The story of the Good Samaritan is one of the best known of Jesus’ parables. It’s become something of a cliché, even. Just the other day, I read in the news that a person who stopped to give a ride to a young family that missed their bus was referred to as a Good Samaritan. There are often stories of a person who stops to help a stranger. The Good Samaritan Society does important work providing supportive and compassionate care for people in need. In fact, I don’t suppose it would be unusual for someone to know what a Good Samaritan is without knowing the story from the Gospel of Luke: someone who shows kindness and compassion to a stranger in need.
Don’t get me wrong, that’s a good thing. It’s important that we understand the need to be compassionate and caring about others in need, even – perhaps especially – if we don’t know them. After all, we should love our neighbour, Jesus says, and everyone is our neighbour.
That’s where Jesus’ story goes from valuable to deeply meaningful. Jesus’ idea of “everyone” isn’t just those people that are easy to deal with, it’s, literally, everyone. So, a man on a journey is attacked by robbers and left for dead. After others – who, by virtue of their position, would have been obligated to help – have passed the man by, the one who stops to help, the hero of the story, isn’t your friendly everyday Judean, as Jesus’ audience might have expected. It’s a Samaritan, the least likely person to help. Well, I mean, so we would assume if we were first century Jews.
Good Jews would have known that Samaritans were Jews, kind of, but the wrong kind of Jews. Jews from the other side of the mountain, so to speak, who didn’t believe “right.” Samaritans believed that they were the true inheritors of the Hebrew faith and didn’t believe God’s home was Jerusalem, but rather Mount Gerizim. The break between them wasn’t just a schism, it had been violent. Judean Jews would have despised Samaritans.
So Jesus picked a stereotype of who he thought his audience would know wasn’t just a stranger, but something more, a reviled and hated enemy. And that’s the tricky part we’ve lost.
There’s a funny sketch by the British comedy duo Mitchell and Webb in which they recreate the story of Jesus telling the parable of the Good Samaritan. Except, in their version, when Jesus suggests the unlikely occurrence of a Samaritan helping a Jew, his audience calls him on the societal stereotype. They know some very nice Samaritans, they say, some even vacation in Samaria and have a great time. Some of them are lovely people, one man says, and challenges the “inherent racism” of the story.
So let’s look at it individually for a moment. It’s not just a stranger, it’s someone we’re supposed to hate. But who do we hate? Not as a society, but you and me, as individuals, who do we hate?
Say there’s an injured person in the street. They’ve been assaulted and they’re severely injured. The first two people to come by are people who should be willing to help, but they don’t. They could have good reason, we don’t know. More likely they were just too afraid to stop, dangerous neighbourhood after all. But then along comes … so who is it? Who’s your “samaritan?” To be blunt, ask yourself who might you hate or fear, from life or culture, experienced or imagined? Who is it that you “wouldn’t cross the street” to help? You know there’s someone. That’s who Jesus wants you to love.
And it’s a two-way street. Like any good story, we aren’t always the hero, sometimes we’re the victim. Would you accept the gift of compassion from that very same person?
And what happens when we’re the “samaritan” in someone else’s eyes? How hard will we try in the face of rejection? It’s easier to walk away than fight to care, but Jesus still calls us to do so.
That’s the trouble with this parable. It may be that we can give or receive compassion as a stranger. The bigger challenge comes when it’s not a stranger, it’s our “samaritan.” What will you do?