reversing the question
One of my favorite stories Jesus told is the parable of the Good Samaritan.
The story is found in the gospel of Luke, who was a doctor and a writer. I can imagine the story of a man dying on the side of the road would resonate deeply to someone who spent his life alleviating patients pain. Maybe that's why it resonates with me, too.
Jesus tells the story in response to a cocky, young religious scholar who asks him how he can get eternal life.
Jesus says, "What do you think?"
And the man rattles off what he knows -- "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself" -- and says he's kept those two rules perfectly.
Jesus says, "Good for you."
But then the young man asks, "Who is my neighbor?" Not because he wants to make sure he includes everyone who counts as a neighbor, but because he wants to know who he can exclude and still get into heaven.
In response, Jesus begins to tell the parable.
In the story, a man is walking on the road that goes down from Jerusalem toward Jericho. It was an actual road in Jesus' day, and it was nicknamed "The Way of Blood" because it was so dangerous. The 18 miles of road were winding and desolate, and many robbers hid behind boulders that lined the road, and robbed and beat (and sometimes killed) unsuspecting travelers.
In Jesus' story, this happened to the man who was traveling. Robbers stole his belongings, beat the man, and left him for dead on the side of the road.
And then a priest comes along. At this point, I'm sure Jesus' audience was relieved. Who better to come across a suffering man than someone who devoted his entire life to teaching about God? But the priest doesn't stop. He crossed to the opposite side of the road and kept going.
When I was little, Sunday School teachers told me that the priest didn't stop to help because he was on his way to the temple to make sacrifices to God, and if he touched a dead body, he would be considered "unclean." But that explanation can't be true, because if the priest was on his way to work, he would have been walking up to Jerusalem. But instead, he was walking down to Jericho, which meant he was leaving work. And still, he didn't stop to help.
The next character Jesus introduces into the story is a Levite. A Levite was someone from a chosen tribe who worked full-time taking care of the logistics of the temple. I'm sure Jesus' audience breathed a sigh of relief when they heard that, even though the priest didn't stop to help, a full-time servant of God was the next person to encounter the dying man. And yet the Levite also crossed to the other side of the road and kept walking.
And then a Samaritan comes along.
At this point in the story, I'm sure Jesus' listeners were wondering who the fourth person to come along was going to be. Because there isn't any way a Samaritan could be the hero of the Rabbi's story.
Samaritans were half Jewish, half Gentile. They were despised by Jews, who called them half-breeds and dogs. The Samaritans practiced a religion that was a mix of Judaism and paganism, and worshiped God in a temple built on Mount Gerizim instead of worshiping in Jerusalem. The Jews hated them so much that they would walk miles out of their way to avoid a shortcut that ran through Samaria.
There isn't any way that a mixed-race man with erroneous theology could be the role model of a Jewish rabbi's story. RIght?
I've told this story to assemblies of grade school and high school students, and after I tell the story, I ask them to act out a skit, choosing characters that Jesus might use for the priest, the Levite and the Good Samaritan if he was telling the story in our day. Kids have cast a felon, a drug addict, a high school drop out and a mob boss as the unlikely heroes in Jesus' story.
But it was, indeed, the Samaritan -- the most unlikely of heroes -- who stopped to help the dying man. He bound up his wounds, put him on his donkey, and took him to an inn. He stayed with the man that night, and in the morning, asked the inn keeper to care for the man, and said he'd come back to pay the bill in full.
At the end of the story, Jesus asks the young man, "Who was a good neighbor?"
The young man can't even bring himself to say the word "Samaritan." He says, "The one who had mercy on him."
Jesus says, "Go and do likewise."
Today we celebrate and remember the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. He actually talked about this parable in one of his sermons.
He said that the difference between the priest and the Levite -- the ones who ignored their neighbor -- and the Samaritan, who selflessly cared for his neighbor (his enemy, even) was this:
When the priest and Levite see the dying man, they ask, "If I stop to help him, what will happen to me?"
But the Good Samaritan reverses the question, asking instead, "If I don't stop to help, what will happen to him?"
My friends, as followers of Jesus, we are called to let this parable sink deep into our souls. We're called to listen as Jesus answers the question, "Who is my neighbor?" with the answer that there's no person on the planet who is not our neighbor. We're called to love every living being as we love ourselves, regardless of skin color, ethnicity, religion, political affiliation, lifestyle choices, zip code -- and regardless of how they treat us.
And the way to love our neighbors well is to reverse the question. To stop asking, "If I help that person in need, what will happen to me?" And ask instead, "If I don't practice kindness and generosity toward that person, what will happen to them?"
Today, look for ways to see every person you encounter as a neighbor you're called to love.
Take steps today to make our world well by reversing the question.