“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” Luke 10: 30-37.
In this morning’s readings in the Daily Office, we encounter the Parable of the Good Samaritan. It’s an extraordinarily familiar story, although it appears only in the Gospel of St. Luke. Perhaps we know the story so well that it’s lost some of its impact. Familiarity, after all, breeds indifference long before it breeds contempt. So, we may have forgotten just how shocking this story was to the audience in first century Palestine.
Part of what’s been lost to us is the geography. The story takes place on the long, downhill road between Jerusalem and Jericho, a road also known at the time as the “Bloody Pass” or “The Way of Blood.” The road meanders and the topography provides the perfect environment for an ambush: a paradise for bandits and robbers.
There’s nothing surprising then about the man being beaten, robbed and left for dead on that road. Nor would Jesus’ audience have been particularly surprised to hear Jesus tell that the priest and the Levite both passed the man by, in fact they walked by “on the other side” of the road. (The laws of ritual purification at the time might actually have recommended this practice to devout Jews.) We aren’t surprised by Jesus’ casting the priests and Levites in the role of the villains: both Jesus and John the Baptist had been doing that for a while.
But the notion that the Samaritan showed the quality of mercy, the notion of the Samaritan as the hero of the story, that would have astonished and befuddled Jesus’ first century audience. The Samaritans and the Jews had hated each other for hundreds of years at the time Jesus told this story. The Samaritans had desecrated the Temple with human bones. The Jews reciprocated. According to the Mishna (the first major work of Rabbinic Judaism), “He that eats the bread of the Samaritans is like to one that eats the flesh of swine” (Mishna Shebiith 8:10). So, hearing about a “good Samaritan” would have bewildered Jesus’ audience. It would be the equivalent of a modern parable about the “good Klansman” or a “good Zeta” (one of the Mexican drug cartels) or the “Good Al-Qaeda fighter.”
Thus, part of Jesus’ message continues the message of the sixth chapter of Luke’s Gospel. “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Luke 6:27-28. This commandment teaches that there is nothing soft or squishy or indulgent about the Christian life. It is, as C.S. Lewis observed, “as hard as nails.” And this teaches one of the many ways that Christianity must remain counter-cultural: loving our enemies, caring for those who’ve wounded us, will never be a popular position.
I think, however, this parable suggests at least one more critical lesson. Jesus teaches us about our most common sin, if not our greatest sin: indifference. Jesus contrasts the compassion which overtook the Samaritan with the indifference of the priest and the Levite. It’s a sharp criticism directed at the religious leaders of his day, and I’m not so certain it doesn’t apply with equal force today. Indifference, perhaps even more than hatred, may have the greatest power to separate us from God.
So, I’m wondering, who did I not notice? Who did I walk to the other side of the road to avoid? As Bruce Cockburn wrote, “Lord, spit on our eyes so that we can see.”
James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2011 James R. Dennis