Simply Put... We Are the Ones in the Ditch
It feels like I am still drying out from the storms of Monday morning. Monday was Camden’s first day of baseball camp and together we braved the rain falling at the rate of 5” per hour to make the trek to Yorktown High School. Along the way, yelling over the sound of the rain beating down on our Toyota, I explained how on Earth Camden would be able to play baseball inside because the rules on his side of 16th Street suggested he would be in for a day of disappointment.
The trip home from Yorktown required three detours as the roads in the area began to quickly flood. Later Monday evening as many were pulling up the water-soaked carpet in their basements to the curb and shorting through water-damaged belongings, I turned on the evening news and saw story after story of people who did not heed the “turnaround and don’t drown warnings", finding themselves in the creek without a paddle. Each of the News 4 reporters highlighted the actions of “Good Samaritans.” According to the news reporters who had obviously not braved the storms themselves as their hair was perfectly in place, the Good Samaritans of Monday morning’s storm provided rides to stranded commuters when the commuters found themselves unable to help themselves along the road from home to work.
The title “Good Samaritan” is a churchy title but the story of how this person earned the title is almost as well-known as the Nativity story to those who count themselves as unchurched. The Good Samaritan in Jesus’ parable has become a secularized-saint that the Vatican has yet to canonize. Simply known as the Good Samaritan this fictional character created by Jesus has become modern-day shorthand for a do-gooder doing good things for strangers.
Someone changing a stranger’s flat tire along the Beltway is as labeled a Good Samaritan.
The secularized-saint lends their title to people who give a bottle of water to someone holding a cardboard sign along Glebe Road.
But the secularized-sainthood of this story causes us to miss the bite of the story. We (think) we know the parable so well that we miss the point of Jesus’ words and in turn, the parable is turned into a “Biblical example” of good morals instead of being an earthly example of heavenly truth.
The encounter begins with a lawyer doing what lawyers do best - asking questions they already know the answer to. The lawyer asked Jesus, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Knowing this lawyer was an expert of the Law, Jesus tossed the question back to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” Jesus essentially said, “You are the expert, why don’t you tell me.” And like the law professor’s pet student, showing off for his other lawyer friends to see, the lawyer responded by quoting the Law, Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19.
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” - Deuteronomy 6:5
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself” - Leviticus 19:18
To justify himself - to prove he know what he knew and to push Jesus - the lawyer asked the question we today love to ask our kids or use to prove we know who to love when the headlines show despair and hopelessness: “who is my neighbor?”
“Who is my neighbor” was not an earnest question from the lawyer, remember he is an expert of the Law, rather this question was an attempt by the lawyer to determine what the bare minimum was to be done so that he and those listening could “inherit eternal life.” But the lawyer, a professional asker of questions asked the wrong question. To inherit something, whether it is eternal life or a toaster, is to have something given to you. Inheriting something is not the same as earning something. So, the lawyer continued asking the wrong questions and instead of throwing another question back to the counselor, Jesus tells his parable.
In 2019, we miss the details that made this parable so good to Jesus’ original audience. The Gospel writer assumes the reader knows the road between Jerusalem and Jericho was dangerous. For someone to travel this road by themselves would be as foolish as someone trying to drive their Prius through a flooded section of Canal Road. The journey from Jerusalem to Jericho was not a journey many would take on their own because more often then not they would end up in a ditch, left for dead after being attacked and robbed.
The secularization of the Good Samaritan misses this detail as we focus in on the lack of action taken by the two priestly characters making the same treacherous trip. Remember, the Gospel writer assumes we know Jesus’ audience, the lawyer and bystanders, were Jewish. After hearing the lack of action taken by the priest and the Levite there is no record of disgust from either the lawyer or others listening to Jesus’ story. It is not that the lawyer is heartless (shocker) instead it is that we miss the Jewishness of the parable. If the priest or the Levite were to render aid to the man in the ditch they would become ritually unclean and thus unable to fulfill the religious obligations of the community. The priest and the Levite are not the bad guys and the lawyers knew as much because they, the priest and the Levite, were following the Law the lawyer was an expert of.
