To ‘to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable’.
The theologian Amy-Jill Levine argues that religion is meant ‘to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable’. She suggests that the parables of Jesus are very good at doing this afflicting. She writes: “If we hear a parable and think, 'I really like that' or, worse, fail to take any challenge, we are not listening well enough."
In our Gospel this week we hear the well-known story of the Good Samaritan. It’s such a well-known parable that it’s easy for the sting, the challenge, to be lost. If we too easily identify with the Good Samaritan in this parable, we're missing the point. The scandal at the heart of this parable gets us to think about it this way: Who is the last person on earth you'd ever want to deem ‘the good person?’ Who is the last person you'd ever want to ask for a favour — much less owe your life? Whom do you secretly hope to convert, fix, impress, control, or save — but never, ever need?
The lawyer in the parable askes, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ Your neighbour is the one who scandalises you with compassion, Jesus answered. Your neighbour is the one who shocks you with a fresh face of God.
The theologian Amy-Jill Levine argues that religion is meant ‘to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable’. She suggests that the parables of Jesus are very good at doing this afflicting. So, if we hear a parable and think, 'I really like that', or if we fail to take any challenge from a parable, we are not listening well enough.
Today’s parable: the Good Samaritan. In a nutshell, a man on a journey is robbed and left for dead. A priest and a Levite pass him by, and a Samaritan stops and helps. The Samaritan shows mercy and exemplifies the same neighbourliness I am called to practice as a Christian. Jesus’s lesson? Be like the Samaritan. Be a nice person. Go and do what he did.
Now, of course we’re supposed to show compassion to those in need. But where is the challenge in this parable, where is the sting that makes us uncomfortable? For this, we have to do deeper into the parable. It starts with a lawyer asking Jesus what does it take to have eternal life, to live life to the full?
Love that joke about Jewish interaction: why do you respond to one question with another question? Well, why not?
A lawyer asks Jesus a question: Jesus responds with another question: what’s written in the law. To which the lawyer gives a concise answer: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and you shall love your neighbour as yourself."
Excellent…. Do this, Jesus says, and you’ll live.
Yes, yes, says the lawyer, but (another question) who is my neighbour? Is the line of neighbour to be drawn around home/ family, local neighbourhood/ community… there must be lines? Surely one can’t be a good neighbour to everyone! There’s got to be limits.
And so the parable begins. I won’t tell the whole story again, but, as I’ve indicated, if we too easily identify with the Good Samaritan in this parable, we're missing the point.
One way of look at it is how the story changes depending on where we imagine ourselves to be in it. For example, do we see ourselves as the priest and the Levite on bad days; and as the Good Samaritan on good days. Sometimes we see a need and we pass by because we’re too busy, preoccupied, afraid, overwhelmed, or tired. But sometimes, we follow the Good Samaritan’s example, and reach out to those in need.
That makes the parable more interesting. But let’s look closer. The writer Debie Thomas suggests, what if Jesus's parable is a reversal story? A story intended to upset our categories of good and bad, sacred and profane, benefactor and recipient? Maybe the whole point of the Samaritan is that he is not us.
You will know of the 1000-year hatred and enmity between Jews and the Samaritans. It was bitter and it was entrenched. They hated each other. To Jewish listeners, Jesus's making the Samaritan ‘good’, the hero of the story, was scandalous.
How might this scandal translate to our 21st century lives? So, for example: Who is the last person on earth you'd ever want to deem ‘the good person?’ Who is the last person you'd ever want to ask for a favour — much less owe your life? Whom do you secretly hope to fix, impress, control, or save — but never, ever need?
A Jewish man is robbed, and a Good Hamas member saves his life. A white racist is robbed, and a Good black teenager saves her life. An atheist is robbed, and a Good Christian fundamentalist saves his life. That’s the first challenge of this parable. Jesus was inviting his listeners, and us too, to imagine a different kind of kingdom. One that left room for divine and world-altering surprises.
Next, what does it mean to be afflicted by this story? Perhaps it means imagining ourselves, not in the priest, the Levite, or the Samaritan, but in the wounded man, dying on the road.
What’s interesting about this character is that he’s the only one in the story not defined by profession, social class, or religious belief. He has no identity at all except that he is naked and in desperate need.
Clare last week spoke of the difficult we often find to accept generosity from others. We live in a culture which values self-sufficiency, autonomy and independence. I’ve just read a book, Travels with a Stick, Richard Frazer. Scottish minister describing his 700km journey of the Camino pilgrimage – and how he was forced to accept the kindness and generosity of others, particularly when we found himself crippled by blisters. And how humbling and vulnerable he felt. But that such moments were reciprocated during his journey of several weeks. He writes: ‘…if we ask for help when things go wrong, if we accept that we all have times of vulnerability, far from being diminished, we will discover the richness of a caring community that grows through kindness.’
So, in this story, what about putting ourselves as the broken one, grateful to anyone at all who will show us mercy. There is something about tribal division evaporating when you're lying bloody in a ditch. What matters is not whose help you would prefer, or whose politics you agree with. What matters is whether anyone will stop to show mercy before you die.
I wonder whether you have experience a moment of grace, of compassion, from an unexpected person. If not, perhaps it will happen one day: in a hospital room. At a graveside? After a marriage fails? When you find yourself unemployed. When something like this happens, all that matters is how quickly you swallow your pride and grab hold of that hand you hoped never to touch.
In conclusion: ‘Who is my neighbour?’ the lawyer asked. Your neighbour is the one who scandalises you with compassion. Your neighbour is the one who challenges our categories of whose good/ bad, worthy/ unworthy…. and shocks us with a fresh face of God.
What shall we do to inherit eternal life? Do this. Suffer the vulnerable-making affliction of recognising yourself in the desperate victim, and allow the one you hate the most to snatch you back from death. Do this and you will live.
Reference: Debie Thomas