We have known the Parable of the Good Samaritan most of our lives. Yet that phrase is not Scripture. Editors of our Bible translations inserted it at the top of the parable as a helpful aid to our study.
So, why do we call the Samaritan “good” when Jesus didn’t? Moreover, is there harm in continuing to do so?
In Jesus’ time, the long history of hatred between Jews and Samaritans was mutual, public and daily (John 4:1-42). Yet Jesus accepted Samaritans as they were and many followed him as Samaritans (v. 39-42).
One problem is that the “Good Samaritan” (capitalized, like a title) may imply his exemplary behavior is what brought him “eternal life” and that our own salvation depends on such meritorious living too. However, this misses the point that God’s grace extends to people who are not good at all and enables them to live like this Samaritan. He already had eternal life, which is reflected in his lifestyle. To borrow a medical term, eternal life was a “pre-existing condition” and his behavior demonstrated it.
Another problem is that Jesus described him as a Samaritan, not as a Christian or a Jew. This cuts a swath through doctrinal, denominational and theological purity. Jesus made a Samaritan the hero of his story and, therefore, also for us in our own discipleship — if we can accept this unpopular non-Christian soul as Jesus did.
If such a socially and religiously rejected soul possessed, and even exemplified, eternal life, we might wonder about others who live on the periphery of our lives and the lives of our churches.
“Jesus created a video of someone who actually lived the eternal life he taught.”
Upon the movie screen of the Samaritan’s “badness,” Jesus created a video of someone who actually lived the eternal life he taught. God already had reached through his “bad” religion and social standing, even to his “bad self,” usually thought to prevent salvation. They didn’t. They couldn’t. Those were stumbling blocks for those who hated Samaritans, not for God.
So, who might be “bad Samaritans” today who represent eternal life? Those who do so in the way they relate to people who are lying half-dead on the side of a dangerous Jericho road or a modern Interstate highway?
Could we reframe Jesus’ Samaritan parable about who has eternal life and who doesn’t? It is from Luke 1:25-37. Dare we allow it to “read” us as the mirror it was intended originally to be?
“There was once a man who was going down from Washington, D.C., to Roanoke, Va., when, at a rest stop along Interstate 81, robbers attacked him, stripped him and beat him up, leaving him half dead.
“It so happened that the pastor of a megachurch was driving down that road and pulled into that same rest stop; but, when he saw the man, he drove on by on the other side and back onto the interstate. In the same way, a deacon from another church pulled in, drove over closer and looked at him; and drove on by and back onto the interstate.
“But a member of the nearby Samaritan Community Church, who happened to be gay, was driving that way and also stopped there; and, when she saw him, her heart was filled with compassion. She went over to him, poured ointment and wine on his wounds and bandaged them; then, she put the man into her own car and took him to an inn, where she took care of him.
“The next day she took out her credit card and gave it to the innkeeper. ‘Take care of him,’ she told the innkeeper, ‘and when I come back this way, I will pay you whatever else you spend on him.’
“And Jesus concluded, ‘In your opinion, which one of these three acted like a neighbor toward the man attacked by the robbers?’
“The teacher of the Law answered, ‘the one who was kind to him.’
“Jesus replied, ‘You go, then, and do the same.’”
We note the person talking with Jesus refused to say the word “Samaritan,” reminiscent of those today who won’t say the word “gay,” using instead, “homosexual,” often in a demeaning tone.
Samaritans, as Jesus described them, are living among us today. How blessed we are if we happen to know one, even more so if you happen to be one.
Russell Waldrop, a Southern Baptist minister, pastoral counselor and psychotherapist, is also a life member of the NAACP in Waynesboro, Va.
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