The Good Samaritan

Disclaimer: If your take away from this piece is that I’m a great guy (or that I want you to think I am), then I need to rewrite it, or you need to re-read it.

In Luke 10, Jesus tells the parable of the “good” Samaritan. If I were speaking right now instead of writing, I would use air quotes when saying the word “good.” I love air quotes. To the original audience, there really was no such thing as a “good” Samaritan. Many Jews of that day viewed Samaritans as racially mixed, theologically deficient and generally undesirable. In short, a Samaritan was a very unlikely hero to a parable. Jesus liked to throw curve balls.

The parable only has a few characters. First there is the victim, who is mugged and left for dead by robbers. As the victim lies there naked, beaten and clinging to life, a priest, and then a Levite pass him by. Both of them react similarly: they look at the victim and actually exert energy to bypass him. Both of them notice; both of them ignore.

Priests were a subset of the Levites. All priests had to be Levites, but all Levites were not necessarily priests. They would have been concerned with their ceremonial duties… and ceremonial cleanliness. Something about this poor victim’s plight dissuaded the religious leaders from stopping. Maybe they had more pressing duties at the Temple. Stopping to help this solitary victim would have gotten in the way of their “real” religious service, either because of priority (it would make them late) or purity (it would make them defiled).

In the eyes of many, these first two guys could legitimately claim a ministerial exemption for not stopping to help. Forget this individual roadside assistance stuff. They weren’t paramedics for individuals. Priests and Levites brokered the relationship between God and the entire nation. They were big time. They did their work in temples filled with worshipers and ceremonies. They didn’t work with mugging victims on dusty country roads.

You know the rest of the story. After the two religious guys pass right by, a Samaritan stops. He shows compassion. The Samaritan loaded the victim in his personal vehicle. Got him medical care and put him up in a hotel. It cost the Samaritan his time and a couple hundred dollars. Can you put a price on a life? In this case, you can: two days’ wages.

Yesterday I was heading to my friend’s cabin to grill some steaks and watch the NCAA tournament. I was running at least an hour late. I had to run extra errands. I forgot something and had to go back to the house. When I finally had my stuff together and was about to leave town, I noticed that I had just enough gas to get to the cabin but not back home. I was going to have to stop… again.

As I pulled into the gas station, I saw a lady struggling to walk up a long steep hill. She was neither old nor young. She was wearing a fast food uniform and carrying two overloaded shopping bags. She appeared to be in pain from a bad knee, or maybe a hip. The sky was gray and spitting rain.

I instantly felt compassion for her, but I bargained with myself. You know the bargain you make with yourself: “If she’s still there when I’m done getting gas, I’ll go back and offer her a ride.” [But I secretly hoped that she was already home by then, because I was an hour late to grill a steak and watch kids born in the 1990s put a ball in a hoop.]

When I was done fueling up, she was still struggling up the hill as the rain intensified. I headed back toward her and rolled down my window. As an aside, whenever I offer somebody a ride, I want to try and assure them that I am, in fact, not an axe murderer. So as soon as possible I lead with, “My name’s Jason. I’m the pastor at the Baptist church over by the city park.”

When I said that, her response was instant and adamant. “Oh I know.”

I didn’t recall having met her before. She didn’t look familiar. But I’m a public figure in a small town. Sometimes people know me and I don’t know them. But that’s not how she meant it. She explained it…

“I got off work and walked to the store. Then it started raining. And I waited in there for a long time, hoping somebody I knew would come in and give me a ride. The rain was picking up so I figured I better just start walking. This is a big hill and I’ve got a long way to go to my apartment. Ever since I left the store I was praying that God would send somebody to help me home. I’ve got bad knees. So I know why you came back for me. I prayed, and God sent you.”

Those who know me best will tell you that I’m cynical. That’s a nice way to put it. I can be a real jerk, but I’m working on that. I’m far from superstitious, religiously or otherwise. But her earnestness broke me.

It broke me because I almost didn’t go back to offer her a ride because I was in a hurry to go eat a steak. It broke me because I realized that more often than not, I’m more like the first two guys in the parable… I’m the religious professional who’s too busy claiming a religious exemption to stop and help.

I played piano during worship this morning, and then I preached. Then I played guitar for another worship session, and wrapped up my day by delivering a devotional. But I’m pretty sure that when it’s all said and done, the most Christ-like thing I did this weekend was to give that lady a ride home.

So while you’re doing whatever it is you’re doing after you read this, say a prayer for her. God knows her name. She shared her story with me asked for me to pray for her. Life has been a struggle for her lately. It sounds like her life stinks. But she’s strong. She’s resilient. She’s working. She’s walking. And she’s trusting God to help her. And I almost didn’t listen. I need to listen more.

God open our eyes. Help us to slow down, to turn around, to go back. God help us to be better Samaritans.

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