You probably know the story.
Some guy is hoofing down to Jericho when some other guys pop out of the bushes (or rocks or whatever), kick his ass, take his stuff, and toss him in a ditch. Then a priest walks by and doesn’t help him, then a guy who definitely should know better walks by and doesn’t help him, and then a Samaritan (gasp!) walks by and does help him, going so far as to cart the dying guy to a nearby inn and give the staff a couple hundred dollars to pay for his recovery. Go and do likewise, the end.
The listening audience is likely wont to identify with the Samaritan. Casting ourselves as the Samaritan is morally comfortable and comes with a convenient lesson: don’t be like the hypocritical religious figures; move to help even those who hate you. It is certainly less harrowing to be a beleaguered but radically resolute savior descending with a donkey and two denarii than the other main character, who is the nameless victim of a traumatic personal crime.
Except that being the Samaritan isn’t easier. Or it wouldn’t have been to Jesus’ audience of first-century Jews, because being the Samaritan means being a heretical loser who undermined the God-given mandate to restore Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile and defiled the priestly bloodline by shacking up with your historical enemies. Not exactly the most attractive audience-insert character.
So that leaves us with the guy in the ditch. Who, through eyes half-crusted shut with blood, sees and hopes—despite himself—that the priest and Levite will skirt the strictures of convenience and ritual cleanliness to help a fellow countryman. Who perhaps understands why they must, in deference to a religion that he also holds dear, pass on the other side of the road. Who feels the shadow of Samaria fall on him and can only pray that this new traveller won’t point and laugh and spit while stepping over his soon-to-be corpse.
And maybe, if he’s being honest with himself, he doesn’t want the Samaritan to stop. He doesn’t want a person he hates more than all other people to see him broken and naked and coughing up blood and gravel. Because there are lines. Because you would rather die than have some people pity you.
“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” Jesus asks, irritatingly, hypothetically, eyebrow cocked. The one showed him mercy, obviously. The man that he may rather die than be helped by. The man that he would rather die than be.
Which of these, then, is my neighbor? Who is the person that I would rather die than be? Do I have it in me to believe that this person, and the millions of others like him with whom I share this country, have the capacity for great mercy? Are my hands big enough to hold the fact that some people deserve my actual, unironic derision and that the thing I (at least most of the time) profess faith in tells me that I must believe in their potential for good?
I know myself well enough to know that they are not.
And this is where Christian platitudes rush in to tell me that it’s okay because everyone is made in the image of God and we are all afflicted by the fall of man and this is why we wait for the redemptive return of Christ and the mystery is part of the deal. Remember, you signed up for this.
I hate that that’s the answer because I don’t know how to go and do likewise. But I can’t get the taste of the Jericho Road out of my mouth.
Special thanks to Pastor Bailey Sarver of Campus Chapel in Ann Arbor, MI, whose January 24 sermon precipitated this piece. Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Ryan Johnson.