The story of the Good Samaritan is rather remarkable. It has worked its way into our culture that even the unchurched will summon its principles so as to describe and determine a moral way of life. Yet, to “be a good Samaritan” is merely an occasion to define someone’s extraordinary act of assistance. As if day-to-day life demands no such decisions, no such needs.
The ubiquity of this parable is then cause for great consternation among us preachers — what revelatory insight can we possibly share that would provide a new perspective on this well-worn, oft-told tale? (and imagine the angst of the preaching professor and author of a weekly column for preachers who is supposed to be able to come up with some novel interpretation that might break open this parable for the working preacher).
Part of the challenge, of course, is the title itself. It makes me want to ask the person, the committee, the translation, the manuscript, the scribe, whomever, “Just how did you decide on this title, anyway? What makes the Samaritan ‘good’? Especially, when he is never called ‘good’ in the story itself?”
Were there bad Samaritans? Actually, at the time of Jesus, most, if not all, Samaritans were considered bad, so kind of a moot point. Was the Samaritan good because he actually saw the guy in the ditch? That could be it. After all, this is a main theme in Luke. Jesus sees whom others overlook and Jesus asks us to see those we might easily pass by. Was the Samaritan good because he was moved with pity (had compassion on him; had mercy on him; Psalm 25:6)? Was the Samaritan good because he went to the beaten man and bandaged his wounds? Was the Samaritan good because before bandaging the left-for-dead man’s injuries he poured oil and wine on them? Was the Samaritan good because he put the ditch-guy on his very own animal? Was the Samaritan good because he brought him to an inn and took care of him? Was the Samaritan good because the next day he took out two denarii, equivalent of two paydays, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him?” Was the Samaritan good because he said, “when I get back I will repay you whatever more you spend.” That is, was the Samaritan good because he made sure that both the man would be well and even that the man might prosper (“For the Lord will again take delight in prospering you, just as he delighted in prospering your ancestors,” Deuteronomy 30:9)?
Was the Samaritan good because he did all of the above?
Believe me, I thought through every single one of these options. And every single one of these options is too much for one sermon. Pick one, and suppose a sermon that might delve into the depths of such a qualifier — from the perspective of the Samaritan, from the perspective of the man in the ditch, from your perspective, from the perspective that Jesus might be inviting you to imagine anew.
But, here is what I would preach this Sunday: what if the Samaritan was good because he simply made the choice to come near the almost dead guy in the ditch? To approach him? To decrease the distance between him and the man clearly in need of help?
What if eternal life might also be known, here and now and in this place, in nearness, not remoteness? In proximity, not reserve? In deciding to be closer, and not looking for ways to push away?
We expend a lot of energy in our lives toward decided detachment, disengagement, and disenfranchisement. Sometimes these decisions are very much justified — for our safety, our self-preservation, our self-care. But other times, our distance is decided by our determination not to change. Our resistance to intimacy. Our rejection of those persons that might actually expose who we truly are. If the Levite and the priest came near? Well, they would then have to face some truths about themselves that I suspect they would rather not admit and that they have spent a lifetime pretending, hoping, even ensuring, don’t exist.
“Who is my neighbor?” means, according to Jesus, a commitment to coming near. Your neighbor is not just the person living next door — in a house you never have to enter, into which you might never be invited, to whom you never have to speak. Your neighbor is not one who happens to be convenient for you to help. Your neighbors are not those whom you can keep in their place. Your neighbor is not the one who meets the qualifications of your company.
Your neighbor is someone who, without a doubt, is experiencing pain, struggles, challenges, and sorrow, and yet to whom you draw near. Your neighbor is someone who clearly has needs and you decide — I will help you. Your neighbor is someone who might even resist your assistance but you insist on it anyway.
This should not be such a stretch for us preachers, us believers. After all, God’s decision to become human is just such an act — a commitment to closeness, a desire to close the distance, a need for nearness.
In the end, the Good Samaritan comes near as one who knows the Kingdom is near. And the Kingdom of God comes near when we do the same.