I’ll bet you twenty bucks you’ve used the phrase “Good Samaritan” at least once in the past month or so. I know you’re not gonna take that bet, because you know you’ve done it. Furthermore, I’ll bet you fifty bucks that when you last used the phrase “Good Samaritan,” you were referring to a stranger who did a good deed. Don’t deny it, that’s how everybody uses the term nowadays. Besides, I don’t have fifty bucks to my name at the moment so zip it.
Here’s the thing: The parable of the Good Samaritan, featured in Luke 10:25-37, was not some cute little lesson in performing random acts of kindness for folks you don’t know. It was actually a blistering condemnation, by Jesus, of the way we shun people and judge them as “not one of us” by virtue of their differences. Nowadays we call it Othering, and it’s reductive and nasty and Jesus was really clear with this story that it is not okay. Unfortunately, the passage of centuries, lack of context, and the death of antique languages has led to the point being lost.
Context Is Vital
Please note: I’m writing this post without having done any brush-up research on the subject. This is totally off-the-cuff based on my own recollection of Scripture and history lessons. The specific historical references aren’t as important (to me) as the point being made.
When I was a kid learning the story of the Good Samaritan, our teachers gave us minimal context: the Jews and the Samaritans hated each other. Later in life I gleaned that the two groups had both ethnic and religious differences. They worshiped the same God, but the Samaritans had apparently intermarried with the much-maligned Canaanites in the past (I think), and also performed their worship differently (on the mountain instead of the Temple? I think?) to the point where the Jews very much detested the Samaritans and Othered them every chance they got. Numerous mentions of Samaritans in the New Testament seem to bear this feeling out.
Lost in Translation
In my own amateur Bible study and church attendance, I’ve learned that it’s crucial to understand the context of what we read in Scripture; not just of the time and place in which these ancient books were written, but also the intended audience. Like, Paul’s letters to the church at Corinth had a very different readership than, say, the letter to the Hebrews.
Getting to the point (finally), when Jesus was telling the story of the Good Samaritan, his audience was first-century Jews. They didn’t believe he was the Savior; they believed in the Law of Moses and the sacred traditions of their forefathers. This was a crowd who felt secure in their own righteousness by virtue of their membership in God’s Chosen People.
So Jesus tells them to love God with all your heart, soul, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself. And then a smarmy little lawyer in the assembly pipes up and says “Who is my neighbor?” Who counts as my neighbor, and who can I continue to ignore and disregard as Other?
Prepare To Be Insulted
Jesus proceeded to tell the assembled gathering, observant Jews all, a completely mind-blowing story. He tells of a man beaten and robbed and stripped and left for dead. As he lies there helpless, a priest comes along — and passes by on the other side.
What? A priest of the Most High God? Ignoring someone in need? Unthinkable!
Then a Levite comes along the same way. Surely this holy man of the Temple will assist! But all he does is look at the poor guy, and he too carries on without helping.
The hell? What kind of crazy-pants tale is this we’re hearing?
Along comes a Samaritan.
“Samaritan” is a four-letter word to this audience. “Scumbag” is more what they’re thinking when they hear that there’s a Samaritan in the story. The Samaritan picks up the wounded traveler and takes care of him, even paying for his lodging at the inn.
So, says Jesus wrapping it up all Socratic-like, which one of those three passers-by was a neighbor to the victim? And the creepy lawyer guy can’t even say the word “Samaritan,” it has such a foul taste in his mouth. “The one who showed mercy,” he finally admits. “Go, and do thou likewise” is the Lord’s response.
Can you imagine how OFFENDED those listeners must have been? It’s like telling a KKK group about a black man rescuing a mugging victim after a bunch of white guys left him in a ditch: Inconceivable. “Good Samaritan” would have been an oxymoron to this crowd — the only good one is a dead one, they probably thought. What kind of lunatic would tell a story where the hero is a Samaritan?
This was no comfortable little moral tale about doing good deeds for strangers. This was a straight up “check your prejudice, YES, YOU” allegory.
Getting Back to MEEEEEE
A few years back, I had lost my job and was vacating my home since I couldn’t pay the rent anymore. I had a friend, a certain mature Christian lady, whom I’d known for years and who consistently tried to encourage me. We didn’t always see eye-to-eye, but I’ve appreciated her presence in my life as someone to look up to in my Christian walk. This lady had been treating me to lunch on a regular basis, knowing I wasn’t well-paid.
The day before I moved out of my rental and into my car, she and I met at Panera. While I sat there sniffling about my latest complete failure to adult normally, she informed me with some frustration that she could not take me in. She couldn’t deal with my depression. She had a husband, another dear friend who was advancing in age and whose health was not the best, and she was unwilling to let me stay with them while I got back on my feet. In one of the proudest moments of my existence, I did NOT cut her out of my life as a result, and we remained friends.
