Jesus Doesn’t Want You to be a Good Samaritan: Lectionary Reflection for Proper 10C

Love Your Enemy

Creative Commons Copyright Adam Lehman

For three unconventional retellings of this parable to enliven the well-worn story, visit here (the Immigrant Samaritan), here (the God Samaritan), or here (the Wrong Samaritan)

Proper 10 – Year C – Luke 10:25-37

Jesus doesn’t really want you to be the good Samaritan.

At least, that’s not the point of his story in this week’s Gospel.

Unfortunately, when Christians hear this story, we think Jesus is asking us to be the unlikely do-gooders in the world who bind wounds of strangers, pay medical bills of distant neighbors, and offer unexpected compassion to the beaten and wound traveler.

In short, we have understood this parable as a call to boundary-crossing charity, and we are to be the charitable ones.

As a result, we have transformed this subversive story into little more than a mushy morality tale about random acts of kindness to strangers that, at its worst, buttresses the damaging and pervasive charity-industrial complex in American churches. We have whitewashed this radical parable into a fantasy of the privileged and wealthy in which we believe Christ calls us only to apply bandages, throw money at the pain and injustice in the world, and trust it is enough.

In this light, this parable not only justifies but also glorifies drive-by charity as the pinnacle of Christ’s command to love thy neighbor.

Because in this story, we think Jesus is encouraging us to be like the Samaritan.

But he is not.

Jesus, in this parable, isn’t asking us to go and do likewise so that we can be charitable like the Samaritan. His point is much more subtle. Of course, we are to bind the wounds of the wounded. Of course, we are to take care of the oppressed and the downtrodden. We all know this to be what God asks of us. Works of charity and mercy are a given in the life of faith.

Even the lawyer in the story knows this without a second thought. So, no, I don’t think the point of this parable is for us to be a do-gooders.

Instead, when Jesus tells the lawyer to go and do likewise, he is asking the lawyer to go and imitate the Samaritan, his cultural enemy. He is asking the educated lawyer to sit at the feet of the Other in order to learn the way of salvation. He is asking this myopic man to see the people he despises most are the very people who hold for him the key to eternal life.

“Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” the lawyer asks.

“See your enemy as your teacher,” Jesus replies through this parable.

Jesus doesn’t want us to be the Good Samaritans. Rather, Jesus wants us to know who the Samaritans are in our own lives. Then, he asks us to do the hard work of seeing them as humans not as Others, as teachers not as our students, as the heroes who offer us salvation rather than the victims who need our saving help.

How horrifying must it have been for the studied lawyer to have no choice but to admit that the dog — the Samaritan — was the answer both to Jesus’ question and to his own original question about his own salvation. Notice, the man cannot even bring himself to utter that distasteful word “Samaritan,” preferring instead to hold his nose and say, “the one who showed him mercy.”

He had begun by addressing Jesus as the teacher. Jesus redirected the lawyer to his enemy as his true teacher, that is, if the man honestly wanted to learn what it meant to live an eternal life. But the lawyer could not even bring himself to acknowledge the one who showed mercy was indeed a Samaritan.

Now, we all have our own cultural enemies, and we all have our derogatory names for them. They are slurs based on race, on sexuality, on class, on political preference (and progressives, let’s not forget our favorites like “redneck” and “right-wing nut job”). The parable of the Samaritan asks us to confess first that we have these cultural enemies — be it an undocumented immigrant, a gay person, a poor person, a rural gun rights-advocate, or a staunch Republican. Then, it asks us to see that our salvation lies in loving these enemies enough to be willing to learn something from them.

The problem is we don’t want to learn from our enemies. We don’t want them to be our teachers. Because, if we are willing to learn from them, if we are willing to take the time to listen to their stories, then it will become difficult to demonize them, to blame them for all that ails our country and our own lives, to rage at them from afar. Someone like the Rev. Will D. Campbell knew this, and it’s why he, while not equating the two, preached against the oppression of blacks in the United States as well as the oppression of poor whites by similar forces.

But then, what in the world will we do with our own and our world’s woundedness when we have no one to blame for them?

Perhaps at that moment, we will find ourselves in this story.

As the world’s wealthy and powerful, we also assume we are the world’s teachers and saviors. We believe this parable wants us to condescend to the broken and poor in order to save them. We believe we are the Samaritans and that their salvation lies with us. It is a troubling assumption of the privileged.

