There may be no parable of Jesus more familiar than the one we call "The Good Samaritan." It is so familiar that I thought we needed to hear it in another translation, another idiom, in order to enlarge our understanding of its meaning this morning. Otherwise, we may too quickly assume that we know what this parable is about.
The man who stands up at the beginning of this encounter with Jesus wants to know about "eternal life". What must he do to inherit it? What must he do to be saved? Interesting, isn't it, that Jesus does not say that the man must believe in him, and then he will be saved! No. Rather, Jesus asks him, what does it say in the law? The man is a scribe or lawyer, a religious authority in Jesus' day, an interpreter of the religious law. Clarence Jordan calls him a Sunday School teacher, rather than a lawyer, because in south Georgia there wouldn't be anybody who would know his Bible better. The point is, if anybody knows the requirements of the law, this man should know. And of course he does! In fact, he knows what lies at the very heart of the law and the commandments. He knows about love of God, and he knows about love of neighbor.
But this only brings us to the question that reveals what this parable is all about: "And who is my neighbor?" We know that we are supposed to love. But who are we supposed to love? Behind this question lies a fundamental problem of human relations, a fundamental human reality that is so poignantly judged and so profoundly challenged by this parable. This is not just a parable about a good man who happens to be a Samaritan. It is a parable that exposes what is wrong--terribly wrong--with human society when people define themselves by setting themselves apart from one another.
Perhaps for that reason New Testament scholar Bernard Brandon Scott calls this parable "From Jerusalem to Jericho." The parable is about all those who travel this road. It is about the conditions that prevail along this road. It is about the fear, the prejudice, the mistrust, and the hatred that divide us.
Scott begins his commentary on this parable with the following observation:
All cultures, modern and ancient, draw boundaries between themselves and others, whether it is a matter of defending their turf or building iron curtains. Greeks called everyone who did not speak Greek a barbarian, and Jews divided the world between themselves and the Gentiles. The temptation to draw the line, to dare someone to step across it, seems to be a universal human phenomenon. The appealing and frightening aspect of the parable From Jerusalem to Jericho . . . is the recognition that on this journey from Jerusalem to Jericho the recurring effort of humans to divide themselves from others is severely challenged and called into question [HEAR THEN THE PARABLE, pp. 189-190].
In other words, this parable is not just about one person exhibiting love to another in need. It is about an outsider, someone from the wrong side of the tracks, someone of a degenerate race, someone despised and rejected, showing compassion and proving to be a more decent human being than one's own kind. It is about the wrongness, the hypocrisy, the injustice, of the boundaries we draw and the social barriers we erect to divide and separate ourselves from those who are the "other."
In Jesus' day "Samaritan" was a dirty word. The enmity between Samaritan and Jew was proverbial. To the Jew, the Samaritan was a kind of half-breed, a descendant of Israelites who had been conquered by Assyria centuries before and had intermarried with the Gentile world. Samaritans were no better, perhaps worse, than Gentiles. It was said that "He that eats the bread of the Samaritans is like to one that eats the flesh of swine" [cited by Scott, 197]. The Samaritan was the "other" who, too familiar to be ignored and too different to be accepted, was bound to be regarded with contempt.
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about this parable is that Jesus does not make the Samaritan the victim in the story. The Samaritan is not the one who gets robbed and beaten and left for dead. The story is not told in such a way that we are to pity the Samaritan, and see him as the neighbor we are to love. Rather, the story is told in such a way that we are invited to identify with the Samaritan. If what we want to know is how we are to love our neighbor, then Jesus gives us three possible figures with whom to identify. We can be like the priest, or like the Levite, or like the Samaritan. We can do as the priest and the Levite do, or we can do as the Samaritan does. The Samaritan's behavior is exemplary. But to admit so would be to admit his humanity, even to acknowledge his moral superiority. In presenting the Samaritan as the one who proved to be neighbor to the man in need, Jesus exposes the wrongness and the hypocrisy of the prejudices and social barriers that made Samaritans the objects of contempt and exclusionary treatment by the Jews. The parable discloses the fundamental injustice of our imposed divisions and separations from those we regard as less and other than ourselves.
Just over three weeks ago the headline article in the HERALD-TIMES reported on a recent statewide survey on racial attitudes and race relations. The results suggested that most white respondents do not regard race relations in Indiana as a major problem to be addressed. A large majority think blacks and whites receive equally fair treatment from police, see no need for the United States to apologize officially for slavery, and do not support affirmative action. A sizeable plurality think that race relations in the state are good, while only 13% think they are poor. The general picture of a state where race relations are not a significant problem is belied, however, by the very different responses of most blacks to the same questions. But the picture of racial tolerance, if not harmony, is also belied by two particular answers of whites themselves. When asked if they would be bothered if a son or daughter married a person of another race, almost 3 in 5 answered yes, and when asked if they would buy a home in a neighborhood where most of the residents are of a different race, almost 3 in 5 answered no. In other words, almost 3 in 5 volunteered a politically incorrect answer to these two race-related questions. If the truth were known, the percentages would probably be even higher of those whites for whom race remains an issue in the marriage of a child or the purchase of a home. [December 26, 1997]
Not everyone who would be bothered if a son or daughter married someone of another race is a racist. There are parents who would want to spare their children the great difficulties that interracial marriage can present. Not everyone who would decline to buy a home in a neighborhood where most residents are of another race is a racist either. There are always economic factors that enter into such a decision. Nonetheless, the fundamental reality that continues to make such choices problematic is racism in all its forms--racism institutionalized, racism that continues to perpetuate itself by the individual and social choices we continue to make. The fundamental reality is that we continue, as a society if not always as individuals, to draw boundaries, to separate ourselves, to treat those who are of a different racial or ethnic identity as the "other". The issue here is not only one of loving our neighbors. It is also one of doing justice by them.
