We meet the 1st and 3rd Thursdays at St. Gertrude's Ministry Center
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Thursday, March 18, 2010

A Reflection on the Parable of the Good Samaritan

"Go and do likewise." When the lawyer, a teacher of the law, asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus answered with a story. He then told his followers to imitate the Samaritan: "Go and do likewise." Each of us could probably recite this story from memory. Perhaps we even acted out the scene in our religious education courses as children. It's one of the more engaging and dramatic stories Jesus tells: a dangerous road run by robbers, a man beaten and left-to-die, well to-do passers-by - a priest and a Levite - and of course, our hero, the humble, charitable Samaritan. We even have laws named after this story of one stranger helping another stranger to protect well-intentioned do-gooders. In the Gospel reading, The Parable of the Good Samaritan, is perhaps one of the most well-known and referenced stories in the New Testament. And yet, like most good things turned popular, it is also misunderstood and misrepresented.

When Jesus tells us to "go and do likewise," it is an easy assumption to make that Jesus' intention, his message to us, is that we are to help those in need. And certainly this is true. Our tradition considers "the Good Samaritan" to be the hallmark of Christian charity. But even if this were all that Jesus was calling us to, to be kind to strangers, how many of us would still miss the mark? What courage and patience and compassion the Samaritan, a stranger in a land where he was not welcome, must have had to risk helping this man - and then, furthermore, the Samaritan puts him up in an inn on his own dime. What remarkable actions we are called to mimic when Jesus says "go and do likewise."

But the story of the Good Samaritan isn't just any story. It's a parable...and the parable is a particular sort of story - one that is often lost on the minds of modern readers and Christians alike. At the heart of a parable is a story, a narrative that tries to convey some sort of religious or moral meaning, but they are provocative - meant to startle and shock people into a new way of being in the world. For example, to Jesus' audience of the lawyer and others at the synagogue, they would have known that the Samaritan was an outsider and someone to be suspicious of and looked down upon. The heroes of that story, the priest and the Levite, were part of the ruling class and observed strict religious principles. To touch an unclean man, someone on the verge of death, would be to break the purity laws that guided Jewish worship at the time. So when Jesus holds up the Samaritan as the one esteemed in God's favor, not the observant Jews, Jesus is challenging the traditional categories of who is understood as neighbor. We are not told who the injured man along Jericho road is, but its easily assumed to be a Jew. In first century Palestine, Jews and Samaritans did not get along. In fact, it would be safe to say that as distinct religious groups, they considered each other enemies. The Samaritan is good not just because he comes to the aid of someone in need, but because the person in need is supposed to be his enemy. Jesus is trying to get us to think outside of the boundaries of enemy and friend and to see all people as neighbor. He is introducing a new paradigm, a new way of thinking and acting in relationship with God.

"Parables are agents of change that aim to question, not reassure us. Jesus' parable provokes; it urges hearers not only to reimagine the relationship between God, world, and people; it also invites them to think the unthinkable:" in this case, the unthinkable is coming to the aid of your enemy. "Go and do likewise." The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was fond of this parable of the Good Samaritan. The road to Jericho, allusions to the Samaritan, the need for compassionate service can be heard in many of his speeches. But just as we don't fully realize the depth and radical transformation that Jesus' parables invite us to, we don't fully appreciate the way Dr. King internalized the mystery of parables either. Dr. King understood Jesus' parables. He got them, not with his head (which, of course, he certainly understood as a trained theologian) but with his heart. Dr. King lived the message of the parables and he tried to share that with others. He understood that Jesus' life and message, the holy mystery he lived and invited others into, was about living in a radically different way - a way where the distinction between neighbor and enemy was no more. In 1967, in his "Beyond Vietnam" speech, Dr. King said this:
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

Nearly 2000 years after Jesus spoke The Parable of the Good Samaritan, Dr. King took to heart Jesus' words to "go and do likewise." And Dr. King, as well as many others in the Civil Rights Movement, saw that to "go and do likewise" meant much more than being nice to their "own kind." They saw a society, a status quo, in need of transformation. And they tried to live it out with their actions and their being: their sit-ins, marches, freedom rides and civil disobedience. From a place of deep compassion and love for their enemies, Dr. King and others embodied the provocative spirit of the Gospel parables. To many whites at the time, what courageous black Americans and their white allies were trying to do did not make sense to them. That's because those were thinking with their heads. Today's parable, as all of Jesus' parables, are stories for the heart. Who are our enemies today? What road is in need of transformation in our time? Our lives can only change, the road to Jericho can only change, when we open our hearts to the radical love of God and the mysterious promise that we, too, can "go and do likewise."

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