Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho…”
A few years ago, on July 5th, I was sitting in the church office when the church secretary called across the hallway:
“Umm,” she began. “I’m not sure how to quite put this, but, did you happen to see the woman in the bikini lying down in one of the church parking spaces on your way in this morning?”
A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.
From the safety of the secretary’s office we peered through the blinds and assessed the situation. All the way in the furthest spot away from the building, the one closest to the main road, was a young woman on her back, wearing nothing but a bikini, and she wasn’t moving.
The secretary promptly elbowed me in the ribs, “You’re a pastor, aren’t you supposed to do something?”
“Of course I’m supposed to do something.” I said as I waited for someone else driving by the church to do something.
Now by chance a priest was going down the road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.
I felt pitiful as I reluctantly made my way across the parking lot, unsure of what was about to happen. Car after car came flying down the road while the woman was curled up on the asphalt, and not one of them slowed down to see the scandalous scene.
As I got closer I thought about picking up a stick, in order to poke her to make sure she was still of this world, but then she slowly rolled over on to her side and looked me right in the eye. She smelled like the basement of a fraternity house, the little clothing she had on had tiny little rips and tears in it, and she looked utterly perplexed.
For a time neither of us spoke, and then I remembered my vocation so I said, “Can I help you?”
“Honey, I could use a ride,” she said with a hiccup and a twinkle in her eye.
I slowly offered her my hand, and as I picked her up from the ground she said, “You’re wondering how I got here. Well, so am I. The last thing I remember is being at the park for the 4th of July, partying, having a lot to drink, and then I woke up in someone’s yard over there. I tried to walk home, but I lost my phone, my wallet, and I think I’m still drunk, so I decided to take a nap here in this nice parking spot.”
“Okay” I said, “I’ll drive you home.”
The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.
We wobbled across the lot arm in arm and I could feel the eyeballs of everyone in their cars silently judging me as they drove by. It took an inordinate amount of time to make it from her napping location to my car, and we had to stop no less than three times for fear that she was going to empty out what she had put in the night before.
Eventually, I struggled to get her buckled safely in and asked if she would be able to guide me to her house. To which she replied, “You should have been there last night! The lights and colors were just like illuminating.”
So I asked again, and she responded by pointing with her index finger toward the main road.
“Wonderful,” I thought, “directions by charades.”
We reversed out of the parking lot and I followed her finger across town.
At one point, as we neared the top of a hill, she slowly raised her hands up above her head and shouted, “Woooooo I love this part of the ride!”
When we passed by the police station, she sank as deep as possible into the seat until her feet were up on the dashboard and she let forth a burp that smelled of stale beer, hotdogs, and regret.
We had a time finding her house as we went up and down streets which she either could not read or remember. But eventually, we pulled up in front of a nondescript house and she let out a sigh of acceptance.
The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you what more you spend.”
We sat in the car in uncomfortable silence while she looked out the window at her future with a strange and detached look on her face.
“So, are you a pastor or something?”
“That’s what they call me on Sundays.”
“Do you do this kind of stuff a lot?”
“Honestly, not enough. What about you?”
“All the time.”
And with that she opened up the door and fell out of my car. She promptly picked herself up and staggered across the lawn and up to the front door all the while whistling a strange rendition of the Star Spangled Banner.
She made it to the front door, and patted down on her non-existent pockets for her keys that she didn’t have, and began banging on the door until someone let her in.
And then I drove back to church.
For the rest of the day I felt pretty good about myself. I had been the Good Samaritan. I only later realized that I never even bothered to ask for her name.
Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
Jesus ends his parabolic encounter with this great question, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
And immediately we know how this story is supposed to work. The Samaritan is the good neighbor, and we are supposed to be the good neighbor to our neighbors. But, who really wants to be like that?
The Samaritan is not a very good example, at least he’s one that we should be careful of imitation. He’s a fool! He wastes his good money on a no good stranger in a ditch, gives him his own ride, and then has the gall to put him up in a swanky hotel without receiving anything in return.
Moreover, Samaritans are outcasts. He is a loser who comes to deal with another loser. His actions are crazy and reprehensible. He lays down whatever his life might’ve been for someone he doesn’t even know, simply because he, as an outcast, has found solidarity with another in the dump that life has offered him.
The loser has found his truest neighbor, another loser.
Which, incidentally, is what the whole gospel is about – Jesus came to save a lost and losing world, by becoming lost and defeated. But in this world of ours, populated by losers, all of us are hopelessly committed to a version of the world that is obsessed with winning, by being the best, by looking out for ourselves.
It would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic. But it is tragic, because grace works only in the midst of being able to recognize how badly we need it.
Or, to put it another way, if Jesus wanted to be a better motivational speaker he would’ve ended the parable thusly: Don’t be like the Samaritan; it will ruin your life. You will become a mockery among your friends, you will be a loser.
But Jesus isn’t a motivational speaker, he is the Lord.
Which brings us back to the question posed at the end of the parable: Which person was the neighbor to the man in the ditch? But what if there’s a better question… and what if that better question is this: Which person in the story is Jesus?
The central figure, contrary to just about every version of this story ever told, or ever preached, is not the Good Samaritan. The Good Samaritan is simply one of three people who actually figures out what it means to be a properly good neighbor.
Jesus in the story, the one who demands all of our focus and attention, the one to whom the three are either neighborly or not, is the one down in the ditch.
Jesus is free among the dead – He is the one who, again and again, is with the last, the least, the lost, the little, and the dead.
If we want the parable to tell us to imitate the Good Samaritan, which it certainly does, then that’s fine.
But if that’s all the Good Samaritan is good for, then it isn’t very good.
Or, as Robert Farrar Capon so wonderfully put it: “The parables are true only because they are like what God is like, not because they are models for us to copy. It is simply a fact that the one thing we dare not under any circumstance imitate is the only thing that can save us.”
Jesus is the one down in the ditch. Jesus, the Lord of lords, has condescended himself to our miserable existence and can be found in the place of our own ditch-ness and suffering.
This story is but another resounding reminder that we don’t have to go looking for Jesus, or even that we have to be like the Good Samaritan to earn Jesus.
It’s that Jesus was willing to do for us what we could not, and would not, do for ourselves or our neighbors.
Jesus has moved in next door knowing that we, his neighbors, are a bunch of losers.
And that’s Good News.