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We are in a new preaching series called “A New Testament” where we’ll be exploring familiar parables and passages from the Bible through new lenses and asking ourselves what is God’s word for us today. How can we go deeper to understand God’s heart and are there possibly new learnings we can uncover beyond the common traditional readings?
Parables are a common feature in the gospels. In fact, Matthew said, “Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable. 35 So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet: “I speak in parables so that I may reveal things that have been hidden since the foundation of the world.” (Matthew 13:34-35)
So before we jump into one of the famous parables, I wanted to first observe what makes the telling of parables such a powerful teaching tool.
The Power of Parables
Parables are multi-layered, speaking simultaneously at psychological, political, sociological and spiritual levels. So you can hear the same story or parable of Jesus at different stages of your life and gain significantly different messages.
-Questions our assumptions
We live in a messy world and it’s not always easy to make sense of the contradiction, confusion and disorder. So we seek for predictability, reason and order to give ourselves some sense of peace and control. We develop familiar patterns of thinking to help ourselves navigate the world. But these familiar patterns of thinking can often cause us to be stuck in a rut. For example, racism is the result of unhelpful patterns of thinking passed down from generation to generation. So parables were used by Jesus as one way to question our assumptions and prejudices.
-Invites us to see a different reality
We often depend on our senses and/or on science and logic to experience the world. But for us to truly experience awe and wonder, as well as the big things of God –- matters such as life, death, faith, justice, love, mercy — we need a more open, expansive, heartfelt way of experiencing reality. Parables are a way of entering that larger view. That’s because parables invite us out of our usual way of seeing reality into a different sort of reality. And that’s not easy because our egos find it very difficult to entertain the possibility that there might be something wrong or amiss with our own thinking; especially if someone is questioning our assumptions. So parables are invitations to begin to see the world around us and other people, in particular, with Christ’s eyes; to enter that more expansive way of seeing.
-Challenges us to a new way of thinking and living
When Jesus tells a parable, it is often with the intention of challenging his listeners to a new way of thinking and living. What we hear depends a lot on how prepared our minds and hearts are. People sometimes struggle with the stories but the problem doesn’t lie in the stories but in the listeners’ ability to perceive. Father Sean O’Laoire says, “A literal mind, founded on fear, will hear one message; while a mystical heart, founded on love, will hear a radically different message.”
So are you ready to hear a story? Before we go into the reading of the Good Samaritan, I would like to tell you a story that Henri Nouwen once told: There was a rabbi having a conversation with his students. “How,” the rabbi said, “can we determine the hour of dawn, when the night ends and the day begins?” One of the students suggested: “When from a distance you can distinguish in the dim light between a dog and a sheep.” “No,” was the answer of the rabbi. “Is it when you can distinguish between a fig tree and a grapevine?” asked a second student. “No,” the rabbi said. “Please tell us the answer, then,” said the students. “It is …” said the teacher, “when you can look into the face of another human being and you have enough light in you to recognize your brother or your sister. Until then it is night, and darkness is still within us.”
The reason I share this story is because in quite a remarkable way, this story retold by Henri Nouwen summarizes a mystery at the heart of this morning’s parable of the Good Samaritan.
25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’[c]; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[d]”
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii[e] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
Remember earlier I said that parables are multi-layered? Well, the parables of Jesus operated on at least two different levels:
A Sunday School level.
And a Super Cool level.
On first reading, the parable of the good Samaritan offers a simple and practical moral of the story – help those who are in need. This is a good, safe message and definitely something the world needs more of. This is the Sunday School level of the story. Something we can easily teach our kids next door at Sunday School.
But Jesus wasn’t crucified for telling stories that encouraged people to be nice to one another. He was killed because his ministry and message offended, provoked, and challenged the pre-existing power structures of his day. We’re repeatedly told in the four gospel narratives that religious scholars, scribes, and lawyers were present wherever Jesus went to question, challenge, and silence him. So it’s not a coincidence that Jesus introduces a priest and a Levite into the story.
