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Saved by a Samaritan
Text: Luke 10:25-37
Speaker: Joel Miller
There’s a story in the book of 2 Chronicles that gets told about as often as other stories from 2 Chronicles – not much. It happens during the days of King Ahaz. Ahaz was one of the bad kings of Jerusalem. Chronicles has two categories for kings. Either they “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord,” like David and Solomon. Like Jotham, Ahaz’s father. And Hezekiah Ahaz’s son. Or they “did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord.” Like King Jehorah. Like Ahaz. In Chronicles, when Jerusalem has a king who did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, good things happen – like a building campaign. Like military victories, or years of peace in the land. When Jerusalem has a king who did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord, bad things happen. Disease, famine, military defeats. 2 Chronicles is so committed to this pattern that it tends to leave out the bad things that happened during the reign of righteous kings - failures and missteps – things that its main source, 2 Kings, includes.
When Chronicles introduces a new king, after the father has died, we’re told how old they were when they began their reign, how long their reign lasted, and, right up front, whether they did or didn’t do what was right in the eyes of the Lord. The statement serves as some not-so-subtle foreshadowing about whether good or bad things are about to happen.
The bad thing that happens during Ahaz’s reign - or, to be more precise, the first bad thing that happens - is that the armies of Jerusalem lose a great battle to the armies of Israel. If this sounds slightly confusing since we think of Jerusalem as being in Israel, you may remember that there was a time when the kingdom that David and Solomon ruled as one, split into two – with “Jerusalem” or “Judah” serving as shorthand for the Southern Kingdom, and “Israel” or “Samaria” shorthand for the Northern Kingdom. These neighbors vacillated between times of peace and open conflict, and this was an open conflict that Jerusalem and Judah lost. Chronicles is notorious for exaggerating the numbers, but it claims that 120,000 from Judah were killed in one day, and 200,000 were taken captive. Men, women and children captured - and lots of their stuff, the spoils of war. Even if you move the decimal point left several columns to a more realistic number, it’s still bad.
Captives and loot from Judah, the Southern Kingdom, are marched to Samaria in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. And there something remarkable happens. The victorious armies are met by a prophet named Obed who warms them not to add to the harm they’ve already done by enslaving the people of Judah. Four other local leaders come forward with the same message: we don’t want anything to do with this. We already bear enough guilt for all this bloodshed.
And the warriors actually listen to the prophet and the elders. And they leave. And in leaving, they also just leave behind all those captives and their possessions they had plundered, right there in Samaria.
This is how 2 Chronicles 28:14-15 describes what happens next:
So the warriors left the captives and the booty before the officials and all the assembly. Then those who were mentioned by name (those four local leaders who had spoken up) got up and took the captives, and with the booty they clothed all that were naked among them; they clothed them, gave them sandals; provided them with food and drink, and anointed them; and carrying all the feeble among them on donkeys, they brought them to their kindred at Jericho, the city of palm trees. Then they returned to Samaria.
Does any of that sound a bit familiar? Someone, or many someones from Jerusalem in great need. Enemy Samaritans coming to their aid with clothes and oils, using an animal to transport the wounded, ending up in the city of Jericho.
We can’t know for sure if Jesus had this story in mind when he told the Parable of the Good Samaritan but it sure sounds like rather than inventing a brand new story, Jesus was sampling and putting a new spin on an old story his listeners would have been familiar with, assuming they heard from 2 Chronicles a bit more than us. As if Jesus is reminding them of something they already knew.
For us, the Parable of the Good Samaritan is on the opposite end of the biblical familiarity continuum from 2 Chronicles. If you haven’t been around church much in your life and heard it in this setting, I’m guessing you’ve at least heard of the idea of a Good Samaritan as someone who lends aid in crisis. Of the three passersby who see the injured man in the parable, it’s the Samaritan who takes the time to stop and offer the care needed, going so far as paying for the man’s hospital and hotel bills while he recovers. Being a good Samaritan is a good thing to be. However, I’d like to suggest a less familiar way of hearing this parable. Namely, and maybe surprisingly, that the call to be a Good Samaritan is not the primary message of this parable. Wait, what? Yes, really.
The passage begins with a scholar who stands up to test Jesus. That’s what Luke says. That this was a test. And here’s the one and only question on the test the lawyer gives Jesus: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Sensing a possible trap, or perhaps sensing a teaching opportunity, or perhaps just not liking the question as it’s posed, Jesus returns the question with a question of his own: “What is written in the Torah?” To which the lawyer replies by combining two beloved passages, one from Deuteronomy, the other from Leviticus: “You shall love the Lord your God will all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love God, love neighbor, love yourself. “Good answer,” Jesus says. “You passed my test. Do this and you will live.” The implication being that this isn’t just about eternal life in the future, but the life we live in the present. If you love, you are truly alive.
But the lawyer wants more. And, perhaps wants to try again to put Jesus in the position of answering rather than flipping a question. “And who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asks. This time Jesus accepts the assignment. His answer is the parable of the Good Samaritan.
