America in the Ditch: The Good Samaritan Revisited

Balthasar van Cortbemde, The Good Samaritan (1647).

Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37) is usually heard as a reminder to care for the needs of others, including strangers or even enemies. That’s why some hospitals have taken their name from the protagonist. I myself was born in the Episcopal Hospital of the Good Samaritan in Los Angeles and, four days before my 22nd birthday, my father died in the Intensive Care Unit of the same “Good Sam.” So this parable carries some special meanings for me.

We all hope to be like the Good Samaritan, but the late Doug Adams, an extraordinary friend and professor of Religion and Art at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, proposed an alternative reading of the parable. Instead of asking us to identify with the Good Samaritan, he wondered, what if Jesus wants us to identify with the man in the ditch?

The Samaritan is the person with all the power in the situation. He has a donkey, oil and wine, enough extra clothing to make bandages, the strength to lift the wounded man onto the donkey, and money to pay for the man’s medical care. He gives, most admirably, out of his own abundance. 

But the naked, beaten, half-dead man in the ditch has no power. He has no capacity or ability to help himself. He is entirely dependent on the kindness of strangers. And who is the one who stops to help him? Not the priest, not the Levite, not one of his own kind, but a Samaritan. For a Jew, including everyone in Jesus’s original audience, a Samaritan was a bad person, a despised enemy. 

Now you don’t need to understand the history of the cultural and religious enmity between Jews and Samaritans to grasp Jesus’ point here. Think of anyone of whom you disapprove, or someone you have a difficult history with. If you are lying helpless in the ditch, you don’t get to be selective about your rescuer. You have to accept their help, even if they happen to be your worst enemy. And that would mean you’d have to change your mind about them and, like it or not, be in relation with them.

Remember the question that prompted Jesus to tell this parable: “Who is my neighbor?” And the answer turns out to be: Everybody! In God’s alternative version of reality (which the gospels call the Kingdom), everyone—even my enemy—is my neighbor.

When I first heard Doug talk about this parable, it was during the first Gulf War. “Imagine you are lying helpless in that ditch,” he said, “and down the road comes Saddam Hussein. When he sees you, he bends down, offers his hand and says, “Can I help you out of the ditch, brother?”

Today we might substitute Vladimir Putin for the Samaritan to experience the same radical discomfort that Jesus’ first listeners must have felt when they heard the parable. Or suppose the person in the ditch is a white supremacist, and the Samaritan is a person of color? What if the victim is homophobic, and the rescuer is gay? What if a misogynist is the helpless one, and a woman comes by? What if it’s a Progressive in that ditch, and along comes a Proud Boy? 

Do you find any of these scenarios unsettling? Parables are meant to be hard. They are meant to break us open.

And as I listen to this parable in the Year of Our Lord 2022, it strikes me that America itself is in the ditch, wounded by its sins, torn by its conflicts, half-dead from innumerable unaddressed ills. White supremacists and so-called “Christian” nationalists seek a cure in the subjugation or even the elimination of those they consider to be “other”—that is, those who are “not our kind,” whether that be people of color, the LGBTQ community, empowered women, Muslims, Central American refugees, nonwhite immigrants, or whomever. That way lies madness and death.

If we are ever to be delivered from the ditch of our own national folly and sin, we desperately need the help of the “other”—the ones whose race, religion, class, gender and life experiences are different from our own. We need to listen to their voices, their perspectives, their pain, their anger, their sorrows, their hopes, their dreams. We need not only to learn from them and be taught by them; we need to receive their stories into our hearts. Otherwise, we’re just going to stay stuck in that ditch. 

God’s not fair!

Sign at Occupy LA city hall encampment, October 2011

Sign at Occupy LA city hall encampment, October 2011

If any have toiled from the first hour,
let them receive their due reward;
If any have come after the third hour,
let them with gratitude join in the Feast!
And those that arrived after the sixth hour,
let them not doubt; for they too shall sustain no loss.
And if any delayed until the ninth hour,
let them not hesitate; but let them come too.
And those who arrived only at the eleventh hour,
let them not be afraid by reason of their delay.
For the Lord is gracious
and receives the last even as the first.
Christ gives rest to those that come at the eleventh hour,
as well as to those that toiled from the first.

This famous passage from the ancient Paschal homily of St. John Chrysostom is a marvelous riff on Jesus’ parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Mt. 20:1-16). It’s certainly good news to the latecomers, but rather disconcerting to those of us who have a strict idea of who’s in and who’s out. You never know what kind of people you’re going to run into at God’s place. You may have to break bread with some who haven’t earned their place at the table the way you have, who haven’t paid their dues the way you have. It’s not fair. The kingdom of God is not fair.

That’s the trouble with mercy and forgiveness and grace. They are so undiscriminating. How are we supposed to know where we stand, how can we measure up, how can we hold others accountable, if the standards are so loose and slippery?

Let’s face it. Jesus was a terrible bookkeeper. He didn’t maintain accurate accounts of how everyone was doing. He was too busy throwing a party for God’s friends. Y’all come. Everyone’s welcome!

The first disciples who listened to this story undoubtedly needed to hear its message. They were anxious about where they stood with Jesus and with God. Lord, who’s going to sit at your right hand and who’s going to sit on your left? What are we going to get for following you? Whom do you love the most? This anxiety about status and privilege continues in the Book of Acts, when some of the original Jewish believers resent the influx of Gentile converts. And we have our own versions of this calculating mentality today. Who’s in, who’s out? Who’s better, who’s worse? Who belongs, who doesn’t? Who’s saved, who’s not?

But with this parable, Jesus tells us:

  • Stop worrying about wages. The kingdom isn’t something you earn. It’s a gift. Be glad you are one of the recipients.
  • Don’t worry about how much you’ll get. You’ll get what you need. You really will.
  • Stop comparing yourselves to others. God loves everyone equally.
  • Don’t be envious or resentful of someone else’s good fortune, even when you think it’s undeserved. Be glad that God is so generous, even if it’s not always about you.

Once the whole idea of a bookkeeping religion has been exploded by this parable, we begin to realize that it’s not a story about wages at all. It’s a story about the vineyard. Everyone gets invited to the vineyard, and ending up there together is the whole point. The latest have not come too late, and the earliest have not come too early. In the end, everyone is there, no one is missing.

Now if you don’t want to be part of this vineyard collective, just take what you’ve earned and go. That’s what the master tells the complainers, the bookkeepers, and to me it’s the most chilling line in the story. You don’t want any part of the kingdom’s undiscriminating generosity? OK, fine. Go off and be by yourself, or with your little circle of the like-minded. But you may find it rather lonely. And you’ll miss one hell of a party.