In oral story-telling, things usually happen in threes — three bears, three pigs, three wishes. And so in this story, we have three travelers: A Priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan.
Mind you, Jesus could have told this story in a more generic way. The three travelers could have been simply that – three travelers, passing along the road to Jericho; two who did not stop, and one who did.
But no – Jesus is very specific here. The first traveler is a priest, the second a Levite, the third a Samaritan. It’s only the beaten man in the road who is left without any further identification. He alone is a generic everyman. When we are beaten and bloody and left for dead, we become no more – and no less – than a human body.
So perhaps this is the first lesson of this story. Those in need are, simply, human. We need know nothing more.
I say the first lesson of this story, because this is a parable, not a fable. A fable is a story with a clear moral at the end – a single lesson to teach. Like, “Slow and steady wins the race.” Or, “Never cry wolf.” A parable, on the other hand, that’s much less cut and dried. A parable has multiple meanings and multiple interpretations. It raises questions as much as it answers them. The message the parable has for us depends in part on who we are, and where we see ourselves in the narrative.
So let’s return to Jesus’ story.
Unlike the victim, the other travelers are given specific social identities. And with the naming of this cast of characters – the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan – Jesus’ tale becomes unavoidably political. I use this word, not in its usual sense of “partisan” – we have come to use these two words as synonyms because so much of our own politics is partisan – but in the way that Aristotle once defined it – to be political, is to be engaged in public conversation regarding the ordering of our common life.
When I say this parable is political, I mean it takes the lawyer’s abstract question – who is my neighbor? – and makes it specific and real and therefore controversial. It’s the difference between saying, “All Are Welcome,” and saying, “we welcome gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons.” It’s the difference between saying, All Lives Matter, and saying, Black Lives Matter. It’s easy to get folks to agree to some vaguely-defined, general moral principle; the devil lurks in the details.
When the lawyer, seeking to justify himself, asks, “who is my neighbor,” Jesus doesn’t just say, “everyone.” He tells the lawyer a story – not about three generic travelers, but about a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan.
Now, the first two – the priest and the Levite – would both be considered pillars of the Jewish community, moral examplars to be emulated. So if the lawyer was looking for an out, Jesus seems to have handed him one. What’s good enough for the priest, is good enough for the people, right?
Well, maybe not. Not good enough, certainly, for the man lying on the side of the road. Thank God, then, for the third traveller. The one who stops, and binds his wounds, and carries him to safety. Does it matter, that this man is a Samaritan?
Geographically, Samaritans and Jews were, indeed, neighbors, but they were separated by a deep historical divide that was both political and religious. The Hebrew Scriptures tell how the two regions had once been one country, a united kingdom ruled over by David and Solomon. But after Solomon’s reign, the peoples were split by civil war. Samaria became the capital of the northern kingdom while Jerusalem remained the capital in the south. The two groups diverged in their religious practices and customs. They began to view each other with mistrust and contempt. Not long before he told this story, Jesus himself had been denied hospitality, while traveling through Samaria.
So it must have come as a shock for his listeners, when Jesus cast the Samaritan in the role of the hero. It still comes as a shock to me, today.
I mean, I get the idea that we should help those in need. I get the idea that compassion is more important than piety. I get the idea that racial and national and religious borders should not set limits on our common humanity.
But the really weird thing about this story, the thing that we so often don’t get, is that the Samaritan – the outsider, the enemy, the heretic – he isn’t the guy who needs help in this story. He’s the guy who offers help. The guy who needs help? That’s everyman. That’s us.
It is hard enough, to bless our enemies. But to be blessed by our enemies? That is nearly unbearable. After all, I can bless my enemy without ever giving up the moral high ground. I can pick my enemy off the ground, and pat myself on the back, saying “that’s more than they would do for me.” But when I am blessed by my enemy, my world turns upside down.
So I wonder, if Jesus were to tell this story today, to me – who might he cast in the roles of Priest, Levite, and Samaritan? It’s an activity I’ve done with youth groups, a sort of parable Mad Libs where I first have them write down the names of two people they admired, and one they despised, and then we read the parable with those names inserted. For the people they admired, they wrote the names of their favorite teachers, their best friends; one wrote down his own name. But for the person they despised, most of them wrote down – well, let’s just say a prominent political figure of the day.
In recent years, researchers have found that “both Republicans and Democrats increasingly dislike, even loathe, their opponents.” America is becoming as divided by political ideology as by religion, gender, or race. During my own lifetime, interracial and interfaith marriage have increased, but inter-party marriages have declined. Our media, our news sources, our vocabulary, our voting districts are increasingly segregated by political affiliation. We may not have personal enemies; but we do have political enemies.
So let’s imagine a modern re-telling of this ancient parable, shall we?
One snowy morning, a traveler was driving to work when an aggressive driver forced her to swerve, and her car spun off the road into the ditch. The traveler reached for her cell phone but unfortunately she was in one of those dead zones between towns were there is no cell coverage. So instead she anxiously scanned the road for someone who might help her.
The first car to come by sped by on the opposite side of the road. As it passed, the traveler noticed a campaign sticker on its rear bumper. The sticker said, [insert the name of your favorite Presidential candidate here].
A second car did the same, although this time the driver waved as they went past. As the car disappeared, the traveler noticed a campaign sticker on the rear bumpers. It said, [insert the name of your second-favorite candidate here].
A third car came by, and the driver pulled over, to find out if she all right, and if she needed a ride anywhere. As she thanked him, she noticed the campaign sticker on the rear bumper of the car. The sticker said, [you guessed it: insert here the name of your least-favorite candidate – the one you truly despise.]
The truth is, sometimes we would almost rather hear that our opponents have done something truly despicable, than that they have done something good. We would rather be right, than reconciled.
But Jesus didn’t say, be better than the Samaritan. He said, be like the Samaritan. What a shock that must have been, to that pious lawyer. What a shock it still is, to us.
What a world it might be, if we all went and did likewise.
(sermon preached by Rev. Liza B. Knapp at Belchertown United Church of Christ on Feb 21, 2016)