So in the Gospel account of Luke, Jesus tells a parable (this kind of spiritually loaded word picture), which even if you’re not a particularly religious person you’re probably vaguely familiar with, commonly known as the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
Synopsis: A lone traveler is befallen by bandits and left bloodied and penniless by the side of the road. He is passed over by two religious folks (a Priest and a Levite) who both ignore the wounded man in their midst, but a Samaritan stops, binds up his wounds, gets a room for him, and pays for the man’s recovery needs.
To those not familiar with the scene and the characters Jesus uses or with his audience, the moral of the story might seem like just another feel good, lay-up, megachurch message of “Be kind to others in need.” but it’s far more scandalous and subversive than that.
Jesus, a First Century Jew was speaking to other First Century Jews who treasured the purity of their bloodline and despised the racially blended Samaritans who they believed to be contaminated. That Jesus, a Rabbi would make the Samaritan the hero of the story at all (especially when favorably compared to Jewish religious representations) was a brutal sucker punch to the gut of his listeners and a brazen warning not to over-estimate one’s own righteousness and another’s moral inferiority.
So why is this story still so important two thousand years later?
Because we followers of Jesus still love to identify our Samaritans and to get them in the crosshairs of our righteous outrage. We still bend more toward the othering of people; toward choosing sides and defining our enemies and labeling evil and casting villains—than we do emulating Jesus. It strikes me that we who comprise the Church are still in the business of despising people and looking for scapegoats for the trouble of our times, missing the clear truth that God is fully alive in every person we encounter, as unlikely as it may seem to us. Every “Samaritan” is potentially our teacher.
Whatever portrait you fashion in your mind for the problems in the world, for the danger to mankind, for the threat to the common good; whatever people group you choose to be the source of the present evil—Jesus is warning that it might actually be you. You may quite fancy yourself the noble hero and really be the villain.
I’m more aware of this truth than ever before as I watch my fellow believers interact with people, especially in America during an election cycle. As Christians confident in our own moral position, we so easily adopt a posture of self-righteousness that rarely takes time to consider the damage we may be doing out there, the suffering we might be conveniently walking past, the inherent arrogance embedded in our religious convictions. We so often assume that the enemy of Humanity must be across the aisle or across town or in another country. We almost never court the possibility it could be in the mirror.
Jesus wasn’t pulling any punches here in the Samaritan’s story and that’s important to remember. His intended audience would have been rightly pissed off. He was not merely a placid, gentle teddy bear who only dispensed sweet words and candy kisses. Sometimes Jesus was a savage lion who ripped religious folks to shreds to expose their hardened hearts and publicly call them to the carpet, challenging them to dig deeper in their expression of faith. (Yeah, Jesus could that mess up.)
I wonder if we who claim Christ can still handle his difficult words. I wonder if we are still willing to listen to him when we don’t get to be the hero. I wonder if we stick with the story when Jesus flips the script.
Christian, what is your posture toward those whose lifestyles or beliefs you disagree with?
How often do you assume your own righteousness when compared to your perception of another’s?
How many times do you use your outer religion to mask your own inner darkness?
Who are you boldly painting as the villain, even while you walk over gutters filled with the blood of the needy?
Of course, nobody wants to be the bad guy, but unfortunately we’re all equally qualified for the position. This is a good reminder as you live and move and write and argue and listen and yell and post and comment today.
Christian, be careful in the certainty of your religion, in the security of your own self-image, and in the easy contempt you have for strangers—that you don’t become the Lousy Samaritan.