Summary: The story of the Good Samaritan confronts us with several implications for living a life of faith.
Stories Jesus Told: When Good is Bad—The Story of the Good Samaritan
Jesus was such a captive communicator because he told stories, and people then, just like us now, loved stories. Jesus told stories to make a point in a more compelling way than simply stating the point. And people then, like us now, found it easy to try and identify a person to pull for in the story. They would identify the good guys and the bad guys. But sometimes, Jesus’ stories made unexpected twists and turns, and the line between the good guys and the bad guys got really blurred. Just when his listener’s thought they had the story figured out, Jesus would turn it upside down, and the listener was usually left with a life-changing decision to make.
I am a John Wayne fan. I love old westerns in general, and John Wayne in particular, because those old movies always told a great story, and it was always easy to tell between the good guys and the bad guys. The good guys wore white hats and the bad guys wore black hats, and the good guys almost always prevailed over evil and injustice in the story being told in the film. I think we all like stories like that. Stories that make it easy to identify who to pull for early in the story. We find someone we can identify with and follow through the story. That’s one thing that makes a good story.
I suppose my favorite John Wayne film of all time would have to be The Sons of Katie Elder because it is one of those stories that you can’t quite figure out if John Wayne is a good guy or a bad guy. Oh, the Duke wears that same old gray felt cowboy hat that he wore in so many of his films, but the hat doesn’t give away much. In this story, the Duke plays the oldest of three sons of Katie Elder, a woman who has a reputation as a hard worker and with great love for her family. Katie has died, and the two oldest sons (who haven’t been home in many years) are reunited with a younger brother who was still living at home to settle the estate. The tone of the film gives the indication that John, the part played by the Duke, is a less than stellar character known for gun-fighting and killing—not necessarily a good guy. We are led to think, “this is a bad guy.”
Jesus told a story with a similar tone. It is the story we have come to know as the story of the “good” Samaritan. It is the story that is perhaps the most recognizable of all that Jesus told save one—the story of the Prodigal Son. Jesus told this story in the context of his encounter with a “good” man. This “good” man was a scribe, a lawyer, if you will (no, I’ll not crack any lawyer jokes here), and the scribe wanted to know what could he do to have eternal life. Isn’t that the question all humanity ultimately asks? Jesus’ answer to that question was a challenge for the good man to reflect on his own beliefs—“How do you understand what the law says?” And the good man could recite exactly what the law says—“Love God with all you are, and love your neighbor.” Jesus said, “You’ve got it right, now do it.” But the man was not content with the answer so to make sure he could justify what he was doing, asked the subsequent question, “Who is my neighbor?” That is when Jesus begins the story. I wonder how this lawyer began to identify the characters as Jesus told the story. Who did he see as the good guys and the bad guys?
Jesus said, “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho; he fell among robbers who stripped him, beat him, and left him for dead.” “Ah,” the lawyer was saying to himself, “what a foolish man.” He shouldn’t have been on this Jericho Road. Didn’t he know this road was known for its bands of thieves? Didn’t he know that it is safest to travel in groups along this dangerous way? If this man had been smart, he would not have gotten himself in such a tight spot as this. Unfortunate circumstances, yes, but perhaps he deserves what he got. He made his bad choices, he must deal with the consequences. For the lawyer, this man was not a good guy or a bad guy, just an unfortunate one.
Jesus continued the story, “By chance a Jewish priest came along, and seeing the man lying there, he crossed to the other side of the road and passed him by.” “Yes,” said the lawyer to himself, “here is a good guy.” He did a good thing, after all, it is his responsibility to attend to the worship of the Temple, to conduct the sacrifices of the people, and to offer them to God on the people’s behalf. For the priest to touch the bloody, possibly even dead, man would have been to render himself ceremonially unclean, and the priest would have been unable to carry out the functions in the Temple. Yes, this was a very practical thing for this good guy to do. Certainly he was justified in doing it.