It was Christmastime, 1966. I had just seen a commercial about Santa Claus appearing at a local shopping center, and determined to go, I pestered my parents until my father finally relented. That same night, my dad and I got into the car and started off to see Santa. We were traveling down a two-lane road when all of a sudden, there were headlights coming right toward us. My dad swerved wildly as he shouted “Hold on, Jimmy!” and threw his arm over me, a sort of human seatbelt. There was the tremendous sound of breaking glass and grinding metal, and then absolute stillness. My next memory is of dad’s heavy body pressing against mine, and my body pressing against the passenger door. Our car was upright, resting on its right side, in a deep ditch.
My dad climbed out of the driver’s door and then reached back in to pull me out. The ditch was in front of a small, simple house. We knocked on the door and an elderly couple answered. We asked if we could use the phone to call the police and my mother. Of course they said yes. And then the old lady, in an attempt to comfort a shaken child, went into the kitchen and came back with a bowl of Circus Peanuts, those spongy, neon orange candies in the shape of oversized peanuts. I remember that I was delighted (and oddly enough they still delight me!).
My father and I were very lucky to have walked away from an accident that totaled our car. A drunk hit and run driver, the son of a local judge who was never prosecuted for this incident, had literally knocked us into a ditch and left us for dead. But some Good Samaritans with Circus Peanuts and some basic human kindness tended to us in our distress.
One day, a young lawyer approached Jesus and asked: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” It was a trick question meant to put the peasant Jesus in his place and to demonstrate his ignorance of Jewish law. But Jesus wasn’t ignorant of the law and so he turned the tables and asked: “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” And the lawyer rattled off the answer that any good Jew would have known: “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” “That’s it,” said Jesus. “Do that and you will live.” But this lawyer was not about to be shown up by a peasant. And so he asked a more probing follow-up probing question: “So just who is my neighbor?”
And Jesus replied: Once upon a time there was a man, who against his better judgment and the warnings of his wife, walked the dangerous Jericho Road all alone. He was rounding a corner when suddenly robbers jumped out from behind a boulder, stole everything he had and beat him almost to death. For the next few hours he lay there, in and out of consciousness, under the brutal sun and wondered if he would ever see his wife and children again. After awhile, a priest happened by, pretending not to see him and passed by on the other side of the road. Then along came a Levite, who also caught sight of him and feigned being in a bigger hurry than he actually was. Finally, a Samaritan came along and when he saw the bloody man, he was moved with pity. He knelt down, cradled the man’s head and whispered that everything was going to be OK. And then he cleaned and bandaged the man’s wounds, gave him some cool water, put him on his donkey and took him to an inn, where he sat by the man’s bed all night long as fevers racked his body. The next day, the Samaritan paid the innkeeper for two more days of lodging and said, “Take care of him. And when I come back through, I will pay you anything else that is owed.”
We know this story as the Parable of the Good Samaritan. And we think of it as a morality tale about our responsibility to those in need. But that widely accepted, rather hackneyed interpretation misses the point almost entirely. First of all, it’s hard to overstate just how hated the Samaritans were in first century Palestine. They were half-breeds who practiced a perverted form of Judaism. Historically they had refused to participate in the restoration of Jerusalem after the exile. And perhaps worst of all, they had even aided the Syrian leaders in their wars against the Jews. By the time Jesus told this tale, the Jews and Samaritans had despised one another for 1000 years. There was no such thing as a “good Samaritan.” It was an oxymoron.
So maybe instead of a simple morality tale, this is actually one of Jesus’s famous role reversal stories - you know, one of those tales where the first are last and the last are first. Maybe Jesus isn’t simply suggesting that the lawyer act like a Good Samaritan and give help to those in need. Maybe instead Jesus is suggesting that the lawyer is the one in the ditch. In other words, the well- placed, privileged ones of society are in the ditch, in desperate need of help from the very people we have stigmatized as “other.”
Now notice that despite the ancient misunderstandings between Jews and Samaritans, Jesus doesn’t get lost in the politics of it all. He doesn’t use his platform to engage in historical analysis. There is no time for that because this is the story of human crisis. A human being is dying at the side of the road. And in moments like that, all that matters is compassion and action. As theologian Debie Thomas writes: “... all tribalisms fall away on a broken road. All divisions of ‘us’ and ‘them’ disappear of necessity. When you’re lying bloody in a ditch... what matters most is whether or not anyone will stop and show you mercy before you die.”
A 12-year-old Palestinian boy named Ahmad was shot and killed by Israeli soldiers during street fighting near his home in Jenin, the West Bank. Like Tamir Rice of Cleveland, Ahmad had been holding a toy gun. He was taken to an Israeli hospital, where he died after two days. Surprisingly, his heart- broken parents made the decision to allow his organs to be harvested for transplant to Israeli people. A total of six Israelis received Ahmad’s organs, including a two-month-old infant. Ahmad’s mother later said, "My son has died. But maybe he can give life to others."
Do you see the role reversal? Ahmad’s mother should be the one in a ditch of grief and bitterness. That’s a role that she can play that we can understand. But it’s quite another thing to see Ahmad’s mom as the strong woman who reaches into the ditch and pulls others to safety, perhaps even some who despised her because of who she is: a Palestinian.
There’s been a lot of talk this week about what the silent, white majority ought to be doing about the epidemic killing of black people. What should I be doing? What should this overwhelmingly white church be doing? Those are good questions worthy of prayer and deep conversation and repentance. But to only ask that question keeps the power dynamic exactly the same. To ask that question alone is to assume that black Americans can only occupy the ditch and that we are the strong ones who can help them.
But have you ever considered that maybe we’re the ones in the ditch, bruised and battered by our willful ignorance and dearly guarded privilege. Maybe we desperately need help, life-giving; life saving help, from the very people who are the objects of our bullets, our silence, and our passive scorn.