Afflicting the Comfortable

By Debie Thomas

In her 2015 book, The Short Stories of Jesus, New Testament and Jewish Studies professor Amy-Jill Levine argues that religion is meant “to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.” She further suggests that we would do well to think of the parables of Jesus as doing this afflicting: “If we hear a parable and think, ‘I really like that’ or, worse, fail to take any challenge, we are not listening well enough.”

The difficulty for me (and I assume, for many Christians) is that Jesus’s parables are so familiar and beloved, I don’t tend to read them as “afflictions.” I’ve heard these “short stories” a zillion times, I believe I know them inside out and backwards, and therein lies the great danger. They don’t challenge me. I read, I nod, and I walk away, unafflicted and unchanged.

The Gospel reading for this week — the parable of the Good Samaritan — presents exactly this danger. A man on a journey is robbed and left for dead, a priest and a Levite pass him by, and a Samaritan stops and helps. The Samaritan, showing mercy, exemplifies the same neighborliness I am called to practice as a Christian. Jesus’s lesson? Be like the Samaritan. Be a nice person. Go and do what he did.

Okay. But is that all? What would Jesus’s original audience have made of this glib reading? Would they have agreed with it? Surely there’s nothing wrong with interpreting the Good Samaritan parable as a “go and do likewise” story. After all, we are called to be imitators of Christ. To assist others, to show concern, and to offer compassionate care to those in need or trouble. The Good Samaritan offers us a beautiful example to follow, and we would do well to pay attention.

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But again — is that all? Is that all the “afflicting” this story has for us? Or did Jesus have something more provocative in mind?

Perhaps it will help to place the story in its fuller context. As Luke tells it, a lawyer approaches Jesus with a million dollar question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” I know that scholars often give the lawyer a bad rap for “testing” Jesus, but I like the boldness of his question. If it’s a genuine one, it means the lawyer wants to live fully and intentionally. He doesn’t want to mess around in the shallows with his remaining years on earth; he wants to deep-sea dive. “Show me the good stuff, Jesus. Show me the path to eternal life.”

But Jesus is too savvy a teacher to answer the question directly, so he turns it back on his would-be student: “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” The lawyer (no fool himself) gives Jesus a concise, A+ answer: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus congratulates the lawyer on his doctrinal precision: “You have given the right answer,” and encourages him to take the essential next step: “Do this, and you will live.” But the lawyer — miffed, perhaps, that Jesus isn’t more impressed by his textbook smarts — asks for further clarification. “Who is my neighbor?”

May I put the question more crassly? I wonder if what the lawyer really means is, “Who is not my neighbor?” As in: how much love are we talking here, Jesus? Can you be specific? Where should I draw the line? Outside my front door? At the edges of my neighborhood? Along the religious and cultural boundaries I was raised with to keep me pure and holy? I mean, there are lines, aren’t there? There must be lines. We can’t be neighbors with everyone!

I assume the lawyer would have loved to discuss ad nauseum the finer points of responsible neighborliness. What better way to put off getting his hands dirty than to talk theory for hours? But Jesus doesn’t take the bait. Instead he tells a story. A story whose main character we know so well, we’ve named hospitals, nursing homes, relief agencies, and philanthropic organizations after him. In the U.S, he even has a law coined in his honor: any modern-day “good samaritan” who stops to help a stranger along the road enjoys certain legal protections for her trouble.

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As Jesus tells it, a man is walking down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho when he’s attacked by bandits. They rob, beat, strip, and leave him for dead. Soon afterwards, a priest comes by. Seeing the wounded man, he passes by on the other side of the road. A short while later, a Levite does likewise. But then a Samaritan comes along. Seeing the stranded victim, he draws close, and feels great pity. Using whatever makeshift supplies he has on hand, he bandages the man’s wounds, anoints them with oil and wine, carries him to the nearest inn on his own animal, pays the innkeeper for the victim’s further care, and promises to return in a few days’ time to settle any outstanding bills.

“So,” Jesus asks the lawyer at the conclusion of the story. “Which of the three was a neighbor to the man who was robbed?” “The one who showed him mercy,” the lawyer replies. “Go and do likewise,” Jesus says again. “Do this and you will live.”

Do this. Draw close. Show mercy. Extend kindness. Live out your theology in hands-on care for other people. Don’t just think love. Do it.

Okay, makes sense to me. But wait. I’m not afflicted yet, are you? What are we missing?

Here’s a possibility: what if the story changes, depending on where we locate ourselves within it? If you’re like me, you probably locate yourself in the priest and the Levite on your bad days, and in the Good Samaritan on your good days. Sometimes we see a need and we pass it by because we’re too busy, preoccupied, afraid, overwhelmed, or tired. But sometimes, we follow the Good Samaritan’s example beautifully, and reach out to those in need — no matter what the cost. We “go and do likewise,” just as Jesus commands.