To the Jews, a priest has the highest level of respect and prestige in the Jewish community. It was believed a priest had direct access to the presence of God. And a Levite was a member of the tribe of Levi that assisted the priests in the temple. Because the priest and the Levite served in the temple, they had to maintain certain standards of ritual purity found in the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures). And one of those standards included being forbidden to touch a dead body. If they touched the “half-dead” man in the story and he died while they were transporting him, the priest and the Levite would be considered “ceremonially impure” and unable to carry out their duties at the temple for seven days.
The Jews at that time would understand why the Priest and the Levite avoided the wounded man. In fact, they could argue that technically they were choosing to do the right thing. Yet deep inside, because we are all human, I suspect the Jews who were listening to this parable probably felt a sense of discomfort and disquiet as Jesus described how the Priest and Levite walked away from someone who really needed help. In their hearts, it probably felt wrong even though it was technically right by religious standards. Jesus was challenging the Jews as well as the religious leaders to renew their thinking regarding what was good or bad, right or wrong, holy or unholy.
What about you? Have you ever been presented with religious laws or guidelines that felt deeply wrong even though they seemed religiously right? The religious devotion of the priest and the Levite blinded them to the pain, injustice and suffering in the world around them. Their religious devotion hindered them from doing the right thing. That’s why it’s important for us to keep an open mind and allow the Word of God to constantly challenge us to renew our perspectives regarding what is right, good and holy even though it may challenge conventional religious thinking. On this Pink Dot weekend, I think about how the Church has been grappling with the LGBTQ issue, and I wonder if God is challenging us to renew our perspectives regarding what is right, good and holy, especially when it challenges conventional religious thinking.
Jesus went for the shock value when he introduced the Samaritan after the priest and the Levite in this parable. Jesus could have introduced a lowly shepherd or a farmer but he intentionally chose a Samaritan. The Samaritan people were the result of the Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel in 721 B.C. While a majority of the Israelites were exiled from their homeland, a small group remained behind and intermarried with the Assyrians who were pagan. Their offspring, the Samaritans, were raised in a society that worshipped many gods. They were viewed as half-breeds, traitors and heretics. To the first century Jew, there was no one more hated than the Samaritan.
But in this parable, it was the Samaritan who reaches out to the injured man and tended to his wounds. It was the Samaritan who lifted him onto his donkey and brought him to an inn where he personally takes care of him throughout the night. Not only that, he pays for the wounded man’s room and board for two additional days. And he offered to reimburse the innkeeper if the man needed more time to recover.
Can you imagine what the injured man was thinking while all this was happening? Of all the characters in the parable, very few of us would have identified ourselves with the wounded person. We might have thought of ourselves as the Samaritan or even as the legalistic priest but most of us have probably not thought from the wounded man’s perspective. “Why is this Samaritan touching me? Urgh! What’s he trying to do? Maybe he has ulterior motives. I’m not comfortable with Samaritans. They can’t be trusted…Okay, he’s loading me onto his donkey. Is he trying to kidnap me? Where is he bringing me? Okay, he’s checking me into an inn and he sat with me throughout the night, making sure I was alright. What’s his motivation for helping me? I just heard him leaving instructions with the innkeeper to take care of me while he’s gone. I guess he seems like quite a decent and kind person. Perhaps I’ve been wrong about Samaritans all this time. Perhaps they are more like us than I thought.”
Have there been people like the Samaritan in your life? How did God change your mind about them? Perhaps there is someone like the Samaritan in your life right now. How is God changing your mind about them and are you allowing yourself to open up and be cared for by someone like that?
You see, this whole episode was initiated when a self-righteous expert in the law asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?”
Instead of answering the loaded question, Jesus showed him it was the wrong question. It was the wrong question because love is not about narrowly defining who belongs to our tribe, who is deserving of our help and generosity. Love is about how each of us can BE a neighbour.
