One of the best known figures in the New Testament is not a historical person, but a character in a story told by Jesus. Jesus does not give this character a name, but refers to him as a member of a particular ethnic group. This character is identified simply as "a Samaritan." The people who hear Jesus tell this story are shocked by the identity of its hero. They view a good Samaritan, a compassionate Samaritan, as a contradiction in terms. The Jewish contemporaries of Jesus regard themselves as good guys and Samaritans as bad guys. They detest Samaritans, and Samaritans detest them.
This hatred between Samaritan and Jew is already many generations old when Jesus tells his story. It is in fact a vast family squabble, because Jews and Samaritans are related peoples, quarreling cousins. Nor is the world of today free from such quarrels within the human family.
Jesus shocks his fellow Jews when he tells a story about a Samaritan who is a model of compassion who cares for an injured stranger who’s likely to be one of their own, a Jew beaten by robbers on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Jesus did not win any points with that scandalous story about the Samaritan. But this story does not scandalize us because the hero is a Samaritan. We would not recognize a real, live Samaritan if one walked through the door.
Yet the story bothers us for other reasons. The Samaritan who demonstrates compassion toward the robbery victim we find to be something of a troublemaker. Sure, he’s a handy guy to have around if you have the misfortune to be mugged, but as a practical example, this unknown do-gooder threatens us for several reasons.
First, the Samaritan takes risks. He goes out of his way to help an injured stranger. As a result, he must end up late getting wherever it is he wants to go that day. Also, consider the circumstances. He’s walking from one town to another along a road notorious for robberies. He sees a human form lying in the grass, an apparent victim of crime stained with blood. Is the victim for real, or is he bait? If the Samaritan goes over to help, perhaps he will be robbed by the supposed victim and any henchmen concealed in the area. This has been known to happen on the dangerous road from Jerusalem down to Jericho.
The Samaritan threatens us in another way. He spends his resources freely on this wounded stranger. He bandages the stranger, transports him to an inn, and spends hours watching over him. Next morning, the Samaritan leaves, but puts down a considerable sum of money to cover the stranger’s care, and promises to pay for anything additional once he returns. He lavishes time, attention, and money on someone unknown to him.
Yet another feature of this story threatens us. The Samaritan pays and leaves, promising to return, and we hear nothing more. How does it all turn out? We don’t know. Maybe the Samaritan gets nothing back for his troubles but scorn. At every step along the way, he acts without any assurance that his efforts will be successful or appreciated.
And so this Good Samaritan may not seem such a good guy after all. We may find him to be a troublemaker. His example of compassion may threaten our security, upset our sense of control. We too are on the road from some Jerusalem to some Jericho, and we can’t afford to be delayed. It seems better to be among those who pass by in safety on the other side.
If the Samaritan’s role does not fit us, then remember that this is not the only one we can play. We could also play the parts of those who notice the victim, yet keep on walking. Instead, when we look at the victim’s face — bruised, bloody, unconscious — we are hit with a shock of recognition. That poor face is our face! We are the victim, attacked by robbers, stripped, beaten, and left half dead. You are there and so am I, lying in the grass beside the road, and so is every man, woman, and child. It’s the face of humanity that’s been mugged and abandoned by the road.
There comes someone to help us. Someone of a despised and alien race. Someone we fear. We want to keep our distance. But he does not fear us. He takes risks in approaching, and spends resources on our recovery with no guarantee we will ever thank him. Even to us, who by thought and word and action may appear to despise him, this Samaritan shows compassion. For once we learn his name. His name is Jesus.
You see, Jesus does not simply tell this story. He lives out this story. He is the first and foremost Samaritan. In his incarnation, life, ministry, death, and resurrection, Jesus approaches us, the human race, beaten senseless and half dead by the troubles and tribulations of this life. He anoints and bandages our wounds. He places us on his own animal, making us members of his body, that we may share his divine life.
He takes us to an inn, a hospital, a place of safety and health, underwriting our expenses out of his abundant mercy, leaves us in the innkeeper’s care, and promises to settle accounts when he returns again. Jesus takes the risk of approaching us. He dares to draw near.
Jesus spends his resources to heal us and does this freely. His cross is medicine for the world, his flesh and blood our food for eternal life. And all too often we remain unconscious of this grace. Jesus does this for us, but the story is not yet complete. He acts compassionately, but with no assurance from us. Placed in the inn, we await his return.
We find ourselves in this Inn on this Sunday morning. He has made provision for us, above all at the welcome table of this inn, this hospital, this place of safety and health.
May we feast and rejoice, thankful for his mercy.
May we show to others assaulted on life’s road what he shows to us: that risky, spendthrift love which asks no return, the love of a compassionate heart.