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The Good Samaritan

Updated: Jul 15, 2019

Lesson: Luke 10:25-37


The Parable of the Good Samaritan is familiar even to people who know little else about the Bible. An expert in the law approaches Jesus, asking: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The lawyer is saying, “Show me the path to the life of God.”


Jesus knows the man is a lawyer so he asks, “What’s written in the Law?” The man gives Jesus an A+ answer, quoting Deuteronomy and Leviticus: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind;[1] and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[2]

Jesus congratulates him on giving the correct answer. “Do this, and you will live,” he says. But the man isn’t satisfied. He wants specifics. “Who is my neighbor?” he asks. Which, when you think about it, is the same thing as asking, “Who is not my neighbor?” He wants to know where he has to draw the line. I mean, there have to be lines, right? Could Jesus really mean, “Love everybody?”


Jesus answers with the familiar story. It’s an incredibly timely story, poignantly echoed in a recent New York Times op-ed by Nicholas Kristoff. Kristoff tells the story of Teresa Todd. “The path to [her] arrest,” writes Kristoff, “began when three desperate Central American migrants waved frantically at her car on a Texas highway one night in February.” At least one other car had hurtled by, afraid to stop. But for Todd, compassion overrode any fear. “I’m a mom,” explained Todd, who has two sons, ages 15 and 17. “And I see a young man who looked the same age and size as my younger son. And if my son was by the side of the road, I would want someone to help.”


Todd, a single mom who works as a lawyer for a city and county in West Texas, found three siblings: two brothers aged 20 and 22 and their sister, Esmeralda, 18. To escape violence, they fled their native El Salvador years ago, and more recently, Guatemala, where friends were murdered and a gang leader wanted to make Esmeralda his “girlfriend.” Esmeralda was suffering from starvation, dehydration and a potentially fatal syndrome with a long unpronounceable name that can lead to kidney failure.[3] Seeing that Esmeralda was very sick, Todd invited the migrants into her car to warm up, and she began frantically texting friends (including one who is a lawyer for the Border Patrol) for advice about getting Esmeralda medical attention.


A sheriff’s deputy pulled up behind Todd’s car, lights flashing, and a Border Patrol officer arrived shortly afterward. The officers detained Todd for three hours, confiscating her possessions and keeping her in a holding cell. By stopping to help a stranger, Todd may have saved a life — but this also got her arrested. “It was totally surreal,” Todd recalled. “Especially for doing what my parents taught me was right, and what I learned in church was right, which was helping people. So finding myself in a holding cell for that, it was hard to wrap my head around.”


Esmeralda was hospitalized for four days, and she and her siblings are now in ICE custody. Todd has not been charged with a crime so far, but the authorities seem to have been considering a federal indictment. Kristoff reached out to federal and local officials for comment; they did not respond. Todd told Kristoff that she has no regrets. “I think it’s the right thing to help those in need,” she explained. “That’s what I learned from my parents. That’s what I learned in church.”[4]


The arrest of a mom who may have saved a life reflects the increasingly harsh treatment under the current administration of anyone who tries to help migrants. In Arizona, a man named Scott Warren is part of the aid group No More Deaths/No Más Muertes, a group that leaves water, blankets and food for migrants. Last month Warren was tried on felony charges that carry terms of up to 20 years in prison. That’s quite a penalty for trying to save the lives of fellow human beings. After a mistrial because jurors couldn’t decide whether what he did was a crime, federal prosecutors haven’t dropped the charges.[5] Others have been prosecuted for similar misdemeanor offenses.


“This is all about trying to chill the willingness of people to help others,” Todd said. “A friend told me, ‘The other day, someone tried to flag me down by the side of the road and waved an empty water bottle, and I thought about what happened to you and didn’t stop.’”


“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of bandits?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”


Kristoff, the newspaperman, thanked Todd for her humanity, and for helping save a life. Todd said her assistance had been instinctive. “I’m simply a mom who saw a child in need and pulled over to try to help,” she said.[6]


“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of bandits?” Note that Jesus doesn’t answer the question the lawyer asked him. He doesn’t say, “Your neighbor is the faceless, nameless guy in the ditch.” He turns the question on its head, basically saying, “You want to know precisely how the Law defines the word ‘neighbor’? Never mind that. Are you a neighbor?” If you’re already being a neighbor, then the question “Just who is my neighbor?” is irrelevant.