So let’s not be so quick to rush into identifying who are the good and bad people in this story. That’s what our brains tend to do when we hear a story or watch a movie, right? The Samaritan is the good guy, and the Priest and Levite are bad. But that’s not what this story is truly about. Jesus is inviting us to listen more closely, ponder more deeply. Remember parables are meant to challenge us at varying levels. The Levite and Priest may not inherently be bad people. Perhaps they are people who made the wrong choice because they were misguided by the rules of their religion, their concept of God and what they believed God is pleased with. Are their beliefs unhelpful or harmful? Yes. Do we stand up to such harmful beliefs? Yes! We make a stand against harmful beliefs and strive to help those who have been hurt by such beliefs. At the same time, we also try to help ourselves and one another to dig deep into the heart of God, and allow the Spirit of God to transform our hearts and minds.
The purpose of this parable is not for us to identify and point the finger at who’s the good and bad people in the story. It’s for us to reflect more deeply on whether we are BEING the neighbor in our daily lives. “Go and do likewise,” Jesus says. Are we loving our neighbors as ourselves? And are we allowing our neighbors to love us?
“Love your neighbor as yourself” the Gospel says (Matthew 22:38). But who is my neighbor? We often respond to that question by saying: “My neighbors are all the people I am living with on this earth, especially the sick, the hungry, the dying, and all who are in need.” But this is not what Jesus says. When Jesus tells the story of the good Samaritan (see Luke 10:29-37) to answer the question “Who is my neighbor?” he ends by asking: “Which … do you think, proved himself a neighbor to the man who fell into the bandits’ hands?” The neighbor, Jesus makes clear, is not the poor man laying on the side of the street, stripped, beaten, and half dead, but the Samaritan who crossed the road, “bandaged his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them … lifted him onto his own mount and took him to an inn and looked after him.” My neighbor is the one who crosses the road for me!”
This leads us to another reading of this parable, and I came upon this perspective by Rev Christopher Snook. The earliest Christians who heard this parable understood the persistence of the darkness within each of us. For this reason they read the parable of the Good Samaritan not just as an encouragement to help others, but as an account of the healing we require so that we may see and love our siblings. For those early Christians, the parable of the good Samaritan is not simply a story of a good person helping a suffering man. It is, rather, the story of Jesus Christ helping us. Perhaps it can be understood as a cosmic story about the universal problem of human alienation from God and each other. Jesus begins the parable by telling us that a man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho.
In the Scriptures, both of these cities have a kind of symbolic function that Jesus’ disciples would have recognized. Jerusalem is the city of peace, paradise, an image of the heavenly life, while Jericho represents the place of exile. It is on this road that the man is attacked by robbers. And for the earliest Christians, these robbers were not simply bandits out to steal money from an unsuspecting traveller. Rather, for the earliest Christians these robbers were understood to be the things that rob us of life: anger, bitterness, envy, jealousy, pride, etc. They understood that what truly robs us of life are not those things done to us in this world, but those things lurking within us.
So to the early Christians, the Samaritan was understood to be Christ himself. The one who binds up our wounds, lifts us up and tenderly takes care of us. Jesus carries onto himself our burdens, our weaknesses, our frailty. And the inn is an image of the Church, where we are to continue healing until Christ returns. Ideally, we would each then be a neighbour to others and help others heal too.
So this parable is first and foremost describing the goodness of God towards us. The wonderful mystery at the heart of this story is that in order to be neighbours to one another, we must first be cared for by God. To love, we must be loved, for it is only in the light of our being loved perfectly by Christ that we can have the freedom to give ourselves in love to others – to give and not count the cost.
As Nouwen said, “My neighbour is the one who crosses the road for me!”
God in Christ first crossed the road for us — Jesus emptying himself so that we may cross over to God and one another. For the roads that separate us are primarily spiritual and emotional – fears, uncertainties, hesitations about how we might be viewed or received by the other. The only way to bypass these fears is to cross over in the company of the One who first crossed the road for us.
So will you go and do likewise?
When does the night end, asked the Rabbi. “…When you can look into the face of another human being and you have enough light in you to recognize your brother or your sister.”