (at least) one other pastor in town for help. Her story is especially compelling and the last time she stopped in I took her to lunch. I try to help when I can: sometimes from my own wallet and sometimes from the church’s discretionary fund. And yet, it is also so that sometimes I avoid her calls.
And then there was just last week. I had put on literally hundreds of miles in the last seven days or so and was, at that point, barely able to put one foot in front of the other. I was simply exhausted both physically and emotionally from the toll of those last days. Only we got home and realized we were out of milk so I ran out to the store. As I walked in, I caught some movement from the corner of my eye and I looked up to see a young woman with a little girl. The child was sitting in a grocery cart, tucked back a ways beside the building and the woman was on her cell phone. I kept walking. When I came out of the store twenty minutes later they were still there. I thought about pausing. I did not. As I put my bag of groceries into the back seat of my car, I realized I had forgotten something so I went back in. When I emerged a few minutes later, they still hadn’t moved. Again, I kept moving.
I am not proud of this. Perhaps there was nothing I could have done or perhaps there was nothing they needed, and yet it would have been ‘neighborly’ to at least ask. And yet, in that moment I felt I simply did not have it in me.
And so it seems to me the bar is high as Jesus paints it now. Most days, most weeks, I know I do not come close to meeting it. And while surely grace abounds, that does not seem to be the point of what Jesus offers his listeners then or now. And yet, while it is no excuse, at the same time, most days I feel as though I cannot save ‘everyone.’ Alone I do not have the resources: the time, the money, the energy, the strength, the creativity, the hope to meet the needs of all those whom life has “beaten down and left to die at the side of the road.”
Even so, it has also occurred to me in these last days that maybe this is not mine (or yours) to do alone.
Now, I do not know that this is what Jesus meant when he offered this story so long ago. And I am pretty certain that Dr. Levine might shake her head at this as well. Still, this is what I am wondering now:
- I wonder if for you and me the priest and the Levite in the story here represent the organized/established church as we know it. (I know, that is none too original, is it?)
- And maybe they are simply tired.
- Or thinking about something else.
- Or maybe they are afraid.
- Or maybe they are discouraged, believing as I too often do that they simply do not have enough to save the lives of everyone who finds themselves “dying by the side of the road.”
And yes, surely they (and the church) are indicted in this telling for they and all too often, we, are surely not coming close to meeting the ancient understanding that to be a person of faith is to love God and love neighbor.
Even with this certain truth, however, I cannot help but wonder if the Samaritan actually represents all the ways God is already at work in the world showing mercy where it is most needed in unexpected places and using profoundly unexpected people.
- And I wonder if you and I who represent the church could somehow get over thinking it is all up to us and just started looking for the ways in which God is already working.
- I wonder if we just did all we could to catch up with where God is at work in the world and just joined in if we might be doing exactly what Jesus calls us to now. Even or especially when the one we are catching up to is Samaritan. Or Muslim. Or Mexican. Or Republican. Or Democrat. Or…. well, you fill in the blank.
- I wonder if then we might be given new energy and hope and purpose as we seek to live as we are called to live. Or more to the point, as we seek to love as we are called to love.
- The parable before us this week is so familiar it can be difficult to find anything new to say about it. What helps you to explore stories such as this one in new ways?
- What keeps you from living and loving as the Samaritan did? What might give you new energy or hope to more closely follow the example Jesus offers today?
- What do you think of the possibility that the Samaritan represents the ways God is already at work in the world? What would it mean for you and your community to simply ‘catch up’ with what God is already up to?
- Do you or your community sometimes have trouble seeing where God is at work in the world? For help in recognizing God’s activity all around us, consider looking into the Church Innovations Workshop Announcing the Kingdom.