On top of their religious obligations, not stopping was not unreasonable as an injured person was commonly used as a trap, intended to lower the guard of a would be robbery victim.
For the original hearers of this parable, the phrase Good Samaritan would have been an oxymoron. Jews and Samaritans were the ancient versions of the Hatfields and McCoys. A Good Samaritan would have been an offensive title for the ancient Jewish listener of Jesus’ story.
Samaritans and Jews worshiped the same Hebrew G-d yet had different scriptures, Temples, and practices. The Samaritans traveled the Jewish city of David during Jesus’ day, to the Temple, and ransacked it. The Samaritans dug up bodies and placed them in the Temple, an act that defiled the Holy dwelling place of G-d and mocked G-d’s Laws. The priest and the Levite would not touch the body of the man in the ditch out of deference to the Law but the Samaritans mocked this Law by vandalizing the dwelling place of G-d with bodies removed from a ditch.
To the lawyer and those within earshot of Jesus’ words, there was no such thing as a Good Samaritan. The Samaritan hero was the ultimate turning of the tables, so much so that the lawyer could not bring himself to say to words good and Samaritan together when he answered Jesus’ final question, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer said, “The one who showed him mercy.”
The lawyer could only acknowledge the mercy shown by the person he considered to be the other.
Then Jesus gave the lawyer an impossible task, the part of the parable we turn into teaching moments for our children and ignore for ourselves - “Go and do likewise.”
Go and care for the person in the ditch.
Go and care for the person, the group of people you despise.
Go and care for the person wearing the MAGA hat.
Go and care for the person wearing the Black Lives Matter shirt
Go and care for the person who has wronged you.
Help every single person that comes across your path without first wondering if they are “just going to buy booze” with the fist-full of money you are going to give them.
Go and care for every single person who you believe has gotten what they deserved. Care for them without reservation and instead with extravagance.
The Good Samaritan we all like to identify with paid for the stranger he found in the ditch along the dangerous road to stay in an inn, a hotel, for three weeks. Two Denarii was the equivalent of two days of wages.
Go and care for the stranger, the one you despise, with the extravagance of two days earnings. Two day’s earnings before taxes.
Jesus’s parable moves the focus from what was or what was not done by the priest and Levite to the one who was viewed as the other who responded with mercy.
The lawyer learned eternal life begins with extravagant mercy and now just knowledge of legal loopholes and definitions.
The problem, exposed by the lawyer's inability to even say the words good and Samaritan together, is that this much extravagance is beyond us. Our inability to respond with the extravagance of the Good Samaritan when we see someone lying in a ditch along the road is the reason we look to the priest and Levite in the story with disgust. We deflect and we place ourselves in the role of the Good Samaritan and justify the role by counting up the stranded drivers we have rescued but to be the Good Samaritan we must show extravagant mercy to the one(s) we believe deserve extravagant mercy the least.
Simply put… we are the ones in the ditch.
We cannot fully understand or recognize the extravagant mercy of the Good Samaritan until we ourselves have been pulled from the ditch by Christ.
Christ, the true Good Samaritan.
The one whose Good News was and continues to be so offensive that he was despised, rejected, and crucified.
We cannot recognize extravagant grace and mercy until we have been saved by the other.
Save by the despised.
Saved by the rejected.
Saved by the crucified.
The late Episcopal priest Robert Capon put it like this - once we see ourselves in the ditch we can begin to see Christ in the other.
Jesus will reveal our neighbor to us, and like the lawyer, more likely than not it will offend our secularized-Good Samaritan sensibilities.
The Good News is that like the lawyer, our own justification - our enoughness - has already been determined by Christ’s extravagant grace and mercy and not by our ability to love our neighbors. Christ will pull us out of the ditch, providing aid and care, regardless of our ability to go and do likewise.