But what if Jesus’s parable is more than a good-example-to-follow story? What if it’s a reversal story? A story intended to upset our categories of good and bad, sacred and profane, benefactor and recipient? If we too easily and comfortably identify with the Good Samaritan in this parable, we’re missing the point. Maybe the whole point of the Samaritan is that he is not us.

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By the time Jesus told this story in first century Palestine, the enmity between the Jews and the Samaritans was ancient, entrenched, and bitter. The two groups disagreed about everything that mattered: how to honor God, how to interpret the Scriptures, and how and where to worship. They practiced their faith in separate temples, read different versions of the Torah, and avoided social contact with each other whenever possible. Truth be told, they hated each other’s guts. Though we’re inclined to love the Good Samaritan, Jesus’s choice to make him “good,” to make him of all people the hero of the story, was nothing less than scandalous to his original listeners’ ears.

To put this in more contemporary language, the Samaritan was the Other. The alien. The heretic. The object of fear, condescension, disgust, and judgment.

Is there anything we can do in our 21st century lives to recover the scandal at the heart of this parable? Because its heart is a scandal. Think about it this way: Who is the last person on earth you’d ever want to deem “the good guy?” The last person you’d ever want to ask for a favor — much less owe your life? Whom do you secretly hope to convert, fix, impress, control, or save — but never, ever need?

May I throw out some possibilities? A progressive Democrat is robbed, and a far-right Republican saves her life. A racist white cop is robbed, and an African-American teenager saves his life. A transgender woman is robbed, and an anti-LGBTQ activist saves her life. An outspoken atheist is robbed, and a Bible-thumping fundamentalist saves his life. A border patrol agent is robbed, and an undocumented immigrant saves his life.

I don’t mean for a moment to trivialize the real and consequential differences that divide us politically, religiously, racially, or ideologically. I dare not do that — not when those differences are even today costing people their lives. But the enmity between the Jews and the Samaritans in Jesus’s day was not theoretical; it was embodied and real. The differences between them were not easily negotiated; each was fully convinced that the other was wrong.

So what Jesus did when he deemed the Samaritan “good” was radical and risky; it stunned his Jewish listeners. He was asking them to dream of a different kind of kingdom. He was inviting them to consider the possibility that a person might add up to more than the sum of her political, racial, cultural, and economic identities. He was calling them to put aside the history they knew, and the prejudices they nursed. He was asking them to leave room for divine and world-altering surprises.

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What does it mean to be afflicted by this story? It means locating ourselves, not in the priest, the Levite, or the Samaritan, but in the wounded man, dying on the road. Notice that he is the only character in the story not defined by profession, social class, or religious belief. He has no identity at all except naked need. Maybe we have to occupy his place in the story first — maybe we have to become the broken one, grateful to anyone at all who will show us mercy — before we can feel the unbounded compassion of the Good Samaritan. Why? Because all tribalisms fall away on the broken road. All divisions of “us” and “them” disappear of necessity. When you’re lying bloody in a ditch, what matters is not whose help you’d prefer, whose way of practicing Christianity you like best, whose politics you agree with. What matters is whether or not anyone will stop to show you mercy before you die.

If it hasn’t happened yet — your encounter on that dark road — it will. Somehow, someday, somewhere, it will. In a hospital room? At a graveside? After a marriage fails? When a cherished job goes bust? After the storm, the betrayal, the war, the injury, the diagnosis? Somehow, someday, somewhere. In every single one of our lives, it will happen.

When it does, it won’t be your theology that saves you. It won’t be your cherished affiliations that matter. All that will matter is how quickly you swallow your pride and grab hold of that hand you hoped never to touch. How readily you’ll agree to receive help from the enemy you fear. How long you’ll persist in your Lone Ranger fantasy before you allow the unsavory Other to bless you.

“Who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asked. Your neighbor is the one who scandalizes you with compassion, Jesus answered. Your neighbor is the one who upends all your entrenched categories and shocks you with a fresh face of God. Your neighbor is the one who mercifully steps over the ancient, bloodied line separating “us” from “them,” and teaches you the real meaning of “Good.”

What shall we do to inherit eternal life? Do this. Suffer the vulnerable-making affliction of this. Recognize yourself in the desperate victim, and allow the one you hate the most to snatch you back from death. Do this and you will live.

Debie Thomas: debie.thomas1@gmail.com

Image credits: (1) Wikimedia.org; (2) Sisters of the Good Samaritan; (3) Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Blog; and (4) OLGA BAKHTINA: Online Artist Portfolio.

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