A lot had happened between those who came to be known as Samaritans – named after Samaria – and those who came to be called Jews – named after Judah, in the 750-ish years between the bad king Ahaz and Jesus. The relationship that had previously been defined by border skirmishes had transmuted into a cold war of bitterness and rival claims of peoplehood, temple, and divine favor. There were occasional outbursts of violence each directed at the other. In short, in the common Samaritan mind there was no such thing as a good Jew. In the common Jewish mind, there was no such thing as a good Samaritan.
This animosity is at the crux of the parable.
In the parable, a man is going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. It’s a route Jesus’ listeners would have been familiar with, a common path for any of the pilgrimage festivals in the holy city. It’s down from Jerusalem to Jericho not because it’s south on a map, but because of the elevation change.
The note in my Study Bible caught my attention because it said that there is a 3200 foot drop from Jerusalem to Jericho, 3/5 of a vertical mile. This was the exact elevation change on our family hike in Yosemite National Park about a month ago from the valley up to Glacier Point - except that the path up – and down at Yosemite is five miles one way, while the road from Jerusalem to Jericho is closer to 50 miles. Not as steep as the switchbacks up the sidewalls of Yosemite Valley, but still known as a difficult journey, with plenty of hiding places for muggers along the way. As Jesus tells the parable his listeners would have had their own memories of traveling that route, picturing the turns in the road, tasting the sweat on their lips, feeling their heartrate increase during the stretches where it’s harder to detect whether anyone might be hiding out ready to pounce.
And that’s the part easily missed in our own reading of this parable. It’s the man who’s on the journey, who gets robbed and left for dead, that the listeners of the parable are identifying with. Just like how the books of 1 and 2 Chronicles are told from the perspective of the people in Jerusalem, those who were taken captive to Samaria. Those who were at the mercy of their enemies.
In other words, this parable is about being in the position of needing help rather than offering help. In the world this parable creates, we’re not one of those three passersby with moral agency to decide whether or not we’ll stop and give aid. We’re the person utterly dependent on the agency of others.
And what’s harder for us put-together middle class 21st century Americans? To be the helpers or to need help? To get that shot of dopamine and serotonin that comes with offering what we have to others less fortunate than us? Or to confront the possibility that there is a part of us incapacitated and unable to become more fully human without the help of another? And what if the medicine we need is the gift offered by the one we don’t want to have anything to do with?
We did have a Good Samaritan type experience on the Yosemite hike up to Glacier Point. We packed plenty of water for the way up, with the plan to refill at the little convenience store we’d heard was at the top. But after we’d been hiking a while we heard from others coming down that the whole welcome center/store at the top was shut down for renovations. A little further along our water was getting low even for the trip up. It turns out hiking in the summer can make you thirsty, and that five people drink roughly five times as much water as one person. Several check ins later with folks on their way back down trying to get a sense of how much distance we had to the top, a hiker asked how we were doing on our water supply to which I confessed we were a bit low. He reached into his backpack, pulled out an entire liter of electrolyte fused water and insisted that we take it. Our need met by a Good Samaritan.
Except for it to fit the parable, the kind hiker would have had to have been a person we would have judged as morally suspect. For some Christians this might look like accepting life-saving assistance from a Muslim or non-English speaking immigrant. I would have no problem with that at all, but I wonder how I would have reacted differently had this person been wearing a shirt with an assault rifle on it, or a red Make American Great Again hat.
If the person reaching their hand out to you to help doesn’t give you a knot in your stomach, then it’s not the experience Jesus is talking about in this parable.
“Who is my neighbor?” Sometimes it’s the one you least want to consider as a possible candidate for neighbor, who offers a single gesture of kindness, perhaps even life-saving aid.
It’s a good and blessed thing to be the one extending help, and Jesus does end the response to the lawyer by saying “Go and do likewise,” challenging him to make the next leap and look to the Samaritan as a model for compassion and neighborliness.
What Jesus is not doing here is brushing over the real differences and past harms Samaritans had caused his people. In his encounter with the Samaritan woman in John 4 Jesus holds strong to his belief that the Samaritans have got it wrong when it comes to holy mountains and beliefs. Accepting a cup of cool water from someone doesn’t mean you endorse their political views. But it could mean that you endorse their humanity, just as they have endorsed yours.
I do wonder how our lives would be different if we found ourselves in need of help more often. Or, if we would recognize that there is always a part of us in need, a part that is stranded and injured by the side of the road. I wouldn’t advise starting a long hike with no water, but there is something we lose when we insulate our lives in 100% self-sufficiency with no need for others. Even those other others.
When asked “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus evoked an old story about a bitter enemy acting compassionately. He challenged his listeners not to shut anyone off from the possibilities of neighborliness. And he painted a picture of a person hurt and distressed along the side of the road that may describe our own circumstances more than we care to admit.