Originally preached at Messiah Evangelical Lutheran Church in East Setauket, New York.
The Good Samaritan. What an interesting name for this parable! That name contains so much cultural information that we as Christians living here in New York in the 21st Century don’t have access to. The Samaritan in Jesus’ parable is never described in any way, and he certainly isn’t called good. In fact, the people listening to the story would have thought him quite the opposite—not on account of his actions, but because he was a Samaritan.
Because to an observant Jew of the first century, all Samaritans were bad. We’ve talked before about them. They were seen as religious and ethnic mongrels, heretics of the highest order with their own version of the Torah, their own Temple, and their own customs that flew in the face of what was good and correct. They were the descendants of interlopers brought into the land by the Assyrians after the northern kingdom of Israel had been carried away and yet they claimed they were God’s people and that the people in Jerusalem were the real heretics. And as deeply as the Jews hated the Samaritans, the Samaritans hated them right back. For Jews of the first century, there was no such thing as a “good Samaritan.” They were all very bad, by virtue of being who they were. “Samaritan” itself was a dirty word.
So it is probably a surprise for the lawyer and those listening when the supposedly unvirtuous Samaritan proves to be the hero of the parable. The priest and the Levite, experts in living by God’s laws do not act according to them—they do not love their neighbor as themselves by passing by the man beaten by robbers. Wouldn’t they desire to be helped by him were they in his place? Of course they would. But they don’t afford him the same courtesy. Their hearts are not where they should be. Instead, this outcast and reject from Israel does what they should have done. The Samaritan, a man who holds to a different version of the Law and who would have been likely shunned by the man he saved under normal circumstances, lives out the law better than those who hold to the correct version.
Of course, the parable is just a story. Or is it? As is the case with Jesus’ parables, Jesus isn’t just telling an entertaining story or making some ethical point: he is telling us something important about himself. Jesus is the Samaritan.
Now, this is not a perfect 1 to 1 analogy, of course. Jesus is a Jew—the best Jew, really. He’s no apostate like the Samaritans—when you’re God in the flesh and you defined the faith, you won’t go against it. But Jesus is still like the Samaritan in the parable because he saves us in spite of the fact that we would likely not love him if left to our own devices, because we are the half-dead man in the parable whom Jesus comes to save.
Many theologians throughout the history of the church have made the connection between Jesus and the Good Samaritan. The great father of the church, St. Augustine, interprets the parable in this way:
“Robbers left you half dead on the road, but you have been found lying there by the passing and kindly Samaritan. Wine and oil have been poured on you. You have received the sacrament of the only begotten Son. You have been lifted onto his mule. You have believed that Christ became flesh. You have been brought to the inn, and you are being cured in the church. That is where and why I am speaking. This is what I too, what all of us are doing. We are performing the duties of the innkeeper. He was told, “If you spend any more, I will pay you when I return.” If only we spent at least as much as we have received! However much we spend, brothers and sisters, it is the Lord’s money.”
Half-dead in sin, we would have died. The Law and works, represented by the priest and Levite, could not save us. But Jesus, our Samaritan, the one against whom our sinful flesh is opposed, comes and rescues us from sin and revives us to new life. And he does this because he has been rejected and despised—made and outcast, killed—by the very people he came to save. For it is only through his cross and passion that he pours wine and oil on our wounds and binds us up. It is only through his cross and passion that he takes us to the “inn” to wait in safety until such time that he returns. And as we convalesce together, we model his behavior toward others. We act as neighbors to one another and to others. We show mercy—we take compassion upon our fellow-man, because it is, after all, what he would do.
This Lent, let us remember our Samaritan, the One who was and is and always shall be truly good, who suffered for us that our souls might be brought back to health.