Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Learning about stereotypes from the Good Samaritan

The parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the most endearing, memorable stories Jesus tells in the gospels. There is so much profound material to be drawn from the story; it is worth thinking about in great detail. One particularly helpful method is "imaginative reading," which involves reading or listening to a passage while trying to imagine the scene in your head, and noticing what parts stick out to you.

One thing which is of interest to me is the experience of the injured man on the side of the road. What was going through his mind? His attack was certainly a surprise. Perhaps he had prayed before he set off that God protect him. Why, then, would God have allowed such an evil thing to happen? He's nearing death; he cannot live long in the wilderness outside the city, and his hope of survival seems to be dwindling with every passing hour. Why, God? Why did this happen to me?

Then it would seem his salvation has arrived, because he sees a priest coming down the road. This man offers sacrifices on behalf of people like me all the time! He mediates our relationship with God! He knows the Law and has to keep the commandments! Surely he will help me out of this mess! But as a matter of fact, the priest takes one look at the injured man and passes on the other side of the road. He kept as far away as he could from him.

If this disappointment was grave, it would seem the injured man would find hope yet again as he sees a Levite coming by. More than that, the Levite approaches him and takes a good look at him. Is he going to help me? He sees how badly I'm injured; he sees my grave suffering! Certainly he will help me! But this one, too, turns away and continues on his journey. Once more, hope disappoints and the injured man now may have to come face to face with the harsh reality: this is the way he'll die, alone and battered in the wilderness outside the holy city.

Unexpectedly, a Samaritan comes along. And whereas the injured man might have expected the others to help and they did nothing, this one -- this enemy of God, this damned dirty heretic -- comes and pours oil and wine on my wounds, bandages me, sets me up on his animal, takes me to an inn, pays for my room and my care, and promises to come back for me as well! What is so critical about Jesus' parable is this: the figure least expected to help goes above and beyond the call of duty in assisting the injured man to recover, bringing him back to safety and treating his wounds.

What would this have done for the injured man? How would his view of the world have changed? All the stereotypes he had bought into would have been shattered: the priests and the Levites are not so good and holy as you might think, all their time spent in the Temple and synagogues notwithstanding; on the other hand, those Samaritans are not so bad as you keep hearing. It was a Samaritan that helped me when my life was in danger, not a priest nor a Levi!

The public perception was totally reversed in this story. The injured man's experiences would have utterly changed his perspective entirely. Things are not always the way that people think; we may be more likely to find God's goodness and kindness in one of our worst enemies than in our religious leaders and idols.

How would you tell this story in the present day to wake evangelicals and others in our churches out of their dogmatic slumber? A good Christian man is assaulted on a street and left to die in an alley; a a pastor walks by, as does a police officer, without helping him at all, but a male prostitute -- or a Muslim cleric -- or an atheist -- helps him and cares for him until he recovers.

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