Once again I’m blogging on a lectionary passage at the end of the day, just as it’s fading from view to be replaced by next Sunday’s texts — at least for sermon-writers. But the rest of us churchgoers can spend a bit more time with today’s Gospel. So here goes.
In light of the “not guilty” verdict in George Zimmerman’s trial for the death of Trayvon Martin, other stories with similarly predictable plotlines have been circulating in social media—most notably, of a black man convicted (though later pardoned) for shooting a white teen, and a black woman sentenced for firing warning shots when her abusive husband, against whom she allegedly had a restraining order, made her feel threatened — as well as comments about other notable cases, such as the shooting death of Oscar Grant and the beating of Rodney King by police.
Among my friends, no one seems surprised, but everyone seems outraged. But friends are also reporting their own shock at racist comments their acquaintances are making. The comments are predictable, but the names and faces attached to them can be jarring.
We’re working from a dog-eared script. We know it by heart. We even find ourselves trapped inside the dramatic action, and feel helpless about how to break out of this tiring, predictable, racist, sexist, violence-addicted tragedy that keeps replaying itself as if it has a life of its own. Who wrote this, anyway?
We need a new script.
Turns out we have one, in today’s Gospel lection, from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV):
The Parable of the Good Samaritan
25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 26He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ 27He answered, ‘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 neighbour as yourself.’ 28And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’
29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ 30Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” 36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ 37He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’
This passage was already also making the rounds on social media yesterday, when the news of the verdict broke. In the ensuing conversations, I wrote, “Incidentally, for many Christians, tomorrow morning’s Gospel reading will be the story of the Good Samaritan, who did reach across racial and religious boundaries to help someone in need. A good contrasting image for us right now.” A friend re-posted it, and a friend of hers commented that reaching across racial boundaries shouldn’t be “good,” it should be “normal.” “No extra cookies,” she said. I loved that comment. In fact, it seems to be precisely what Jesus is saying in this story.
Jesus never called the hero of his story the “Good” Samaritan; that’s a title he was given later. (Anyone know the history of that? Leave a comment below!) In fact, by calling this Samaritan “good,” we’ve really done a disservice — perhaps even (unintentionally, surely) reinscribing the racial and religious stigma borne by Samaritans in Jesus’ day, since the implication is that Samaritans generally aren’t “good.”
But the story is part of a larger dialogue. Jesus is asked, by a lawyer, what must be done “to inherit eternal life.” The question is intended to “test” Jesus; whether that means the lawyer was trying to trip him up or was genuinely trying to get a sense for this rabbi’s sensibilities we really don’t know. But we find ourselves, interestingly enough, in a metaphorical courtroom. Jesus is, in a sense, on trial.
Also on trial is the lawyer, in a manner of speaking: he’s looking to gain eternal life, a sort of cosmic “not guilty” verdict.
What must he do? Jesus turns the question back on the lawyer, who, it turns out, knows the answer: Love God, love neighbor. Love God with your whole being, and love your neighbor as yourself. This summation of the Torah was commonplace by Jesus’ day. But, being a lawyer, Jesus’ interlocutor wants to get at precise definitions. He knows that words can obscure or reveal matters of life and death, and wants to make certain that everything is clear. So he asks, “Who is my neighbor?”
The answer Jesus gives him is anything but clear. We’ve all heard sermons and read expositions and commentaries on this and parallel passages; like any good story, this one has more than one meaning. That’s the power of stories, and that seems to be among the reasons Jesus was so fond of telling them.
Place yourself in the story. Are you the priest? the Levite? the man who was robbed? the robbers? the Samaritan? the inkeeper? Depending on where you find yourself in the story, the meaning will shift. For example, I’ve heard the following reading: The lawyer, after the story, identifies the Samaritan as neighbor to the injured man, and Jesus replies, “Go and do likewise.” Perhaps Jesus is challenging us to let ourselves be ministered to by those we have been socialized to despise. This can be a very important lesson sometimes. For many, it can be all but impossible to ask for help — especially if there are people one would rather die than accept help from. What if accepting help from [insert pariah here] would force an admission that they, too, are bearers of God’s grace?
