I was asked to give the “spoken reflection” at tonight’s Celtic Worship Service at University Baptist Church, and thought I would post my reflection here with a couple of pics. The focal passage is the famous “Good Samaritan” story in Luke 10, which I find very thought-provoking in light of the increased divisiveness and media focus on racism of late in our society. I have done a great deal of introspection on these topics in recent months and even thought of making an Ancient Dan blog post entitled “Confessions of a former Racist.” But my wife and daughter wisely advised against it. The “Good Samaritan” story, I think, provides a way to express my thoughts in a better way.
First, a quick look at the “Good Samaritan” account as I see it. Jesus tells the story in response to the question, “and who is my neighbor?” in the context of discussing the Jewish Law. In it, a man is assaulted by bandits and left for dead along the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. The geography is important here, as it is a desolate road through unoccupied desert, where there were no neighbors.
As Jesus narrates, a priest came along the road and we expect that this religious man will help our unfortunate victim. But, alas, on this road a priest would be headed up to Jerusalem where he would serve his week-long rotation in the Temple. It was the highest religious duty in the Jewish Law and could not be compromised by uncleanness imputed by blood from the victim or—worse—contamination by his corpse should the man be found dead or die whilst receiving aid. The priest crossed to the other side and passed by. And the hearers of this story—all Jews—were not in the least surprised or judgmental. All the same logic was true for the Levite that happened along next. None of those listening expected that he would stop either. What crummy luck; our victim was having a really bad day. But then in Jesus’ telling there is another who appears and nears—a Samaritan! While we now think of “Good Samaritans” or even just “Samaritans” as helpers, this notion destroys the gist of the story. To the Jew, a Samaritan was the worst of rivals. Jesus’ listeners no doubt expected this “bad” (by their definition) Samaritan to stomp on the victim’s head and finish the job. The bad day, they thought, was now the worst of days. He of course, as we know, demonstrated the proper action of kindness.
But this story is not about how to treat others; it is really about how we perceive them. I have been doing a lot of thinking lately about how I perceive others. I am a white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant heterosexual man. I was raised in a “middle-class” American home which, by any world-wide standard, was a life of privilege. So I am a potential poster-boy for racist and intolerant views. Nevertheless, I’ve always denied that I was bigoted or intolerant. In my extended family, I cannot ever recall having heard the “N” word used or any other racial or discriminatory epithet. BUT, that is a poor gauge on how I have perceived others. Like most folks, I learned from my youth to categorize people with labels like, “the black guy,” “the Mexican woman,” “the gay dude” or “the Alabama Crimson Tide sidewalk fan.” So this is not so much the confession of a former racist, but the admission of an unconscious tribalist.
I am convinced that human beings have an innate tendency for group identification, like the herd or pack instincts of other mammals. Unfortunately, in “civilized” human society it is somehow easier to identify one’s group by isolating those who are not part of it—through creation of the “other.” This is easiest with obvious differences like skin color, but the principle is the same for all discriminations.
Back to the “Good Samaritan.” The key for me is realization that the lesson is not in the story itself, but in the question asked by Jesus at the end, to the one who asked him “and who is my neighbor?” Jesus asked, “which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among robbers?”
It is sometimes observed that when the “lawyer” responded to Jesus, he was unwilling to use the designation “Samaritan” because of his disdain for that group. He responded, “the one who showed mercy on him.” The Jewish-Samaritan divide was severe, to be sure, but it was not due to physical difference. The Samaritans were—as an ethnic group—half Israelite. They were the other monotheistic minority in the early Roman Empire period, worshipping the same God as Israel and practicing circumcision like the Jews. The Romans could not tell the difference between Samaritans and Jews that were naked and talking about God. Tribalism and details of theology had created the schism.
It is true that the Samaritan demonstrates that all are our potential neighbors. But I wonder if the lawyer really got it right with his generic description. The main point may be how we perceive others upon first glance or knowledge. Do I continue using categories and labels for people, or can I see them generically, all capable of good and mercy. This is the challenge, and Jesus consistently points me—and all of us—in the direction of acceptance.
Thanks for looking!