We all know the Good Samaritan story: a fellow is set upon by thieves, who strip him, beat him up, and leave him lying in a ditch, half dead and needing help. First a priest walks by him; then another religious person walks by “on the other side.” Finally a Samaritan while traveling comes near the man and is moved with pity. So he goes to him, bathes and bandages his wounds, carries him on his animal to an inn, spends the night tending to him, and then leaves money for the man’s continued care, promising to come back and pay more if he needs it.
So familiar is the moniker “good Samaritan” that the phrase appears in legal statutes in this country and abroad to describe people who stop to help a stranger. It’s so well known that I’ve seen late night talk show hosts send reporters out to ask the person on the street to define a “good Samaritan.” Most folks when asked assert selfless assistance to a stranger as their understanding of the phrase, which is not all bad, especially since many people have no idea that the character appears in the Bible.
I’ve read articles in the New York Times with headlines like “Good Samaritan jumps on subway tracks to save stranger” or received clips on my news feed that feature “Man gives shoes to barefoot stranger in good Samaritan move.” Clearly this kind of action touches something deep within us—helping someone in need that you don’t know, who you literally stumble upon, affirms our capacity to be good.
But Jesus’s story is more than an admonishment to follow our better angels.
The man in the ditch represents the audience of the story—upstanding citizens, respected by society, people of means who are likely to help others (unless they get too busy!). And if Jesus wanted to make the point that all of us can stop and offer assistance, if we will only pay attention and be aware of the needs of others, he could have told this story with an average person helping the man on the side of the road. Instead, Jesus has a Samaritan person stop and help, which is outrageous to his listeners. The internal structure of the story and its historical setting challenges the hearer to put together two impossible and contradictory words for the same person: “Samaritan” and “neighbor.” In the mind of the original audience, it is impossible to say “Good Samaritan” in one breath.
The point of the story, it seems, is not just to ask the audience to help the neighbor in need. Rather, it redefines “neighbor” altogether, and then, in a shocking twist, it has the accustomed enemy help the person who is not at all used to being a victim. All of us are in need of help, the parable asserts, all of us are in a ditch somehow or another, and so the vision Jesus proposes here is of a brand new world in which the wall between enemies, strangers, and neighbors no longer exists. The strong and the weak, the haves and the have nots, those who are customarily on different sides of some chasm, can step across it and come to the aid of each other, in surprising and life-changing ways. We are each other’s business; we need each other; I am in pain if you are not well. Each of us has needs that we don’t like to admit, and all of us have the capacity to help and hold and heal.
Who is reaching out to you, in whatever ditch you’ve created or fallen into? Can you let yourself be helped by someone that you are likely to call “enemy”? And who can you help, who has fallen nearby, right along the way you are accustomed to travel?
There is only one neighborhood in Baltimore, or whatever paths you walk down. Will you be my neighbor?