Credits: Karoline Lewis for the alternate parable title: Garret Keizer's wonderful book Help: the Original Human Dilemma; Anne Lamott's Traveling Mercies. Bible translation from Eugene Peterson's The Message.
goes again, answering a simple question with a story. At least this one seems
to have a clear enough point to it. It’s no accident that we have Good
Samaritan laws and not Unjust Steward laws. Good Samaritan Hospitals, and not
Rich Fool Hospitals.
it’s so familiar and so evidently simple, that’s just the problem with it.
Like so many
parables, Jesus gives us just enough details
to make it seem real – the dangerous road, the officials in a hurry, the
robbers lurking nearby, the wine poured into open wounds and a donkey hauling a
broken man to shelter. It’s so vivid, it’s
no wonder the story has become synonymous in our culture with what it means to
help a stranger in distress.
are so many details left out; so many complications of helping real people in
the real world, that make it seem easier than it really is.
all know that helping others is actually a pretty complicated affair:
Keizer describes this with bracing clarity in his book Help
“I want to tell it again in different
versions. . . I wnt the Samaritan. . . to take the phone from the saddlbad and hear
the voice of his wife, his sister-in-law, the police telling him that someone
he dearly loves is “at it again.” I want the man by the side of the road to be
his father, his little brother, or his only begotten son, and I want him to be
drunk as a skunk and stripped,
beaten, and left for dead. I want this to be the third time in as many months
that this has happened. . .
“I want the Samaritan – very much I
want this – to get into a big argument over putting the victim on his animal. .
. I want to hear him scream “Just get on the [stupid] donkey.. . .
“I want the Samaritan, on his return
visit to the inn, to learn that the wounded man has recovered enough to trash
his room, harass several guests.. .
“In short, I want to see it get
complicated. And along with that, I want to see it take time, all kinds of
If any part
of you is laughing ruefully after this litany it’s because you know how very
very vulnerable we make ourselves when we help others, and how easy it is to
delude ourselves that we are in fact helping, when maybe we might just be interfering
and making things worse – worse for those we
love if not also for ourselves and our supposed beneficiaries.
I want it to get complicated.
another complication, a metaphor for just how difficult it can be to even
encounter our neighbors: You can no longer take this road. The road from
Jerusalem to Jericho is now blocked by an enormous wall, separating Israel from Palestinian territory; you cannot
simply walk from Jerusalem to Jericho. The Jew and the Samaritan simply wouldn’t end up on that road together
parable is designed to tell us HOW to be
help our neighbors, this story is way too simple, way to quick, lacking in all
the messy details that make the job hard.
You can’t get there from here.
is, most of us would never find ourselves on such a road in the first place.
We’ve built our entire security society out of the assumption that people
should help themselves, and if the world is not safe enough they should pay for
a better security system, a better handgun, an armed guard to accompany us in
the dangerous places. We pay for the health club and the statins best
healthcare we can possibly afford and wonder what that person who had the heart
attack did wrong. We invest everything we can in helping our kids be
responsible and studious and successful so they’ll go to the right schools and
get a good job and never ever have to ask for a handout.
Which is why
when the bad stuff does happen, as it so often does, even now, the person in
the ditch is so often incredibly alone.
suffering of the one in the ditch is not just about theft and violence and
wounds. The suffering of the person in the ditch is that of being passed by.
that is the pain that I hear, over and over again, of those who find themselves
thrown off the fast track of life.
What’s surprising is not that bad stuff happened. If you live long
enough you expect that. What’s surprising and so saddening, again and again, is
how utterly isolating it can be, when you are the one who lost the job, you are
the one with cancer, you are the one whose spouse is slowly drifting away on
the ship of Alzheimers. What so many people tell me hurts the most is that the
rest of the world keeps on racing by, and hardly anyone stops to say, “are you
story is supposed to tell us how to help our neighbor, it’s finally not that
helpful, in a world designed to keep us away from unfamiliar neighbors. But
that’s not actually the question the
religious man asked, not what Jesus was trying to answer.
is WHO is my neighbor
Samaritan,” the man answers Jesus, grudgingly, because in his religious mind the Samaritans
are the ones that have it all wrong. They worship in the wrong place in a weird
way. Their religion took a strange left turn several centuries ago and ever
since then it’s been much easier to live separate lives, keep to ourselves and
not expect anything from one another.
answer, finally, for the lawyer and for us,
is that the neighbor is finally that unlikely character that offers YOU
help – the one you would be least likely to talk to on the road, the one you
might even cross the road to avoid. The Samaritan, that most unlikely neighbor,
is not necessarily the person you would point at and say, now there goes a good man. THERE goes
someone who observes the law and walks upright.
And in that
sense, you could say that when we are the ones lying in the ditch by the side
of the road, and we cry out for help, we might end up relying on someone like
Jesus – someone none of the religious authorities in his day thought was right.
Someone who had no place to lay his head, who was called a glutton and a
drunkard. Someone who ate with all the wrong people.
Jesus may be
revered in some circles still but for many of us it’s still maybe a little bit
embarrassing to call on him for help, or even admit that we need that kind of help.
Anne Lamott ,
in her memoir Traveling Mercies,
describes her own conversion as exactly such a reaction. She was sick, strung
out, broke, and utterly alone. She reached rock bottom, was lying alone in her
room and sensed the presence of someone there. She sensed that it was Jesus,
and writes that her first thought was “Anyone but him.”
But that is
how grace works.
ourselves beaten down, tired, stripped of all our pretensions of being really
good people. We find ourselves in the ditch, the one place we swore we would
never be, looking so pathetic we can’t blame anyone else for passing us by.
ourselves utterly unable to walk the road alone anymore.
Then it is
Jesus, the last one we want to turn to but the only one who is still around,
who picks us up. Who gives us wine to drink and anoints us with oil. Who walks
alongside us because we can no longer travel by ourselves, who gives everything
he can and says, “I’ll come back for you.”
Who is my
neighbor? Like it or not, in all kinds of guises we might not expect. it’s