This weekend, and especially tomorrow, the nation celebrates the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. I am old enough to remember that he has been celebrated more in death than he was in life. His message was a challenge to the nation. If he had been content to preach the gospel of love, perhaps he would have been more acceptable in his own time. If he had been content to challenge racism in the South, perhaps he would have met with less resistance in the rest of the nation. If he had confined his criticism to racism in domestic affairs and not come out in opposition to the Viet Nam War, perhaps he would have gotten more support from the Federal Government and the Johnson administration. If he had not become involved in the Poor Peoples Campaign and the economic struggle of the Memphis sanitation workers, perhaps he would never have been killed. But, he was not just a preacher of love of neighbor, and he was not just a man who "tried to love somebody." He was also--as he said of himself--"a drum major for justice" [Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, GA, February 4, 1968].
While I was still a student of biblical studies in Divinity School, it struck me and bothered me that the New Testament seemed to have little to say about matters of justice. Jesus himself seemed to have little to say about the ordering of our social life. Most of his teaching seemed to have to do only with the personal ordering of our relationships, with our individual treatment of one another. In order to develop any kind of an ethic of social justice, one had to turn to the Old Testament, and especially to the prophets, whose critique of their own societies was every bit as thorough and challenging as the prophetic preaching of Martin Luther King, Jr. One had to turn to Amos, who says, "Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream." One had to turn to Micah, who says that we are to "do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with our God." One had to turn to Hosea, or Joel, or Isaiah, or to the story of Israel's oppression in the book of Exodus, in order to find the resources for talking about justice and equality and freedom.
There is some truth to all this. And there are reasons why it may be.(1) Even so, my earlier grasp of Jesus' teaching and ministry was not adequate at all. The whole of his life must be seen not only as a demonstration of love but also as a demand for justice. Always implicitly, and often explicitly as well, Jesus' teaching and ministry constitute a challenge to the prevailing order. He consorts with those who are called "sinners", those who are considered outcasts and unclean, those who are socially excluded and oppressed. He consistently acts on their behalf, he implicitly advocates their cause. He challenges a religious order that consigns them to lesser status and marginal existence within the household of God. He criticizes the religious and political establishment for being more concerned about the forms and rituals of the law than their heart and substance--justice and mercy and faith. He proclaims a kingdom in which the first shall be last and the last shall be first. And in this morning's parable text he makes it unmistakably clear that the social and religious barriers between the insider and the outsider, between "us" and the "other," between those of our own race or nationality and those of another, are simply unjust and must be transcended by the law of love.
So far as we know, Jesus did not have a social program for the political or legal transformation of his society, but almost everything we know that he said or did implied the need for a more just and compassionate ordering of our life together. When we celebrate the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr., we remember someone whose actions were profoundly informed by his understanding of the teachings and ministry of Jesus. King has given us as credible an incarnation of that life and ministry as any we are likely to see in our time.
To put the matter another way, the demand that we love our neighbor does not stop at being nice to one another. It is not a fulfilling of the law of love only to be kind in our personal dealings, and never to injure another. Love also implicitly demands, and ultimately accomplishes, the re-ordering of all our relationships in society. We cannot fulfill the commandment to love without transgressing the social barriers that have been erected to separate us from one another. We cannot fulfill the commandment of love by retreating to the homogeneity of the suburbs, to gated communities and neighborhood enclaves where there is no cry of injustice or pain or oppression to disturb our peace. We cannot fulfill the commandment of love by walking by on the other side of the road, or by staying on our side of the tracks, or by keeping to our part of town.
The ordination vows for Presbyterian ministers, elders, and deacons all conclude with this question: "In your ministry will you try to show the love and justice of Jesus Christ?" We have all heard a lot over the years about the love of Jesus Christ. Not often enough are we made aware that justice is both ingredient and outcome of this love. AMEN.
Copyright 1998 by Byron C. Bangert
1. Jesus' public ministry spanned but a few years during a period of Roman military occupation and political oppression when questions of how a people are to order their public life would hardly have been up for debate. The Jews were not free to govern themselves. There would have been little point in Jesus preaching to the Roman Emperor or his surrogate rulers the way the Hebrew prophets proclaimed their message to the kings and leaders of Israel and Judah.