Of course, it is equally dangerous to assume that our cultural enemies are our saviors only and that we rely on them to be our teachers. It takes the caricature and simply reverses it. It is a troubling assumption of the well-meaning privileged.

We are each the beaten one on the roadside, in need of salvation from our enemies.

We are each the Samaritan, with the power to save our enemies by loving them.

In other words, this parable asks us to do the unthinkable.

It asks us to heal and to be healed by our enemies, our neighbors, our sisters and brothers.

It asks us to live an eternal life today.

It asks us to live on earth as it is in heaven.

 

About David R. Henson

David Henson received his Master of Arts from Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, after receiving a Lilly Grant for religious education for journalists. He ordained in the Episcopal Church as a priest. He is a father of two young sons and the husband of a medical school student.

  • sgtgwn

    Excellent, as usual!

    • Ed Pacht

      My first reaction to this piece is to its title. My immediate answer is, “Oh, yes, He does!” Yes, he does call us to be unlikely do-gooders, performing random acts of kindness, and, yes, all that is most emphatically in the story. But you are right – that’s not all the story is about – that’s not all He demands of us. It’s not even the main point of the tale, and I’ve always preached it in a way not too dissimilar from this meditation. It’s a simple tale of complex and ego-shattering challenge. It’s about prejudice, about race, and the barriers man raises against man. It’s about the unfaithfulness of some of those who are indubitably in God-appointed positions of leadership but put their ‘religious’ duties ahead of the practice of agape. It’s about God’s propensity for using just the ones we would think unlikely to do what He wants to have done. It’s about all those things and more.

      It’s a parable – not a moralistic allegory. It isn’t designed to present a simple message appealingly with clarity, but rather, as Jesus said about His parables, to speak to those with ears to hear, rather than to those who are spiritually deaf and blind, preferring not to be challenged. This, like all the parables is not heard properly unless it speaks to our souls that which we’d rather not hear. Only so can it change us.

  • Kara Laughlin

    I think this begins to touch on the reasons why I feel so annoyed by people who pay the bill for the person behind them at Chick Fil A. Not that the act in itself is morally repugnant, but that the privileged idea that this type of random act of kindness (for someone imagined to be part of the tribe–because this is Chick Fil A, after all) is what God desires from us–and it’s enough. Of course, I’m well aware as I type that this very person is probably my own personal Samaritan. So, well done again, Mr. Henson.

  • Seumas McCoo

    I only partly agree with you in what you have written, though I see where you are coming from. Given that the question which Jesus asks is “which one was neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers” you are seeking to draw a conclusion from this parable which is illegitimate in this case – the point is accurate, but not coming from this text.

    The whole point of preaching has to be textual integrity. We all have sat through people who have distorted the text it isn’t expository preaching.

    If we assume that the priest and the Levite was travelling up to Jerusalem – which in itself slightly takes a liberty with the text, then you have the priest going up to do his duty in the Temple – a once in a lifetime opportunity – as a priest, but he had to get there on time and would have been contaminated and therefore no longer ritually pure if he touched anyone, so he didn’t worry about the humanity of the man. In the same way the Levite had to maintain ritual purity, so he kept out of it, but the Samaritan was not concerned about ritual purity.
    Given the OT reading is about Amos – and Amaziah who saw it as being more important to serve the King than God we have an attack on the whole idea of the Cultic limits which people seek to impose.
    Sorry to disagree with you, but I have a bit of a been in my bonnet about being loyal to what the text actually says and not fitting a good idea into the text.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

      Likewise, I only partly agree with what you have written. I affirm your exegesis of the passage, and its value for preaching. I just don’t think the text is that univocal, particularly as a parable. Particularly this parable has many entry points for preaching.

      I agree it is important to be faithful to the text, and I believe I am doing so here; it actually fits nicecly with Proper 8C, when the disciples seek to call down fire on the Samaritans (my previous post).

      But in addition to being faithful to the text, it is equally important for the preacher to be faithful to listen for how God is speaking in the text, and not to limit this. We have all sat through sermons where preachers exegete accurately but without relevance or life or prophetic imagination.

      I am not saying that is necessarily what you are suggesting, but it is always a danger with preaching.

      • Seumas McCoo

        I think that we have two object lessons in preaching here. Sermons are preached against the cultural and theological background of the place and time, and certainly taken with the previous sermon in the context of present American concerns there is a logicality.
        Secondly how important it is when we preach to carry on a continued dialogue with the congregation rather than take each sermon as a unique free standing event. This demonstrates how settled preaching is. I am very aware of this being retired, but having been a locum for almost two years.

