Listen to “Neighbors” by Fred Smith
Like most of us, I’ve heard the Parable of the Good Samaritan since childhood and one thing has remained constant: the Samaritan has always been presented as a second-class citizen to the Jews. The Samaritan is always the underdog and the object of scorn, derision and even persecution.
So naturally, I’ve been trained to think of them as victims who did little to deserve the injustice they suffered. Isn’t the point of the story that it is the people we least expect to be compassionate who reveal our hypocrisy? Isn’t it those who have been demeaned who show us up for who we are?
But the Samaritans were not victims. They had betrayed their own family by giving up their identity and adhering to a rival and false religion when the Jews returned from Babylonia. They resisted the return and made it difficult for them to rebuild. For hundreds of years both of them believed they were right and the other wrong about everything. Both of them read with skepticism into the motives of everything the other did. They never missed a chance to hurt each other. While the Jews destroyed their place of worship the Samaritans desecrated the Temple by spreading human bones. I don’t think we have any better illustration of that particular kind of venom and mistrust than in our politics today. There is no foreign enemy we hate with as much intensity and suspicion as our other half.
As Jesus gradually exposes the hypocrisy of the Pharisee and Levite the crowd was no doubt delighted that the lawyer asking the question was about to be skewered. Shaming him would be good sport. But then Jesus turns the story upside down. He suddenly makes a hero out of one hated by everyone in the audience. Jesus intentionally uses a Samaritan when he could have used a prostitute or a publican and not caused such a visceral reaction. He always goes too far. Why alienate and intimidate all your listeners? Why not just make the lawyer squirm? But Jesus is never satisfied with our little categories and disputes. He is not going to align with one side of the aisle or the other. He is going to offend us now as he did then. But why?
Because the point has to be shocking – almost revolting – if we are to understand the nature of nearly everything Christ teaches – including kindness. Flannery O’Connor said, “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.” Jesus is dealing with the deaf and the almost blind – then and now. The point of the story is not the mere empathy of a stranger but something deeper and far more difficult.
We never know what God will do with our enemies and those who are dug in against us. Many in Jesus’ audience would likely have stopped listening and walked away in disgust the moment he said “Samaritan,” and we are tempted to do the same.
So what do you do when someone who betrays your most treasured values and beliefs – not merely an underdog – becomes the very symbol of what Jesus says it means to be a neighbor? What do we do with those who do not deserve to be heroes?
This week I have been thinking about the verse in Acts that reads “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” I have always read that to refer to geography but it is more than that. Our gospel has to have the power to go through our own versions of Samaria to reach the world. It has to go through our own notions about who is in and out and who is for and against us. It has to go through our own enemy’s territory before getting to the ends of the earth. Otherwise, our gospel will just remain in Jerusalem and Judaea. It will be a gospel for us but it will never have the power to reach the ends of the earth unless it has the power to go through Samaria first. We would rather not. We would prefer going around Samaria and not have to deal with them but that is not what Jesus said. You must deal with Samaria. You must love your neighbors – even those you despise and, just as important, allow yourself to be loved by them. It is only in the power of the Holy Spirit that we will do that. It is only when we forgive each other as neighbors that our good news will make any sense to the uttermost parts of the earth.