Ironically, or perhaps, providentially, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel Reading for Sunday, July 14, the morning after the George Zimmerman verdict in the slaying of Trayvon Martin was announced, was the Parable of the Good Samaritan. When, as the sun went down on Saturday night, it became clear to me that the sermon I had planned to deliver on Sunday morning did not fit the moment, I returned to the gospel of Luke, reread the parable and came to the following understanding.
Jesus was being questioned by a religious scholar who wanted Jesus to tell him that he was the epitome of faithful person. Recognizing that, as with all human beings, there was a gap between the scholar’s words and deeds, between his profession and practice, Jesus thought he should make the man think just a bit. Thus, he told a story. That story has become known as the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
Jesus said there once was a man who took the short but dangerous journey from Jerusalem to Jericho. On the way he was mugged. They took his clothes. They beat him up. They left him by the road not sure if he was dead or alive. If they were anything like us, and likely they were, Jesus hearers, including the religious scholar had an image in their mind of who these robbers were. Like us, in the absence of details, they were conditioned to fill in the details. Like us, they were conditioned to fear certain groups based on religion, ethnicity, race, class, dress. Thus, without being told who the robbers were they had a clear mental picture of who to blame for this criminal act.
Jesus continued his story. Along came a trustworthy priest who veered to the side of the road opposite the wounded man and then continued on his way. Same thing with a Levite, a respected religious leader. Next came a Samaritan. At this point Jesus’ audience was convinced they knew what was going to happen. Maybe they didn’t say it out loud but it was clear in their minds. “A Samaritan, likely one of the ones who beat the man up in the first place. He probably came back to finish the job, to eliminate evidence, to make sure he didn’t leave any coins behind.” When Jesus said the Samaritan gave aid instead of causing harm, his audience got shocked expressions on their faces, they struggled to comprehend what they were hearing, some probably said it out loud, “No way, a Samaritan, they are the problem, not the solution.”
Jesus made it clear that what we think we know about our neighbors often gets in the way of loving them, of treating them like human beings, of being merciful, of experiencing eternal life in the midst of this life. Could it be that if Jesus told the parable today the merciful character would not be a Samaritan but rather a hoody-wearing teenager with dark skin, someone of which we are convinced we already pretty much know what we need to know.