        I hadn’t been aware of that Power of Parable book, but certainly the title sums up a constant danger in which we live

  • Wayne

    I agree particularly with your closing. The pan-Mediterranean cultural obsession of Jesus’s time was the Aeonian life: the optimal life, the sustainable life. The way it should be. His point was go ahead and start. Live the Aeonian life now.

  • Ryan Hite

    Interesting viewpoint on Good Samaritanism.

  • jon pelton

    “The problem is we don’t want to learn from our enemies. We don’t want them to be our teachers. Because, if we are willing to learn from them, if we are willing to take the time to listen to their stories, then it will become difficult to demonize them, to blame them for all that ails our country and our own lives, to rage at them from afar. ”

    “It asks us to heal and to be healed by our enemies, our neighbors, our sisters and brothers.

    It asks us to live an eternal life today.

    It asks us to live on earth as it is in heaven.”
    Thumbs up; good stuff.

  • Chaprich

    A very interesting reflection n the Parable of the Good Samaritan. I have often thought the Church needs to be the Inn, and we the inn keeper. I think Jesus is ultimately the good Samaritan.

  • Steve Ramsdale

    Wish I’d written this!

  • Christopher Potter

    Thank you. Well thought, well said. Intuitively, I know that this Parable could NOT be about acts of charity being the solution to the Lawyer’s question (nor for us), nor could it be as namby-pamby as simply “love the bad guys.” I was aiming at Jesus’ challenge to those who have become religiously self-exempted from practicing mercy or who have lost sight of simple human compassion. I believe your exegesis provides a more fundamental, targeted and eminently applicable challenge to me and to the people with whom I will share the Word this week.

    Thank you.

  • Ashanta Smith

    We would know they are not really our enemies …

  • pbecke

    It’s fascinating how, immediately recognizing ‘neighbour-hood’ as a mutual relationship, Jesus turns the question round and, in effect, replies, ‘Everyone’.

    We are neighbours of whoever we meet, as they are our neighbours. But the ‘takeaway idea’ here is to forget their being our neighbours, we must think in terms of being a neighbour to them, irrespective of any other consideration.

    It ties in with Jesus’ teaching that we should help an enemy in trouble, and also with the confirmation by many NDEers of the very scriptural idea of the great unity we share in the Holy Spirit, we being part of one another in his Mystical Body (that is to say, the children of light), with Christ as our head.

    But abbreviated to a single word, the parable, together with its message would have been considerably less memorable, wouldn’t it? Who could not be our neighbour? It is for us, enlightened by God, to define that comprehensive neighbour-hood.

  • thing1

    I just saw this. It is beautiful and challenging and I’m probably going to have to wrestle with it for a while.

    I have to admit, I’m having a difficult time swallowing the idea of making our enemies our teachers. I feel like it’s easy enough to tell a person on the religious right to let an LGBTQI person be their teacher, because the LGBTQI person is not actually harming the person on the religious right in any way. It’s the same for the staunchly anti-immigrant crowd. It’s easy enough to tell them to learn from the immigrants — the immigrants are not harming them.

    But it feels like quite another thing to tell an immigrant to let a member of the Tea Party who wants her deported to be her teacher. Or to tell a family who is a part of the working poor to let a Republican Congressional Rep fighting tooth and nail to slash their food stamps to be their teacher. And it feels like Jesus is asking an awful lot from me — a lesbian Christian — if this parable says that I should make those who believe that I am an abomination be my teachers. I already did that, for years. And it’s taken God’s mercy and a lot of love from wonderful people to help me let go of some of the things that I learned from those people.

    I know that this is an old post, so I might not get a response, but I promise that I am not writing these things just for the sake of being contrary. I apologize for my bitterness. I wish it were otherwise. I really do want to obey Jesus. Even if he’s asking a lot from me, he’s given more. He’s still worth it. But I need to understand.

    There were other characters in this story, too — the robbers. These were people who actively harmed the victim. It seems that we are being asked to lay aside our prejudices about people we see as other (and there are, after all, republicans who care about the poor and immigrants, and LGBTQI people and I’m all for learning from them — they are not my enemies). But we are not, I hope, being asked to see the robbers as our teachers?

  • craig williamson

    Henson gets it right. I’m a Baptist minister in the south who has forever been trying to get this across this way. Like the simplicity of Jesus is trying to get us to see our enemy as our teacher. Sounds like something the desert mothers and fathers of long ago would have said.


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