I’ve seen the alleys where they hide the truth of cities,
The man whose blessing you must accept without pity.
—Bruce Cockburn, “Strange Waters”
The more common reading, of course, is to be the Samaritan, offering help to others regardless of race, class, religion, or whatever socioeconomic boundaries we might be encouraged by our cultures not to transgress. This is a tempting reading, too, because in this reading, we get to cast ourselves as both hero and victim —victim, as the maligned and perhaps persecuted Samaritan, but hero, as the one who saves the day and earns the approval of Jesus Christ himself! It’s a dangerous reading for those of us who enjoy some form of privilege, because we sometimes forget that we aren’t always the experts about what other people actually need. But it’s still a valuable reading, one that must be much harder to live if you really are a member of a persecuted minority and you find yourself in a position to offer help to someone who might not want help from you.
I want to suggest that this story offers us a new script to work with. It’s not a perfect script; it still has villains — though, in a surprising turn, the real villains aren’t so much the bandits but the priest and the Levite. But this script shows us ways to transgress expected norms.
If this were just a story about being good to people, why would Jesus have identified the hero as a Samaritan? We can be pretty sure the priestand Levite were Jews; but both Jesus and his conversation partner seem to assume that “a man” would be a member of their own in-group. We do the same thing, don’t we? — identifying the ethnicity (or other significant identity) of only the persons in our story who stand out from whatever is considered “normal”?
I wonder if Jesus’ listeners would have imagined the robbers to be Jews, Samaritans, or Gentiles. When you hear of a robbery in your area, does your mind supply a racial or ethnic identity to the robbers? To the victims? To any heroes responding to the scene? In the US, it seems that, just as the word “doctor” is still assumed to describe a man and “nurse” a woman, “immigrant” conjures up the image of poor Mexicans, and AIDS the image of a sickly, probably white, gay man. Like ours, Jesus’ culture had its own gendered, racial, and religious stereotypes, and Jesus exploits that in this story. Chances are good that the only non-Jew in the story is the only character whose ethnic identity is named. The injured man is “a man” — Everyman, “man” defined in a culturally normative way. He’s probably the character in the story Jesus’ original audience were most likely to identify with. The priest and Levite, whose religious and ethnic identities are implied in their titles, are actually identified by their status. These are more than Everyman. Culturally normative is their starting point; but they exceed it. The Samaritan is precisely the person in the story who is less than Everyman. He’s an other, an outsider, one to be eyed with suspicion. He’s probably wearing a hoodie.
Ultimately, though, Jesus seems to be saying that when God commands that we love our neighbor as ourselves, that means we are to be merciful toward precisely that human being within our reach who is in need of mercy — to help, heal, and provide for precisely thathuman being within our reach who needs resources we have. To love such a person as ourselves means to ignore the fact that the resources they need are (by our limited economy’s reckoning) “ours” and not “theirs.” The Samaritan didn’t place a limit on the sharing of his own resources. He told the innkeeper, “Take care of him… I will repay whatever more you spend.” Unless he was a gazillionaire, that was a pretty big risk.
The man who was robbed and beaten didn’t merit this help (we assume) by being a fellow Samaritan. Even if he had been, the hero of our story would have been already stretching the concept of neighbor, since he doesn’t appear to have recognized the man as a literal neighbor of his. When we expand our own notion of neighbor until it’s coterminous with our own ethnic, religious, or national identity, we haven’t gone far enough. It is reasonable to assume from the context of this story that the injured man was a Jew. But we don’t know whether or not the Samaritan actually knew that. Clearly, he didn’t care. The Samaritan may not have intended to make some kind of gesture to reach across religious and racial barriers. He did, however, recognize the man as his neighbor simply because he needed help.
One of the down-sides of social media is that quotes start going around, quickly misattributed or attributed to many different people. Here is one you have no doubt seen in some form or another:
How cool would it be to live in a world where George Zimmerman offered Trayvon Martin a ride home to get him out of the rain that night?
Clearly, Jesus thinks so, too.