It could be just another crime scene. There’s a naked man, unconscious and bleeding, lying there alongside a mountain pass. Apparently, he was the victim of a robbery so there is no identification. In Christ’s haunting saga of the Good Samaritan, the mystery is not what happened, but what happens next. The most important clue, the detail commonly overlooked by people on the case, is one unpleasant but revealing word.
Stripped. The Bible specifically says the robbery victim left for dead along the Jericho Road was naked. His attackers had “stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead.” (Luke 10:30) Gone was his prayer shawl, the tallit men of the region always wore. For Hebrew males, there was a tzitzit on each corner, a tassel that denoted reverence for God. The Law required that Jewish men have a dark blue thread woven into the tzitzit. The Samaritans, their despised cousins, would have have been identified by a white thread in their tzitzit or perhaps light blue. Without their traditional robes and clothing, the Jews and Samaritans looked just alike.
So the Jewish priest and the Levite did not step around the poor man, leaving him to die, because they were too busy to help a neighbor. They couldn’t tell if the man was their neighbor or not! Despite their calling from God to love their neighbors as themselves, their definition of “neighbor” was just too narrow to afford a stranger the benefit of the doubt.
What makes this parable so helpful and so compelling is the singular detail it does not divulge. The priest and Levite were Hebrews, and the Samaritan was obviously not Jewish. But the identity of the robbery victim is as mysterious to you and me as it was to the Samaritan arriving on the scene. Yet seeing a helpless human being in desperate need of assistance, this man from Samaria was moved with basic human kindness. We’re not even told he was a religious guy. But here’s the bottom line: he didn’t have to rise above any feelings of resentment for an enemy. He didn’t see an adversary. All he could see was another man whose skin and features were mostly like his.
Love isn’t blind. It just doesn’t need a formal introduction to act.
Writers and preachers tend to mock the hypocrisy of the priest and the Levite who walk on by, but that dilutes the message. In his telling of the story, Jesus allows us all to see the enemy, and it is us! We have all failed at one time or another to look beyond the cultural disguises others affect in order to see the human heart that beats deep inside. Skin-deep compassion must be a common condition.
For instance, historians tell us that young Mohammed reached out to both Christians and Jews around Mecca when he was trying to find his own spiritual bearings. Sadly, both groups frowned upon pagans in their hometown as savages to be avoided; not neighbors to be loved and cared for. Sadly, we know what happened next. Even today, many of us are so agitated over Islamic extremism and open borders that we’d not only leave a Muslim-looking victim lying in the road, but we might kick him while walking past.
It’s easy to be condescending toward competitors, especially when they seem so angry. But false religion is not always a form of competition: more often it’s just a way to be connected to something instead of nothing. And rage is frequently an expression of fear and desperation. Of course, Islamist extremists are not seething with fury because they live in poverty; many don’t. They’re angry because they’re empty. That spiritual hunger leaves them vulnerable to political players with personal ambitions. They are dangerous, but they’re not really monsters. They’re just people.
According to Jesus, loving God by loving my neighbors is the key to my faith. It’s also the key to their’s, being loved unconditionally by a fellow human being who knows Christ. As the Samaritan generously offered mercy to a fellow human being in need, let’s you and I go and do likewise. We can take our frustrations to prayer closets and ballot boxes. Let’s take our love to the streets.
And lift up the Cross!