Our Gospel reading this Sunday is a familiar story—perhaps the best known parable in all of Scripture. Most of us know it as a message of the importance of showing mercy and kindness to our neighbor. We may understand the parable as one in which Jesus is reminding us of the importance of following the spirit of the law rather than getting stuck in worrying about adhering to strict dogma. We may also understand the text as a reflection on what it means to be neighbor to one another.
All of those are perfectly good readings of the passage. However, in many ways throughout our Christian tradition, the familiar story seems to have lost its edge and significance. In our attempts to understand what Jesus is saying in light of our own lives today, we may be missing what his use of the parable meant in the lives of those around him then and in the lives of those who first read Luke’s account.
In that tradition, we’ve attached the word “Good” to the Samaritan who finally comes to the aid of the one in the ditch, a descriptor not found in the text and one that would have been difficult for the first followers of Jesus to understand. In their lived experience, and in their judgement, Samaritans were far from good. Indeed, they were a group of people despised for their differences and their identity by first century Jews and Samaritans viewed Jews through the same lens. The relationship between Jews and Samaritans were generally characterized by that special hostility found among close relatives who feel themselves betrayed by the other.
Luke alludes to this animosity in the previous chapter, writing that the Samaritans would not receive Jesus as his traveling party made their way south through Samaritan territory on their way to Jerusalem. Galilean Jews were heretics in the eyes of Samaritans, and vice versa. The vitriol, the hatred, was so great that Jesus’ own followers, his disciples James and John, asked if they should destroy the Samaritans with fire. They wanted to kill them.
And yet, it is a Samaritan that Jesus carefully chooses to show mercy and compassion in a parable about what it means to follow the law of God and who is to be considered neighbor.
Just as the story of the Good Samaritan has become very familiar to all of us, this week as we turned on the news or tuned into social media, we were once again presented with stories that have also become too familiar.
ICE raids, detentions, and deportations. Children being held in cages. Shootings everywhere.
These stories, all too familiar, cause us to lament. They cause us to grieve and to try to understand. But in their familiarity, these stories can also cause us to miss the underlying complex set of problems and oppressive structures that must be addressed.
The ongoing disregard for our immigrant and refugee brothers and sisters is happening as a result of our country’s shameful legacy of racial oppression and economic exploitation. The forces of evil: fear, hatred and violence are pervading our culture and destroying our lives. Too many of us have failed to resist these forces, instead falling prey to voices of doubt and our fear, causing us to sit on the sidelines in silence and inaction.
We are called by our faith to lament the evils we face. We are also called by our faith to speak the prophetic truth.
The truth, the story we must tell, is that we live in country built on the genocide of our indigenous brothers and sisters, a legacy of slavery, racial oppression and economic exploitation of black and brown bodies. Until we confess our collective sins and wrestle with the implications of that legacy, we cannot achieve reconciliation. God calls us to do that work, to move beyond the division that seeks to destroy, the same spirit of division that caused the otherness of the Samaritans to fill Jesus’ disciples with hatred and to contemplate violence.
In his book, America’s Original Sin, Jim Wallis, the president of Sojourners wrote,
“Racism is America’s original sin and must be named as such. Sometimes it expresses itself explicitly and overtly, with the Charleston murders being perhaps the most extreme example in decades. But racism lingers far more pervasively in implicit and covert ways in American institutions and culture, in often unconscious attitudes, and in the very structures of our society.”
In his telling of the parable, Luke specifically notes that all three of those who encountered the half-dead naked man lying in the ditch saw him. The priest saw him and deliberately walked to the other side and bypassed him. The Levite saw him and did the same. They were too busy, too focused on what might happen if they acted, too afraid.
They saw him, but not as a neighbor, perceiving him instead to be a burden, perhaps even a threat.
The Samaritan man, in seeing a man robbed and removed of dignity, nearing the end of his life saw himself. He identified with the one set aside to die, lost and discarded. And because he could see himself, he was moved to act. It became personal. He had no choice but to respond, to take him to the inn and care for him. And through that empathy, two lives were changed forever.
“No one is beyond the reach of God’s love,” the theologian David Lose wrote. “No one. And so Jesus brings this home by choosing the most unlikely of characters to serve as the instrument of God’s mercy and grace and exemplify Christ-like behavior. That’s what God does: God chooses people no one expects and does amazing things through them. Even a Samaritan. Even me. Even you.”
The Good News I find in this Gospel text is the notion that God often shows up where we least expect God to be. For the man left to die on the side of the road between Jerusalem and Jericho, the last person he expected to show up and show mercy was a Samaritan, and a Samaritan was the last person the Jews hearing the parable would have expected to be lauded as the hero of the story.
Our communities are yearning for God to show up in big ways, as fear and anger and grief have a hold on all of us. It seems that we are in a place where we expect more violence, more division, more hate, more people to see suffering and walk to the other side of the road.
The unexpected way in which God can and is ready to show up is through us. It will be in the way we show love, the manner in which we offer mercy and compassion. In the midst of grief and uncertainty, love and mercy are unexpected. In a society where racism and structures of inequity harm and kill our brothers and sisters of color, direct action to bring about equity and justice are unexpected.
As we walk that road ahead, full of opportunities to see, draw near and show compassion, let us work to make sure that God shows up in unexpected ways through us.