The Parable of the Samaritan and the Injured Man
| Luke 10:25-37
||Sun, July 11, 2004
Rev. Maki Fushii
|One day, when I was serving as a university chaplain in Tokyo, a young man appeared at the office saying, “I’m here from Africa for some short term work.” He was well dressed and told me about how he hoped one day to work as a missionary. When I asked what I could do for him, he said, “I had $2000 stolen at the youth hostel where I was staying. Could you lend me enough money to get home to my country?” My co-pastor left the office as if to say “This isn’t my job,” and the two secretaries were sending me signals that the young man couldn’t be trusted.
The church didn’t have the custom of setting aside emergency funds, so the matter boiled down to a personal decision about how much I could give. As I betrayed my suspicion with questions like, “Why haven’t you gone to the police or your country’s embassy?” or “Will you really be able to repay the loan?” I felt conflicted. I was caught in that riptide we sometimes find ourselves in; the one that appears between “the Living Word” and “living The Word.”
Just at that moment, David Rackham, a professor of psychology, appeared on the scene. Upon hearing the young man’s story, he pulled out all the money that was in his wallet and offered it to the youth. Mr. Rackham is a teaching missionary affiliated with the United Church of Canada, so ever since that day the parable of the Good Samaritan has reminded me of the Good Canadian.
This year, the Japan-North America Mission Conference on Cooperative mission (known by many as JNAC) will see its demise. JNAC has been the key vehicle for cooperative ecumenical mission in post-war Japan, bringing together the resources, people and prayers of several of Japan’s and North America’s mainstream protestant denominations. Over recent years, as Japanese churches have regained their own footing and the cost of sending missionaries to Japan has risen, the number of North American missionaries has declined steadily. The demise of JNAC will lead to a further decline in the number of these “Good North Americans.” But even as their number falls, the work done by these people, who had a great impact on the societies of Japan and other Asian countries, is receiving growing attention outside of the church, in fields such as history, education and women’s studies. As you might imagine, today’s most familiar parable was one of the cornerstones of the life and work of these missionaries. Let’s look at it again and see what we might learn today.
The passage begins with a Jewish scholar who asks Jesus, “Teacher, how can one receive eternal life?” As we know, Jesus seldom responded to questions with a direct answer. On this day, too, he responded to the questioner with another question: “What do the scriptures say?” Asked by Jesus to first try to answer his own question, the scholar replied that the scriptures teach us, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and all your strength and with all your mind: and your neighbour as yourself.” This is one of the most basic teachings in the Torah, the Holy Book from which every Jewish person, from earliest childhood, received instruction at the Synagogue. In Deuteronomy Chapter 6 it tells us that these words from the Torah were to be written on paper and worn on children’s heads, wrapped around their fingers or pasted above the door so that they would be remembered. It was with the most fundamental of such instructions that the scholar replied to Jesus’ quiz. And Jesus said, “That’s Correct.”
But giving the right answer, or correctly quoting the Living Word, is not what is most important. Rather, it is knowing who is our neighbour, so that we can Live the Word.
Jesus told the story of a man who, somewhere along the 25 km or so road from Jerusalem to Jericho, had his money stolen, his body beaten and was left in a heap at the roadside. The first one to arrive on the scene was a Rabbi, a clergyman like me, but he walked right past. Perhaps he was just trying to stick to one of the rules in the Rabbi’s job manual: “Do not pollute yourself by touching bloody.” The next one to come along was a Levite. Levites are also clergy, but of a lower stature, serving in a subordinate role to the first. He, too walked right past the spot. But the Samaritan was different. He took pity on the injured man, approached him, administered some first aid and took him to an inn. But his caring didn’t end there, for when the Samaritan had to continue on his way, he left money at the inn to ensure that the injured man’s needs would be met.
How did the disciples feel when only the Samaritan in this story extended a helping hand? In Luke Chapter 9, Jesus and his disciples had just been sent away from a Samarian village. When two of the angry disciples, James and John had said, “Shall we have heaven rain fire upon them to destroy them?” Jesus scolded them. And now, Jesus was telling a story in which the do-gooder hero was none other than one of those reviled Samaritans. They must have been surprised!
In my experience, this kind of help is quite rare, even in the church. Whenever there was a fund-raising request, the first questions that arose were usually; “ Do these people really need help?” “Does it need to be us who help them? Can’t they get what they need from other sources?” Before helping anyone, we had to know who these unknown strangers were, whether they were actually hurt, whether they are good people. But the parable in Luke gives us no such information. The man is given aid unconditionally.
