We don’t want to hear this. We don’t want to hear that we are not the saviors but the naked person, covered in blood, bruised and broken, on the verge of death, incapable, lost, without hope and unable to even give voice to our needs. That is us. That is you. We don’t want to hear this word. We want to look at ourselves and say, hey, I’m a pretty good person; I know what I’m supposed to do as a Christian and I generally do it (and at least I know enough to know that I will fail and need grace). I’m doing alright for myself, and for others. I can help my neighbors. I can offer them my strength. I can serve them with my wisdom. I can really help them. Just tell me who they are, who needs my help, and I’ll go.
Jesus looks at us and asks incredulously, who are you to ask that question? You are half-dead and for you to ask “who is my neighbor” is absurd. You can’t come to anyone’s help—you are naked and in a ditch. And nobody will come to you. Your own people are walking to the other side of the road. The other side of the road. They won’t even approach you. They won’t even come over to look at you. Your friends will not help you; your religious community—your church, your small group—won’t even come close to you in this state. Your fellow citizens will look at you with pity, and then turn away, and walk to the other side of the road.
We often wonder: why don’t these religious leaders come to help? I think the reason is simple: they do not need to come over. These are the most pious and most devout people the audience would know. They’re the moral heroes of the day. Surely, if there were some ethical or religious obligation to come to your help, they of all people would come. It’s like Jesus saying, “so, a guy was beaten and left for dead on the side of the road. Gandhi walked by, and upon seeing him, he crossed to the other side of the road and then kept on going.” We would be shocked. This is crazy—this Jesus character is talking like a crazy man. But we are polite people—good neighbors–so we keep quiet, and listen, and hear Jesus continue: “Then, a little while later, Mother Teresa walks down the same road and upon seeing this guy, she too quickly crosses to the other side of the road and continues on her way.” This is insane. That’s Jesus’ point. We need to hear about both of them because we might excuse the failure of one of them. Maybe Gandhi was having a bad day; you can’t be the pinnacle of moral virtue all the time. But both Gandhi and Mother Teresa. Now that can’t be a coincidence. Apparently, they need not (or should not) come to your aid. If anyone would help you, certainly they would. And if these two don’t need to assist you, nobody will. If Mother Teresa and Gandhi will leave you on the side of the road, then you know for sure that nobody else is going to help you.
When we put it like this, we capture the scandalous force of Jesus’ story. Jesus is making clear that nobody is obligated to come to help us. Jesus is telling us that we have no right for God or any fellow human to come to our aid. Those who know the law, those who know the proper ethical and religious systems, the ethical heroes of our time, they will walk to the other side of the road. And this is what’s shocking in the story: Jesus doesn’t say that they are not wrong. Maybe they recognize a higher religious priority; maybe they see a fuller ethical picture. What does their reasoning matter to you when you are in a ditch and about to die? What matters is that neither of them comes to give you help.
It’s hard to admit we are half-dead. It’s extraordinarily difficult to admit we need God desperately and that we need others desperately. But what we absolutely won’t accept is that neither God nor our neighbor has to help us. God could leave you where you fell, in your sin, in your misery and death, and still be God, without a blemish and in full and utterly praiseworthy glory. You cannot compel God to come to your aid, to save you from your sin. God does not owe it to you to come to your side. And if God is not obligated to rescue you, nobody is.
That’s hard to hear: nobody ought to come to my side. Nobody ought to come, but surprisingly, a miracle, someone does come: the Samaritan. Jesus comes to us, in the form of the Samaritan, in the form of the outsider, the alien, the impure, unclean, and religiously confused Samaritan. To make the scandal of what Jesus is saying stands out to us: Jesus comes to us as someone like Tanveer. A Muslim illegal immigrant with a criminal record involving a deadly firearm. That’s the form in which Jesus comes.
Jesus comes to us in this form, as the one we’d leave in the ditch (or in a cell) without a second thought, as the one we’d rather not even see, let alone interact with. In front of this one, the Samaritan, we lie exposed, naked, an awful, bloody, unsightly mess. Half-dead and all alone. And to our surprise, this one, who of all people should leave us in the ditch to die, comes over to our side, and looks at us. He sees us and does not turn away. We are exposed but he is not revolted. He takes pity on us. Moved with pity, the Samaritan pours out his oil and wine for us (think baptism and communion here, that’s all I’ll say, this foreigner pours out his oil and wine for us). Moved with pity, he binds our wounds, and carries us half-dead to a hotel. Moved with gratuitous, unnecessary pity, he appoints someone to care for us, promising to return and pay any extra debt we accrue.
That’s the story Jesus just told us. We asked him a question, hoping to justify ourselves, simply wanting to know how to be good neighbors. And Jesus told us this story and with it, in this story, he destroyed all our attempts at self-justification: he tells us we’re half-dead, without a hope of salvation, but that help will come in the form of a Samaritan, an outsider we’d rather hate. And then he asks us a question, “who was a neighbor to the man who fell to thieves,” and we reply rightly, “the one who had mercy on him.” So, to the question, “who is my neighbor” Jesus now forces us to say, the one who shows us mercy. The neighbor is not the one who depends on us but the one on whom we depend–and yet want to exclude–namely Jesus. (repeat that). I am not the good neighbor; Jesus is.
Now we can hear what Jesus means when he says, “Go and do likewise.” He means, “Come and follow me.” You cannot try to be the good neighbor—you are half-dead, abandoned by your own citizens and heroes. You were left on the side of the road, and it should be clear by now that nobody is going to stop to save you. But help does come and you are–miracle–saved. And, if that miracle were not enough, now Jesus says to you, “God and do likewise.” Follow me. You have no strength to bring yourself or anyone else to life; but I do. Come with me. Do what you are not in a position to do, follow me as I bring healing. You could not get to the inn; but help came, you were brought to the inn, and there, you were saved. Now go, follow this savior. Do likewise. You can, if he is with you. So, go, follow your Samaritan savior.