I once heard a sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan in which the preacher pointed out that up until the point that the word “Samaritan” was uttered, the crowd was probably loving every minute of Jesus’ story. A holier-than-thou intellectual was testing Jesus and they had been around long enough to know how that usually turned out. The crowd was looking forward to watching it all unfold.
Jesus’ story starts out with a bang. Mr. John Doe Jew is lying bloody and beaten on the road and a priest comes along and walks right on by. Then here comes a Levite, who doesn’t so much as pause on his way home. At this point the crowd listening knows where this is going and they are waiting with bated breath. This is a stick-it-to-the-religious-establishment story. A parable indicting a corrupt and abusive religious system that a lot of people were sick and tired of. They knew what was coming. Jesus was probably going to smile and wink at the crowd as he said: “And then finally, a simple home grown Jew passed by and was moved with compassion….”
But that’s not how the story goes, is it?
The problem with this parable for most of us is that we have been completely inoculated to it after hearing it our entire lives. It no longer punches us in the gut like it would have the original hearers. The word “Samaritan” now carries more unproductive ideas as far as this parable goes, conjuring up images of kindly strangers stopping to help with your flat tire, big hospitals in urban centers, and Franklin Graham’s humanitarian organization working generously away in sub-Saharan Africa.
Samaritan. To us it’s a vaguely archaic but generally pleasant sort of word.
But to the people Jesus was speaking to, it probably landed on their ears something more like this:
A Christian man was traveling from Dallas to Houston when he was carjacked by a gang. He was robbed, beaten half-to death and left lying on the side of the highway.
Incidentally, a Catholic priest drove by. But when he saw the man lying there he switched lanes and kept going. A televangelist then came by and even slowed down to gawk a little but then also drove on home.
(And wouldn’t it be nice if the driver of the next car was a small-town blue collar respected member of the local community church…? Alas.)
And then a Muslim immigrant drove by.
And when he saw the man he felt deeply compassionate for him. He pulled over and put the man in his car, getting blood all over his seats. He drove to the nearest hospital. And when the receptionist at the ER asked about insurance the Muslim said, “Here’s my credit card. Just bill me. I have to keep traveling but here is my contact info in case you need anything else.”
It seems that those of us most familiar with the Bible are sometimes those who are most blind and deaf to it. We have had our Jesus vaccines as kids and keep up with our booster shots as adults, so we are protected from catching a full-blown case of Jesus that will lead to the death of ourselves.
There’s a million ways we can apply this, but as a Christian living in community with Muslims when I actually allow myself to see the parallels between the Jewish/Samaritan relationship of the New Testament and the Christian/Muslim relationship of today it smacks me in the face. You can’t unsee it.
Both Samaritans and Jews worshipped the one true creator God. Samaritans also highly regarded the Torah and upheld Abraham and Moses as great fathers of the faith. However, Samaritans and Jews bickered violently over their prophets and their priesthoods, about temples and mountains and holy literature.
They were branches of a single ancient tree and yet reserved their deepest enmity for each other.
It is human nature, it seems, to most deeply fear and hate the very things that we are most like.
Jesus interacts with people of other religions a number of times in the Gospels and these interactions are always marked by gentleness, acceptance and love. One of my favorite of these meetings is found in John chapter 4 when Jesus defies social and cultural expectations of appropriate behavior and hangs out at a well with a Samaritan woman.
They talk. They talk about her love life and they talk about water and they talk about the fact that they come from two different religions.
My favorite part of the story is towards the end of their private conversation, right before the disciples come back and their jaws hit the dirt at Jesus’ shocking behavior. In verse 21 he says to the woman, “Believe me, dear woman, the time is coming when it will no longer matter whether you worship the Father on this mountain or in Jerusalem. You Samaritans know very little about the one you worship, while we Jews know all about him, for salvation comes through the Jews. But the time is coming – indeed it’s here now – when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. The Father is looking for those who will worship him that way.”
Jesus raises some serious questions about the purity of her religion. He has no problem recognizing that they worship the same God, but suggests she doesn’t really know much about that God. He doesn’t shy away from the fact that the Jews have had a leg up in the knowledge of God department. There is a dichotomy, an imbalanced one even, and he acknowledges it.
But then instead of trying to convert her or pull her away from one end of the dichotomy towards the other he presents a whole new category. He points a whole new direction. There is another way of worship. There is a another, better, truer mountain altogether.
And it is one that his dumbfounded good-ol’-boy Jewish disciples stumbling onto the scene with lunch need just as desperately as this immoral woman from the hated “other”.
I think the parallels still hold today. Your mountain, my mountain. Your religion, my religion. Your people, my people. What the Father is looking for can be found in any of those places. Or none of them. Because true worshippers worship the father in spirit and truth. The Father is looking for those who will worship him that way. And he can find them wherever he chooses.
May we not be afraid to sit down in uncomfortable places and start up conversations with uncomfortable people. And when questions are throw in order to draw lines and clarify distinctions, (“So tell me, why is it that you Jews insist that Jerusalem is the only place of worship, while we Samaritans claim it is here…”) may we imitate our Lord and respond with words that recognize genuine spiritual hunger, draw on fertile common ground and point us all not towards the mountains of our making but towards the Father in spirit and truth.
Finally, I don’t know who your Samaritans are – who makes your skin crawl, your stomach churn with unease, or the desire to cross to the other side of the street with your kids. But whoever they are, you can be sure that Jesus doesn’t see them the same way you do. In fact, there is a good chance that it is they, not you, who are the heroes of his stories.