After telling this story, Jesus asks the scholar, “Which of these three, do you think, was a true neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The scholar replied, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus then said to the scholar, “Go and do likewise.” Perhaps this is why this story became known as the “Parable of the Good Samaritan.”
But parables weren’t marked out by clear headings in the original New Testaments, as they are in ours. Obviously, it was later editors of the Testaments who chose and installed these headlines, following some interpretation. Perhaps it’s a minor detail, but the words “Good Samaritan” don’t appear anywhere in Luke’s text. Yet imagine how many people throughout the history of our faith have been led by the title of this parable to focus entirely on the actions of the Samaritan. It would be quite easy to treat it as a simple story about morals.
I have discussed this question before with some Sunday school teachers. Is this parable all about Jesus urging us to ethical action? Are we to use this parable to distinguish the good disciple from the bad, or a good child from a bad one? If only the Samaritan is deemed good by Jesus, what does it say of people who can’t live up to the high standard? Did Jesus really expect so much of us? There are no easy answers to these questions, either.
In the Gospel according to Mathew, Jesus said in his sermon on the mount, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” In the Gospel according to Luke, he said it more simply; “Blessed are the poor.” We cannot know which one of these is Word of Jesus. Or Jesus might have said both. Luke may have viewed Jesus as the liberator of the poor—possibly a reflection of Luke’s own situation and perspective. Perhaps the mission of Luke’s community was to grapple with how it could best save life’s travelers who had fallen by the side of the road.
Minjung theology, which developed in Korea in the 1980s, brought another interpretation to this parable. The word “Minjung” in Korean literally means “people,” or “the public,” but in Minjung theology that same word refers to people who are oppressed, exploited, discriminated, against, alienated—those who are suppressed politically, economically, socially, culturally and intellectually. Korean Biblical scholars, like Hyun Yong Hak and others, have reinterpreted the parable of the “Samaritan” out of their own historical and cultural experience. In this interpretation, Jesus did not come to teach us about helping others, as the Samaritan did, but he came to be among us, as a man, and to walk the path of suffering. Jesus came to fulfill the scriptures, not as the Samaritan, but as the beaten traveler. This was a Biblical interpretation arising out of the Korean’s own perspective as a suffering people. Korean theologians have used the word “Han” to express this suffering. Since there is no word in English that fully captures Han’s meaning, Hyun offered the following, rather long, definition.
“Han is a sense of unresolved resentment against injustice suffered, a sense of helplessness because of the overwhelming odds against, a feeling of total abandonment—as in “Why has Thou forsaken me?”—a feeling of acute pain and sorrow in one’s guts and bowels making the whole body writhe and wiggle, and an obstinate urge to take “revenge” and to right the wrong.”
(Hyun Yong Hak. “Minjung: The Suffering Servant and Hope.” Union Theological Seminary, New York; April 13, 1982. p2.)
Learning to understand the meaning of “Han” and “Minjung” is particularly important for me as a Japanese, because my country was responsible for much of the suffering of the Minjung, or Korean. This learning has enabled me to understand the historical burdens carried by the Church in Korea. It is also a necessary part of the process of reconciliation between the churches and peoples of Korea and Japan. Perhaps most importantly, though, Minjung theology invites every Christian to consider again, what is the message that lies at the very heart of the Gospel?
Jesus suffered as the beaten traveler did in this parable. How many people have found comfort, or are now finding comfort in this knowledge? If we consider it from the opposite angle, we may need to think more carefully about the richness and wisdom that lie in our suffering. Lasting meaning and fulfillment in life are not to be found in comfortable, easy living. To know God and to know, through God, the meaning of true human liberty, this is what leads us to the rich life of sharing—of joys and sorrows—with our fellow creatures. A church that is truly alive might be the church that incarnates, or lives out, death and resurrection with Christ in its daily life. The word “compassion”, which for many in our community is the defining aspect and imperative of our faith’s love and life, comes from the Latin com, for together, and pati, suffer. “Suffer together.” Jesus didn’t just come to save us, but to fall down and suffer with us.
The beaten traveler in this parable is not just the economically poor and the politically oppressed of our human community. People in rich nations are ailing, too, spiritually. A large community of churches across North American is suffering and worried that they too will one day fall. When a church can no longer find the strength and spirit to comfort the poor and the hungry, or pray for those with AIDS, or send financial aid, or give encouragement to friends and family, is it not fair to say that church has fallen spiritually? Yet even in such times, we know Jesus stays with us and shares our suffering. Unless we encounter and recognize this deep compassion of Jesus, we cannot know what it means to be compassionate toward others. We cannot possibly become the Good Samaritan. It is the witness of the fallen, forgiven, healed and liberated faith community that will give birth to a new future.