Baby, It’s Cold Outside
A couple of months later, we had our annual cold snap. I’m in a region that doesn’t have seasons, per se, other than “snowbird season” and “off-season.” We have a long, uncomfortable summer, followed by a modest cooling-off period at the end of the year. Then we get a nominal “spring” before summer starts up again. However, there’s usually a period of a few days where nighttime temps can actually drop into the thirties, and I happened to be living in my car during this time. I had actually acquired a new job relatively quickly, but didn’t have enough savings to get a rental. I also had all my normal expenses like cellphone, car insurance, and gas. But I was getting by, showering at the gym and earning a little extra by shuttling a non-driving friend around.
My Christian lady friend texted me on the night the temperature dipped below freezing. She asked me if I had a warm place to stay, since there were news reports about police rounding up the homeless for their safety. I was at that moment parked behind Walmart, bundled up in my front seat with blankets and jackets, and I truthfully responded that no, I was still in my car. Her response?
“You should probably get a motel for the night.”
My normal is admittedly very, very broken, but it seems like a strange thing to suggest to a homeless person: “If you’re cold, just go SPEND MONEY on a motel room!” With more self-control than I thought I was capable of, I simply replied that I did not wish to spend the cash. (And I did check the local rates; the cheapest room would’ve been over $90.00, which is no chump change when you’re homeless). She chirped back, “Try to stay warm!” and that was the end of that conversation.
If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? (KJV)
It’s a testimony to my self-control and God’s grace that I did not reply by quoting James 2:15-16 at her. Citing chapter and verse has never been my strong suit, but I’m often reminded of this one at times like this. If your fellow Christian is out in the cold, and you say “Try to stay warm!” without even offering a spot on your couch for just this one thirty-degree night, what good are you?
Again, this is someone who’s known me for more than a decade, was present the night I got saved and knows I belong to God, knows that I don’t drink, smoke, or use drugs, knows that I obey the law, and knew at that time that I had a job and was working on getting back on my feet.
Passing By on the Other Side
This is just one example of a time I’ve been in trouble, and my fellow believers have avoided eye contact (metaphorically). Don’t get me wrong, there have been quite a few lifter-uppers I’ve been blessed with over the years. I don’t forget them and I’m always grateful for them. But it seems like whenever I’m in real hot water, the Good Little Christians forget about the Good Samaritan.
The funny thing (really not funny) is that the non-Christians are always saying, “Why don’t you ask your church for help?” Like, duh? You Christians are all supposed to look out for each other, right? And I’m like, oh, you sweet summer child. Yes, every once in a while you’ll get lucky and find a local church that has an outreach program where you can get a precious gas voucher as long as you have less than a quarter tank of fuel in your car. You might even find a church that has a donation closet of region-appropriate clothing that isn’t falling apart at the seams. Most congregations around here also have some sort of food pantry for the needy, but food is the least of a homeless person’s worries (more on that in a future post, maybe).
Sadly, individual churches have limited resources for what’s known as “benevolence.” What little they do have is carefully hoarded for certain demographics of people, specifically women with children. No kids? No dice, sorry, we’ll pray for ya, remember all things work together for good, bye now!
Invariably, whenever I’ve had to ask for major help, it’s been unsaved people who stepped up. Like this most recent disaster of mine, in which I’ve been living in another family’s home for a month, sucking down their AC while refusing to apply for a fast-food job, and they not only LET me (so far), they also just dropped about two hundred dollars on a battery for my suddenly-malfunctioning car.
Within the insular “us versus the world” mentality of born-again Christianity, these friends of mine are seen as the ones I should be influencing, not the other way around. They do not know Jesus on a personal level. They would probably describe themselves as “spiritual” or “kind of Christian” in that they like the feel-good can’t-we-all-just-get-along message of less Bible-based churches.
According to the Good Little Christians, I am the one who should be witnessing and ministering to these dear souls. I should be inviting them to church, quoting the Bible, avoiding negativity at all costs, and in general displaying a firm security in Christ. Instead, they are taking care of me.
“Can’t Your Church Help?”
“Why haven’t the priests and Levites picked you up and taken you to the inn, C? Isn’t that their job?” You would think. But the sad truth is that born-again Christians are exactly like every other human in the world: We pick and choose what standards we want to live by, which passages of Scripture we want to adhere to, and which ones to conveniently ignore. No, we’re not supposed to, but we all do it. We come up with excuses, we say “Oh you’re taking that verse out of context” and “That’s not what the Bible really means” even when it means what it says, nothing more, nothing less. And we get sick of other people and their shit, which is what usually happens in my case.
For the moment, my own Samaritans are holding firm in their grace towards me, even without having received God’s particular saving grace for themselves. I wish I had it in me to be a better witness.
I wonder how the other guy would have felt, the one who traveled down to Jericho that fateful day. Would he track down the Samaritan after his broken bones healed and embrace him? Invite him to share a meal in public? Maybe invite him to the Temple for services? Would he have been changed by that experience, if he was a real person and not a metaphor created by Jesus to make a point? Will I be changed by this?