Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The real meaning -- and the implications -- of the parable of the 'good Samaritan'

Then Jesus laid into him and said, "A man was going from Atlanta to Albany and some gangsters held him up. When they had robbed him of his wallet and brand-new suit, they beat him up and drove off in his car, leaving him unconscious on the shoulder of the highway.

"Now it just so happened that a white preacher was going down that same highway. When he saw the fellow, he stepped on the gas and went scooting by.

"Shortly afterwards a white Gospel song leader came down the road, and when he saw what had happened, he too stepped on the gas.

"Then a black man traveling that way came upon the fellow, and what he saw moved him to tears. He stopped and bound up his wounds as best he could, drew some water from his water-jug to wipe away the blood and then laid him on the back seat. He drove on into Albany and took him to the hospital and said to the nurse, 'You all take good care of this white man I found on the highway. Here's the only two dollars I got, but you all keep account of what he owes, and if he can't pay it, I'll settle up with you when I make a pay-day.'

"Now if you had been the man held up by the gangsters, which of these three -- the white preacher, the white song leader or the black man -- would you consider to have been your neighbor?"

If you're wondering what you just read, that was the "Cotton Patch" rendition of the parable of the "Good Samaritan"; I had come across that paraphrase of part of the Scripture when I was in Atlanta over 30 years ago.

I bring this to light because there's more to the parable than we often believe. Much more.

For Jesus' purpose in telling the story was not simply in telling people that they should be merciful in a purely personal sense. Rather, the religious "leaders" mentioned in both this version and the "legitimate" Scriptures were part of the cultural establishment of their respective days and had no contact with those who were "beneath them," which is why Jesus made the a Samaritan -- who in that culture was considered "less than" -- the hero.

And precisely because the Samaritan was considered "less than," he understood from personal experience what it was like to be ignored, marginalized, pushed to the back of the bus; he knew what suffering was about and what it took to alleviate it.

Thus, Jesus' real message in the parable was: "Identify with those who are up the creek; get in touch with your own suffering and help those as you would want to be helped."

I bring this up because of the entire "justice-vs.-charity" debate when it comes to how best to help the poor. Those on the political right have tried to convince folks that private charities rather than political action represent the best way to do that. While I'm all for private charity, it just doesn't, and in some cases can't, go far enough. (Note that the Pharisees in Jesus' day made a show of the alms that they gave to the poor.)

While in many cases the poor are where they are because of bad choices, in others the conditions in which they live make things difficult, if not impossible, to change. Much of the African-American community, for example, simply didn't have access to the same opportunities for education, jobs and social contacts as everyone else and in fact aren't even aware of certain things that many of the rest of us take for granted.

The issue then becomes "What do they really need?" as opposed to "What do we think they should have?" or "What can we spare to give them?" (Notice where the emphasis is placed.) Ultimately, "identifying" with the poor may lead to political change, which usually is resisted by the "establishment." That's why the streets of the South flowed with blood during the civil-rights movement. That's why the late newspaper editor and anti-apartheid activist Donald Woods was forced to flee South Africa. That's why right-wing blogger Andrew Breitbart and Fox News Channel talk show host Glenn Beck teamed up to take down ACORN (which was registering the poor to vote -- and guess with which political party).

You see, justice the way the Scripture teaches it is threatening to the status quo. It's one thing to give of your excess to those in need; it's another entirely to give of your core -- the things that give you status. And that's why the parable of the Good Samaritan would have jarred Jesus' audience -- and, properly understood, would do the same today.

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