The picture above is of a fresco painted by Ben Long for First Presbyterian Church of Charlotte, NC.
Outing the Good Samaritan
Do you want to be known as a Good Samaritan? Of course you do! The Good Samaritan is an almost universally recognized term of appreciation for people who stop to help others in distress. So positive is this phrase that a nationwide RV organization with a million or so members proudly calls itself the “Good Sam Club.” Its logo even features a man with a halo - a rescuing angel perhaps.
There's only one problem with this picture: the Good Samaritan of Jesus' parable is a somewhat scandalous, though fictional, person. The degree of this scandal has been lost, but maybe it needs to be reconsidered. In its proper context, the story of the Good Samaritan illustrates the qualities of a good neighbor. The Bible says we're supposed to love our neighbor, but, who is my neighbor?
If you don't know the story, let me give you the gist - a guy gets mugged while on a trip. As he lies in the ditch, half dead, two religious professionals pass by and fail to stop. Maybe they're too busy to be inconvenienced, or maybe they're afraid they'll get mugged themselves. How many of us have done the same thing? Although these religious leaders didn't act like a good neighbor, their actions aren't the scandal in this story.
As the story continues, a Samaritan stops to help. He takes the victim to the local inn (there weren't any emergency rooms in 1st century Judea) and pays for any care that the man might need. The story is simple and compelling - if we leave things as they seem to stand. Here we have an example of a good neighbor. Too bad religious professionals aren't such good neighbors, but that's the way it goes. Therefore, let's just follow the adage: “Since we're neighbors, let's be friends.”
If the actions of the religious leaders aren't the scandal, where is the scandal to be found? Unless you know the story's context you won't catch it. In this story the Samaritan is the despised outsider. If you think in tribal terms, he's from the wrong tribe. Though distantly related, the Samaritans and the Jews despised each other, and so considering Jesus was Jewish, no one expected him to give a Samaritan such a good billing, but he did this to prove a point: The true neighbor might not always be the one you expect.
So, who might the Samaritan be today? This parable could be told in an anti-Semitic way, with the onus being on the Jews, but that would be untrue to the story (remember the one telling the story is Jewish). But, the story pushes us to see people through a different set of eyes. We expect that people like us will do the right thing. That's why we're scandalized when American soldiers are accused of wartime atrocities - we can't believe that such a thing could happen. It's also why we love to hear stories about Americans doing good deeds around the world. What we have a problem with is the good “other.”
Today's “Good Samaritan,” if we remember the context, is the despised outsider. It could be an undocumented immigrant or maybe a Muslim living in our community. Could that person be gay? I could add to this list of outsiders, but hopefully you get the point. We all have our stereotypes and our expectations, which color the way we view people. This story about the Good Samaritan helps uncover them for what they really are.
The parable of the Good Samaritan bears rereading, but only if we're aware of the scandal. Otherwise, we'll miss the point: God works in unexpected ways and through unexpected people. If that's true, then perhaps we should think more clearly about who our neighbor is and how we're to treat our neighbor. That neighbor might not look exactly like me or think exactly like me. As we consider the meaning of this parable for today, perhaps we'll discover how we can be Good Samaritans for our neighbors.
Feb 18, 2007