The parables that Jesus told defy simple explanations. Each of the parables is layered with meaning. The varied meanings of each parable can take a lifetime to uncover as the stories weave in and out of our own lives. The parable about the Good Samaritan is probably one of the most familiar of all of Jesus’ parables.
I believe that the timeless quality of his story comes as a result of the way in which the reader or the hearer can identify with all of the characters in the story. While most of us would like to see ourselves as good Samaritans, I dare say that over the years each of us have managed to play all of the roles in this story.
Sometimes we have played the role of the priest. Perhaps on our way to a meeting, holiday along the highway we have avoided helping someone a broken-down standing beside the car, it could have been a trap designed to get me to stop, and we’ve all been warned that it’s not safe for women to pull over for strangers. These days you never know who you can trust. just like the priest we have passed by on the other side.
I am ashamed to tell you how many times I have played the role of the Levite. Oh, I want to be a good Samaritan. But there are just too many street people, too many requests for money, too many people sleeping out in the cold, and too many vacant faces staring up at me. It’s difficult to know how or who to help. So, a long time ago, I struck up an uneasy compromise with my conscience. Whenever I went into the city I would some coins as I decided to help someone in need. I was satisfied with this particular solution until one day I kept reflecting on my actions and wondered if what I was really doing by handing over coins was appeasing my own conscience. The good Samaritan did more than just hand over a coin, he took the time to bandage a man’s wounds and then found him care and shelter and then made a follow up visit. Perhaps my time would be better spent if instead of handing out coins, I spent my time and energy trying to solve the social problems that resulted in people having to live on the streets. Martin Luther King once said that what the good Samaritan did was only a beginning and that “some day we will have to realize that the road to Jericho must be made in such a way that men and women are not constantly beaten and robbed while they are travelling along the paths of life.” We continued along the road in silence.
But there are so many street people and so very many problems and my meagre efforts hardly make me a good Samaritan. I’d like to believe that I’m not like the priest and the Levite who passed by their neighbour in need. But try as I might to distance myself from their apparent lack of concern for their neighbour, the sad truth is that more often than not I too am more concerned with my own business than I am with my neighbours’ need.
I said before that over the years at one time or another we all find ourselves playing each of the characters in this parable. But what about the robbers who strip and beat the man and leave him half dead? I wish it were not so. But those of us who live in the developed nations of the world cannot deny that much of our wealth is snatched from the hands of the impoverished people of this world. Every time we go into a discount store and buy a cheap outfit, we know that our neighbours in China, or India spent hours and hours day after day in sweatshops working for indecent wages so that we could have our bargains. Men, women, and children have been stripped, beaten, and left half dead toiling away so that we can enjoy cheap coffee, bananas, clothes, shoes, electronics, and don’t forget our toys. Like it or not the role of robbers comes easier to us than we’d care to admit.
The road to Jericho is always with us. The road to Jericho is any place where people are robbed; where people are robbed of their dignity, robbed of their love, robbed of their food and clothing, robbed of their value as human beings. The road to Jericho is any place where there is suffering and oppression. It isn’t easy to hold on to the role of the good Samaritan. These days one hardly knows were to begin.
So where is the good news in this story. Where’s the grace for us. Well, I have to admit that what I know about grace I did not learn from playing the role of the lawyer, the priest, the Levite, a robber, or even a good Samaritan. No, I learned more about grace at those moments when I have been the vulnerable one lying on the side of the road. Lying vulnerable on the side of the road you can’t afford to be picky about who helps you, even if it is a social outcast or an enemy like the Samaritan was to that helpless man in Jesus’ tale. It has been said that Samaritans were considered the scum of the earth by Jesus’ Jewish brothers and sisters. In Jesus’ day a Jew would never consider speaking to a Samaritan, let alone asking a Samaritan for help. Samaritans were the enemy. Samaritans were loathed and to be avoided at all costs. Lying helpless on the side of the road you can’t afford to be picky about who helps you.
As I read the parable of the good Samaritan over and over again, I realize that over the years I have played the part the priest, the Levite, the robbers, and from time to time, all though not often enough, I have even tried my hand at being the good Samaritan. But I have to say that I have learned more about grace on those occasions when I have been vulnerable and laying at the side of the road and in need of help.
When we are vulnerable it is easier somehow to let ourselves be touched by those who in other circumstances we might fear or call our enemies. When we are vulnerable, we are willing to be touched by those who under other circumstances we might judge to be the untouchables. When we are vulnerable, we are better able to recognize those that the world has judged to be the untouchables as our neighbours. When we recognize our neighbours, we are better able to love them. But I suppose more often than not, I have played the part of the lawyer who stands up to test Jesus. More often than not we are the ones’ asking Jesus what must we do to inherit eternal life? Just like the lawyer we know the answer to our own question, “We are to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, with all our souls, and with all our strength, and with all our minds; and we are to love our neighbours as we love ourselves.” Jesus agrees with us and says, “do this, and you will live.”
Interestingly enough Jesus does not say do this and you will have eternal life. Jesus simply says do this and you shall live. Living in close proximity to others leaves us with all sorts of questions about how it is that we shall live together. All too often the roles we choose play in life insulate us from those we encounter along the way. But from time to time, we are blessed with moments of vulnerability when we can see the ones we fear as our neighbours. I suspect that it is our vulnerability which teaches us the grace we need to open ourselves to the possibility of embracing the role of the Good Samaritan.