The Parable of the Good Samaritan is surely one of the most familiar stories in all the Bible. When we hear that text again, or any such well-known passage, it's likely that we may not pay much attention to it. Not that we aren't interested. It's just that we have decided upon its meaning long ago.
I've learned that whenever we approach scripture from the standpoint that it has no more to teach us, we usually dismiss it too soon. We lose some of its power because we deny hearing it in a new way. The parable in today's lectionary fits that description.
As a means of revisiting this passage afresh I want to encourage us to look at the parable not as a single story, but as a collection of stories. Each character that we encounter here has his own life, his own story, that starts before this parable begins and goes on beyond where it ends. Where these individual lives, these stories intersect, we have the action points in this teaching of Jesus.
The unnamed Jew who is mentioned first takes a trip from Jerusalem to Jericho. The robbers enter his story with disastrous consequences and then leave again as quickly as they come. The priest and Levite are so caught up in their own stories that they refuse to deal with the first man at all. Only the Samaritan enters the traveler's story in a profound and positive way.
For a period of time the lives of these two strangers are interwoven, probably to the surprise of them both. The Jew starts out on his journey never suspecting that he will not reach his destination as intended. Surely he is aware of the potential for danger along the Jericho road, but is not expecting a problem. It's much the same way as it is for us when we get in the car. We realize there is a risk, but none of us expects to actually find ourselves in a serious accident.
Likewise, the Samaritan is probably caught up in his own thoughts and plans. He does not anticipate the desperate plight of a man left beaten and bleeding alongside a bend in the road. He does not seek to get involved, yet he feels compelled to do so when the situation becomes clear to him. That decision will cost him time, money, and emotional energy. It will also put him at personal risk.
We all move through life as the subject of our own stories. We may enter someone else's story, someone else's life, with ill effect—as in the case of the robbers—or with good results, as evidenced by the Samaritan. For the most part, however, we pass by and do not enter the personal stories of others.
Maybe that's why we like novels and movies so much. Through fiction we share the joys and sorrows of its heroes and heroines. We enter their stories, though at a safe distance. In such tales the boundaries between ourselves and others are bridged. Good writing or filmmaking invites us in and we become present in the scene along with the characters. The dividing line between our world and their world is crossed, at least for the moment. If you've ever watched a movie and had your eyes well up with tears, you've experienced this first hand.
The writer Flannery O'Conner once made this observation, "You will have found Christ when you are concerned with other people's sufferings and not your own." It's ironical, however, that some folks may find it easier to get involved with a TV character than with someone as close as a neighbor. The events on the screen aren't threatening; what goes on in the neighborhood may make us more fearful. But then that's the difference between fiction and real life.
I can recall, years ago, reading about a young woman named Kitty Genovese. Her name and her circumstances have stayed in my mind. She was attacked and beaten on a sidewalk in New York City while dozens of people watched from the safety of their apartments. No one, it seems, did anything to try to stop what was happening below, either directly or by calling the police. They simply observed the action, heard her screams, and refused to get involved.
This story got considerable press at the time. In places like Columbus, it was used as an example of evil and indifference in the big city. I don't think that we would be so smug about this today. The problems of violence and crime are just as real here as in Detroit or Chicago or Los Angeles. And people react in just about the same ways, too.
In our scripture we don't know why the robbers chose this particular man to mug. Maybe he had the look of prosperity about him. Perhaps he just happened along at the wrong place and the wrong time.
They beat him and take what they want and then flee the scene. They enter his life for only a few minutes, endanger it, and then step out again completely. They have what they want: money and cloak and sandals—cash and designer jacket and Reeboks—and then they are done with him. He no longer matters and is no further part of their story.
The priest and the Levite would both seem like persons who would stop and help an injured man, but neither of them do. They look, but don't respond. They hurry through our narrative so quickly that they are hardly even part of it; yet, their lack of response is clearly noted. These two men, who give the appearances of keeping faith, fail the test here of even common decency. Their lives only brush the life of the injured one.
One man does stop. One man does get involved. And he is the one man who was least likely of all. He puts himself at risk in the event the robbers are still nearby. He tears up part of his own clothing to serve as bandages for the other. He walks while the other rides to a place of safety and rest. He pays for several weeks of recuperative stay out of his own pocket. He promises reimbursement for any further expenses should that be needed. The Samaritan and the Jew travel the same road together and, for that brief time, they share the same story.
In this parable Jesus lifts up an unexpected person who puts himself in the position of another human being. The situation is clear for him. Awareness and intention and action all mesh. He does the right thing. He is neighbor to the stranger.
On December 1, 1955, a woman got on a city bus to go home after a long work day. She was tired and her feet hurt. When the bus arrived it was already getting filled and so she was relieved when she found a seat just a little past the center. She leaned back and began to relax a bit after her arduous day. Outside her window she noted that the city was preparing to put up its municipal Christmas decorations.
At the next stop more passengers boarded the already crowded bus. Some people around her got up to let the newcomers have their seats, but Rosa was so exhausted that she couldn't seem to move. Besides, why should she? She had paid the full fare. She put it in the coin box at the front of the bus, then disembarked again to enter by the rear door as required.
The driver quickly sized up the situation and realized that one of those who had just boarded was still standing. So he yelled back at Rosa, telling her to get up so that this man could sit down. She knew very well what the segregation laws said. She knew what limitations of citizenship were prescribed for people who had skin of a different color. She wasn't in a revolutionary mood that Thursday afternoon, simply tired. She just wanted to sit rather than have to stand at the back of the bus all the way home.
Her problems didn't end, though, with her refusal; they only began. The driver stopped the bus, called a policeman, and laid out the situation. The officer came on board. All eyes watched as he made his way to where Rosa Parks sat for her ride home. There he arrested her and removed her from the bus. She was taken to the courthouse, where she stayed until she could get someone to post bail for her.
The next morning the young pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama, got a phone call which was destined to change his life forever. The caller told him that people all over the city were tired of being treated as second class and that there was talk of a boycott of the bus company. The minister shared the caller's concern. He responded by offering the church as a meeting place to gather the black community.
The life of the Rev. Martin Luther King suddenly crossed that of Mrs. Rosa Parks, and though they had never met as yet, his life entered hers. His story and her story came together in a moment in time. He could have passed her by, but what he truly believed in his heart compelled him to act regardless of the cost.
He had once preached: "Religion [must] deal with both heaven and earth.... Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that doom them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them, is a "dry as dust religion," Rosa's story touched Martin, not only to bind up her wounds, but to change an inhumane system and prevent it from injuring future generations.
The story of the Samaritan is the story of an unlikely person who does an unlikely thing. Inferior though he may have been regarded, considered racially impure and heretical of faith, he alone knows both what to do and is willing to do it. So the question was posed: "Which of these persons, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers? A hearer answered, "The one who showed him mercy." Then Jesus nodded and said, "Go and do likewise."
Faith sometimes requires us to enter the stories, to enter the lives and circumstances, of others. It is to be aware of what is going on around us and to act accordingly. It is to risk what we must because our conscience will not allow us to do otherwise.
In this familiar parable Jesus tells us that the shortest path to God is through journeys shared and burdens borne.