February 9, 2020

Astonishing Help From an Enemy

Passage: Luke 10: 25-37

Synopsis: Jesus’ parable loses its provocative edge when we associate the Good Samaritan with a do-gooder preforming random acts of kindness. This short story, instead, confronts our most deeply held prejudices as the wounded and half-dead man lying by the side of the road receives astonishing help from an enemy when our most respected people fail to offer assistance.


I was born in the Good Samaritan Hospital in Pennsylvania. Various medical and charitable institutions have taken their names from the parable of the good Samaritan. The Samaritan’s Purse is a well-known evangelical charity. There’s even a Good Samaritan Donkey Sanctuary in Australia.


Such familiarity tends to remove the provocative edge from Jesus’ story and we associate a good Samaritan with being a “do-gooder” performing random acts of kindness. Furthermore, we identify ourselves with the good-Samaritan. That completely misses the point of Jesus’ story which is about unexpected help from an enemy when more respectable people look the other way and refuse to get involved.


I’m getting ahead of myself. Luke’s Gospel frames this parable with Jesus’ testy conversation with a lawyer. Luke doesn’t like lawyers. He said, earlier, that the Pharisees and the lawyers had rejected God’s purpose when they rejected John the Baptist (7:30). Then, at a dinner party, when Jesus insults his hosts by calling them “unmarked graves” a lawyer in attendance tells him that he’s also insulting them (11:45). That was his intent.


I get that because I come from a long line of farmer folk who distrusted lawyers. It was partly because they couldn’t understand their legalese but, more importantly, because they saw them as elites who often take advantage of common folk. When our daughter told our extended family that she was studying law, grandma asked her, “Are there any honest lawyers?”


Grandma and Luke would understand each other. To underscore the dubious character of this lawyer, Luke tells us that he really wants to test Jesus. Who else does that? The devil tested Jesus in the wilderness (4:2). Furthermore, the lawyer asks the wrong question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” As biblical scholar Amy-Jill Levine says:

The verb “do” [in Greek] suggests a single, limited action. The lawyer is thinking of something to check off his to-do list: recite a prayer, offer a sacrifice, drop off a box of macaroni for a food drive, put a twenty in the collection plate. If he’s efficient, he can inherit eternal life before lunch.[1]


Levine asks:

How far off base is our lawyer? He thinks in terms of a single action rather than a life of righteousness. He thinks of “eternal life” as a commodity to be inherited or acquired rather than a gift freely given. He focuses on eternal life—his own salvation—when he should be . . . focused on loving God and neighbor . . . Finally, he’s asking obnoxious questions to which he already knows the answers.[2]


Jesus doesn’t directly answer him. Instead, in typical Jewish fashion, he answers a question with a question, “What’s written in the law? What do you read there?” The lawyer knows his Bible well and responds, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”


Jesus complements him, “You answered correctly. Do this and you will live.” This reframes the lawyer’s original question about eternal life related to a to-do list to be checked off. It’s instead focused on an ongoing relationship and on living now. One would think that the man would have thanked Jesus and gone on his way. But he’s a lawyer in Luke’s Gospel who wants to justify himself and find a legal loophole, so he asks and even more misguided and malicious question, “And who is my neighbor?” As Amy-Jill Levine comments:


[This] is a polite way of asking, “Who is not my neighbor?” or “Who does not deserve my love?” or “Whose lack of food or shelter can I ignore?” or “Whom can I hate?”[3]


Again, Jesus doesn’t answer directly. He, instead, tells a story that begins with an anonymous man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. We don’t know anything about the man. He could have been rich or poor, free or slave, clergy or layperson, naughty or nice. He may have been an unsuspecting tourist visiting the region or a local man returning to his family. All of this is irrelevant. He’s “some man” or everyone.


This unfortunate man was waylaid by robbers who beat him up, stole his possessions, stripped him of his clothes, and left him half dead on the side of the road. Jesus’ listeners could easily identify with the victim who had been traveling on this treacherous road. Others had met similar fates there.


Next, three different men come walking down the road. Commentators have spilled lots of ink to the motives of the priest and the Levite who both pass by on the other side. Some claim that they assumed the man may be dead or about to die and therefore didn’t want to defile themselves by touching a corpse. That doesn’t hold up because the most important Jewish mandate, which overrides everything else, is to save life. The priest and the Levite represent the most reputable members of society who nevertheless fail. Why? I especially like the answer that Martin Luther King Jr. gives:


I’m going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It’s possible these men were afraid. . .. And so the first question that the priest [and] the Levite asked was, “If I do stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” . . . But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question” If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”[4]


Notice how the suspense builds in the story. First the priest comes down the road. “Ah, the man will be rescued!” But no. He sees, and passes by on the other side. Then the Levite comes down the road. “Hopefully he will rescue the man!” Again, we’re disappointed when he sees and passes by the other side. (Do we see a pattern emerging?) Then a despised Samaritan draws near. This doesn’t bode well; now, what will happen?”


Will this assumed terrorist kill the man? If so, the moral of the story might be that reputable people should have helped him when they had the chance. Instead, to our surprise, the rhythm of “passing by” is broken by the explosive verb “he had compassion.” In the Gospels, compassion is an active response coming from a heart of love.


Such compassion is “the bridge between simply looking on injured and half-dead fellow human beings and entering their world with saving care.”[5] The care this despised enemy provides is not half-hearted. He binds the injured man’s wounds, places him on his donkey, takes him to an inn to receive care, and promises to provide whatever monetary cost is needed. As biblical scholar John Donahue explains:

[Jesus’ parable] challenges us to move beyond our social and religious constructs of good and evil; it subverts our tendency to divide the world into insiders and outsiders. It makes us realize that goodness may be found precisely in those we most often call evil or enemy.  . . . To fulfill the command to love God and neighbor, one must often become the Samaritan, the outsider taking a risk in a hostile world.[6]


Why is it that good people do nothing, pretend that we don’t see, and pass by on the other side when confronted with desperate human need? Group psychology and fear even impels us to defend and cheer on the abuser. These are classic responses because we fear that we will be vilified and abused in turn.


In such situations, do we have the courage to become the despised outsider taking risks to love God and neighbor? To do so often means confronting pervasive human prejudice. The lawyer in Luke’s Gospel couldn’t even bear to voice the hated name “Samaritan.” He, instead, replied that the neighbor was “the one who showed mercy.”


We commonly use the construct of good and evil in describing our national enemies. We’re the “good guys” and they’re the “bad guys.” Saddam Hussein was vilified as the personification of evil. It’s deeply troubling that political rivals are now being vilified as evil in our partisan political climate. What risks will we have the courage to take as white nationalism and knee-jerk authoritarianism becomes more pervasive and deeply rooted in the power structures of our country?


Yes, there’s great evil in our world. We must not look the other way, pretend it’s not there, and do nothing. I think of Martin Luther King Jr. leading the fight against segregation, while refusing to vilify his opponents. Life is never a black and white fight between good guys and bad guys. There’s some bad in the best of us and some good in the worst of us. The line between good and evil runs through each of our hearts.


[1] Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 84.

[2] Ibid., 86-87.

[3] Ibid., 93.

[4] Ibid., 102.

[5] John Donahue, The Gospel in Parable (New York: Fortress Press, 1988), 132.

[6] Ibid., 134.

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