-- Bruce Springsteen, "Atlantic City"
This story is so familiar to us that we might figure other things are worth more study. But repetition is the key to learning, after all. If my teachers had just shown me algebra once, I never would have learned it. Of course, my report card shows that even with repetition, I didn't learn it all that well. But I would for sure have never learned it the other way.
So what can we learn from our familiar story? I'd like to call out two things among many.
One is a question we should probably ask ourselves in regards to how Jews and Samaritans of the time saw each other. We've probably heard they didn't get along well. In fact, the traditional route that Jewish people in Galilee, where Jesus comes from, took to get to Jerusalem in Judea was two days longer than the direct route, because the direct route went through Samaria. A journey of about eight to ten days was made two days longer in order to avoid a group of people and a country the travelers disliked. I can think of several people I don't much care for, but few of them would make me lengthen my journey by 20 percent just to avoid crossing into their country.
So when Jesus' audience heard that the third person walking down the road was a Samaritan, they probably figured the robbery victim was done for. At the very least, the Samaritan was probably going to ignore the man just like the priest and the Levite had done. And at worst, he might just go over to him and get a few licks in of his own, because everybody knew you could never trust those dirty rotten Samaritans not to kick a decent man when he's down. Probably the only way the Samaritan would fight anyway; they never looked you in the eye when they could stab you in the back.
How about us? What's our Samaritan line? What people or group of people are we willing to think the worst of before we even meet them?
For some folks, their Samaritan line is racial. Even in 2013, we have people who are willing to let their judgment of others be based on skin color or heritage. People of every race will draw the line and think the worst of any group that's not like them. For others, the Samaritan line may be class-based or economic. Wealthy people reject poor people as lazy or unwilling to just make the effort to better themselves. Poor people believe the well-off are uncaring or selfish and won't treat anyone with respect unless they have money also. The Samaritan line may have to do with education, or politics, or whether or not someone was accused of a crime, or disability status or a disease like AIDS.
Since you and I don't really need a lesson in how to be nice to actual Samaritans, living as we do in the 21st century, I believe Jesus would intend for us to look to the people we treat the way Jews and Samaritans treated each other in the first century. Now tell the story using them. What do we think when we hear our Samaritan approach the beaten man?
But surprise! The dirty rotten Samaritan proves to be the one who actually helps after the priest and the Levite have walked on by! Here enters a little irony connected with what we call this parable. You might have heard people today say that the only good terrorist is a dead terrorist. Soldiers during World War II said the only good Nazi was a dead Nazi. The ancient Judeans and Galileans probably knew this joke, only they would have said the only good Samaritan is a dead Samaritan. Imagine what they would think if they heard us talk about a parable of the good Samaritan. Because of Jesus' story, the entire image of Samaritans has changed from what they knew. Sure, maybe our Samaritan line is drawn with what we think is good reason and at least some of the people on the other side of it deserve their bad reputation. But when we face up to those ideas honestly, we have to admit that some of the people on the dirty rotten Samaritan side of the lines we've drawn are good people and we have refused to see them that way.
A second point I want to draw from the story is how Jesus responds to the questioner who starts the whole conversation that evokes the parable. Remember, he first asks Jesus how he could have eternal life. When Jesus tells him that the two great commandments form the basis of such a life, the guy then goes one step more and asks, "Who is my neighbor?" referring to the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves.
You could say the parable doesn't answer the question, and you'd be right. When Jesus completes it, he asks his questioner, "Who was a neighbor to the man who was robbed?" "The one who helped him." "Go and do likewise." Since the man wanted to know who he was supposed to love as he loved himself, Jesus doesn't help him much here when he asks him which of the men walking on the road was a neighbor.
Jesus' parabolic answer (Hey! Algebra!) shows the man what Jesus thinks is important. We do ourselves little good when we ask who our neighbors are. We do much more good when we ask and try to learn how to be a neighbor instead of how we define a neighbor.
In reality, aren't neighbors all around us? It is almost impossible to define "neighbor" so narrowly that we could even go a day without encountering someone we need to show God's love to and who is in need of that love. And if we are truly following Christ, we can remove the "almost" from the preceding sentence. Because no matter where we draw our Samaritan lines and no matter who we put on the other side of them, we can be sure that the infinite God is over there just as much as he is here.