The story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37 is so familiar that to some it probably starts to verge on a cliché. Even people who have never read the Bible, let alone the Gospel of Luke, know the image of compassion embodied by the Samaritan who takes the risk to help a stranger in the midst of great trouble. In fact, the notion of a "Good Samaritan" has a cultural cache almost entirely separate from the term's biblical origins.
However, despite many repetitions and retellings, this story is no less powerful, no less needed today, for behind its simplicity we find a lifetime of wisdom and a shocking upturning of our values. The story of an unlikely helper still rings true.
Jesus tells of a man who was traveling on a road. Beset by thieves and beat within an inch of his life, this unnamed traveler can only survive if a stranger will help him. Jesus recounts that both a priest and a Levite pass by without assisting this victim. However, he does not explain why they passed by on the other side.
Perhaps they feared falling into the same condition as the victim of so much violence. Perhaps they thought any help they might provide would be futile. Perhaps they assumed someone else would help. Perhaps then they were not villains so much as utterly common. How many of us have not gone through the same moral calculus when passing a person in need, whether a homeless person with a cardboard sign or a car with a flat tire? Alas, accounts of people finding reasons not to come to someone's aid are just as common as people in need. But, in the end, we simply do not know why a priest and Levite do not help; all we know is that someone else was willing.
In contrast to these holy, righteous, well-regarded individuals who nonetheless pass by, a Samaritan saves the man's life and is even willing to pay all the costs for his care. A despised foreigner, he shatters our expectations of who we can expect to do the right thing. He acts compassionately and recklessly when others chose a different path. His act stands out in a world dominated by self-interest and the rank assumption that "our" kind of people, people who look and think like us, do the right thing while everyone else opts for immorality.
We usually hear this story as an exhortation to do good, to help the stranger in need with abandon. This is true and necessary, especially in a world so often characterized by our neglect of one another. Our ability to ignore the plight of others is breathtaking. The Good Samaritan therefore remains an anomaly in our midst.
Yet there is another aspect of this story too easily missed. Notice why Jesus tells this parable. He is confronted in Luke 10:25 by a theological opponent seeking to show Jesus and his followers the errors of their ways.
"How do I achieve eternal life?" the lawyer asks. Jesus points to the daily prayers of his people and responds, "Love God. Love neighbor." His answer is both simple and at the heart of the Hebrew Scriptures. A mere four words can summarize so much teaching, so many stories, so much faith in a God who is always in our midst. Love God. Love neighbor.
And yet Jesus' inquisitor is not satisfied, and most of us would probably join in his incredulity. Who is my neighbor? That is, who am I supposed to love? More importantly, who is outside the boundaries of my love and care? I am not everyone's keeper, am I? There must be limits! Not everyone is worthy of receiving my love, right? This lawyer seeks not wisdom but to "justify himself" (Luke 10:29). We too often follow in his footsteps and narrow the scope of Jesus' call.
Jesus answers with a story, as he is wont to do, for stories have a power mere statements cannot bear. It is one thing for Jesus to exhort us to love God and neighbor. But there is an intangible power in telling a vivid story that forces us to ask whether we can really take on these seemingly simple tasks.
The shocking conclusion to this story is not that someone helps the man on the brink of death. The surprise is who helps him. That the Samaritan is the example of love and righteousness would be shocking in Jesus' context. The enemy is the hero in this story, the villain its leading man.
And thus we learn that love knows no bounds. That love overflows even among our purported enemies. That the compassion our enemies show puts us to shame, for we tend to narrow the scope of God's care, drawing a circle of belonging ever smaller, ever less generous.
In recent weeks, a number of controversial and divisive political questions have dominated the news. Race and voting rights, abortion in Texas, and marriage equality at the Supreme Court have opened anew the scars of old political and cultural wars.
In this conflicted political ambit, the Samaritan's bold compassion is a needed reminder today. Let's remember to be kind to the stranger certainly. But just as important is that the story of the Good Samaritan also invites us to imagine ourselves in a different part of this narrative.
Imagine yourself not as the Samaritan seeking to love God and neighbor. Imagine yourself as the person in need. A man on the brink of death. A woman in deepest grief. A man lost in the world. A woman with no hope. Imagine yourself at your most vulnerable, deep in despair with only one hope: perhaps someone will help me.
Now imagine that the stranger who is most kind, most loving is not the upstanding citizen who looks and thinks like you. Imagine that she or he is that person you dismiss as a bigot or a heathen, a racist or an instigator, a misogynist or a baby-killer. Imagine that your succor is delivered by someone whom you would never consider to be your neighbor, your friend, your sister or brother in the faith. Imagine that your greatest need is filled by such a person. What would that teach us about the meaning of loving God and loving neighbor?
In short, we might discover that loving God and neighbor know no bounds, that if we look at the world with God's eyes we would see Good Samaritans all around us.
Editor's Note: ON Scripture - The Bible is a series of Christian scripture commentaries produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks. Each week pastors from around the country will approach the lectionary text of the week through the lens of current events, providing a religious voice that is both pastoral and prophetic.