We know this story. (Luke 10:25-37)
It’s about two religious leaders who, in the name of the law, see someone in unimaginable suffering, but decide to steer clear and cross the street instead of attending to the person’s extraordinary need.
We know the context.
The Jewish people detested the Samaritans and vise-versa, so they had absolutely no dealings with each other whatsoever. For a Jew to call someone a Samaritan (and again, vise versa) was the highest racial slur, the most cutting nationalistic and religious insult imaginable.
And we know this parable’s meaning, which isn’t always the case with parables, but this one is crystal clear.
It is not a “pleasant tale about the Traveler Who Did His Good Deed for God; it is a damming indictment of social, racial, and religious superiority…a story that issues the challenge to each of us to decide between a life of involvement or non-involvement” (Jones) “The story leaves no doubt that what really matters is to act with mercy as the Samaritan did…in the same simplicity…governed completely by the need of the suffering person who confronts us.” (Linnemann)
Some helpful perspective is gained when we realize that at the time of Jesus, priests took turns by lot at performing the rituals of sacrifice in the Temple. A man could wait his entire life for just one turn, one chance to perform what gave meaning to his entire life and position. The pinnacle of his whole career.
When his name was pulled from the hat, so to speak, he had to prove himself clean and worthy to offer sacrifice. If he touched any blood or came in contact with a dead person, he would defile himself and be unable to lead this ritual, and his turn would pass on to another.
Same is true for the Levite to a lesser degree. If he would have touched the wounded person he too would be subject to a substantial period of purification and separation from the community. This means that he would not be able to perform his paid professional services during that time, so he would be temporarily out of a job and lose significant income.
So, essentially the religious structure for the priest and Levite actually worked against their choosing to help the person laying helpless and half dead in the ditch. The despised Samaritan was moved to pity and acted with compassion…the Levite and the priest saw but were not moved. They had too much to lose in stepping off the road. The practice of their religion actually inhibited them from doing the merciful and loving thing…in the name of the law and religious purity, they turn away from touching another person’s distress. (McKenna)
We’ve heard it said that “The story begins when the storyteller stops talking.” So we might wonder “What does the lawyer do when Jesus stops talking? How did the man in the ditch, a good Jew, feel when he woke up and found that he had been nursed and cared for by a despised Samaritan, and that this Samaritan was coming back to repay the innkeeper? What does he do? If we were in a ditch in that condition, who is the last person in the world we’d want to help us, the last person we would want to be indebted to for the rest of our lives? Is there anyone or any group that we feel that way about? Do we really understand what Jesus is saying with this story? and if we do, what will be our response? (McKenna)
Do we put our fingers in our ears, or do we hear the words of Jesus echoing in our hearts? Speaking the truth that we already know but find so difficult to live. There is no us and them…that is just a destructive illusion….there is only us. Jesus prayed for us to be one…to be defined by our love for one another. Human beings are like one organism. When we demonize and promote division with our words and actions, we destroy our connectedness, we thwart the kinship that God wishes for us as a species. The oneness and collaboration for which we were designed.
In his book, Tattoo’s on the Heart, Fr. Greg Boyle tells the story of the time when their church decided to allow the homeless men of the community to sleep in the sanctuary of their church on a regular basis. As a result the place started to smell like stinky feet.
He jokes that every Sunday he tried to cover up the smell by throwing “I Love My Carpet” on the rug and placing potpourri in strategic places.
But, still people were beginning to grumble and word had it, that some were even considering going to a different church because of the stench. Fr. Greg decided to address the issue head on with his parish one Sunday morning.
He asked the people, “What’s the church smell like?”
Many people were sheepish to say anything, casting their eyes down and squirming in their seats – while others pretended they did not hear him ask the question at all!
Finally this one guy chimes in and says it “Huele a patas!” (It smells like feet).
“Excellent. But why does it smell like feet?”
“Cuz many homeless men slept here last night?” says a woman.
“Well, why do we let that happen here?”
“Es nuestro compromiso” (it’s what we’ve committed to do) says another.
“Well, why would anyone commit to do that?”
“Porque es lo que haría Jesús.” (It’s what Jesus would do)
“Well, then… what’s the church smell like now?”
A man stands and bellows, “Huele a nuestro compromiso” (It smells like our commitment).
The place cheers. Guadalupe waves her arms wildly “Huele a rosas” (It smells like roses). The packed church roars with laughter and a newfound kinship that embraces someone else’s odor as their own is celebrated.
It just doesn’t get any more gorgeous than that. Jesus says, Go and do likewise. In this lies our hope.