Teresa Todd was being a neighbor. Go, said Jesus, and do likewise. This is not only timely; it’s challenging and profound, and there’s a surprise lesson hidden in the parable that we might miss. Our hint is when the lawyer answers Jesus’ question, “Which of these three was a neighbor?” The lawyer responds, “The one who showed him mercy.”

He can’t even get his lips to form the words, “The Samaritan.” Samaria was the next province over from Judea. The Samaritans were ethnically related to Judeans, and practiced a similar but not identical religion. By the time Jesus told this parable, they hated each others’ guts.[7]


And yet Jesus chooses a Samaritan as the hero. The third man could have been anybody; the point could have been, “Anybody can be your neighbor;” and we’d call it the Parable of the Good Person. But this is a story intended to upset our categories of good and bad. It’s intended as a sharp rebuke to the lawyer’s question, “Just exactly who is my neighbor?” – to the implication that there must be limits to loving our neighbors. “If we too easily and comfortably identify with the Good Samaritan in this parable, maybe we’re missing the point. Maybe the whole point of the Samaritan is that he is not us.”[8]


Think about it this way: Who is the last person on earth you’d ever want to think of as a good guy? Whom do you have the hardest time imagining God working through? Think of a group of people who scares or angers you. That’s what the Samaritan represents. If that group or person makes you feel uncomfortable, you know you’re on the right track.


The Samaritan teaches us several important lessons. First, God comes where we least expect God to be, because God comes for all and to all. Second, “loving” looks like helping those in need. And third, the Samaritan, the one who acted as a neighbor, crossed a boundary. The hatred between Samaritans and Judeans went both ways, and yet this Samaritan stepped outside of his national and ethnic loyalty. He did not say, “You aren’t my people; I save my compassion for my own people.” He crossed a boundary that was a hard and fast line to Jesus’ listeners. When Jesus says, “Go and do likewise,” that’s boundary crossing is part of what he’s telling us to do. We are to have a higher, broader, deeper loyalty – a loyalty to the well-being of all God’s beloved children, not just to the ones who look and speak and act like us.


The Samaritan stands for that higher, deeper loyalty. Teresa Todd told Nicholas Kristoff, “The whole time I was by the side of the road, I was thinking: What country am I in? This is not the United States.”[9] Except, increasingly, it is. I can’t tell you this morning how to solve the crisis at our southern border. The experts agree that the thousands – hundreds of thousands – of migrants from Central America are fleeing a life of unrelenting terror and violence. That’s why they’re willing to risk arrest, family separation and even death. The experts agree that our border crisis will not be solved until the problem of that violence is solved. The experts agree that the United States really can’t absorb unlimited migration over our southern border and the experts agree that the numbers are too great, too unimaginably great to deal with in a way that’s effective and humane given the resources our government is willing to devote to it, which explains but does not justify the conditions in which human beings, God’s children, our neighbors, are being held – squalor, over-crowding, lack of adequate bedding and showers, the spread of parasites and disease, children still being separated from parents.[10] And which explains but does not justify terrorizing families and whole communities with threats of ICE raids this weekend.


It all makes me feel pretty helpless but I have this thought: What about the bandits? We never talk about the bandits. Societies where there is oppression produce bandits. Societies that seek to bring dignity to all are less likely to produce bandits.[11] When we think about extending mercy, when we think about being the good neighbors Jesus calls us to be, we need not to get stuck in thinking only about individuals caring for other individuals. That’s hugely important, as Teresa Todd’s story affirms. But sometimes the mercy we are called to show is the kind that goes upstream, that transforms a system from one that mops up after bandits to one that affirms that God cares for how people end up as victims of violence in the first place.


This I know: Our faith tells us that the people crossing the border are our neighbors, and more importantly, that we are to act as neighbors to them. We are to go and do likewise, and that might mean we contact our elected representatives, demonstrate, protest, lobby, bring lawsuits, engage in diplomacy, cross borders and boundaries – all of this and more.


Whatever it takes to show mercy to our neighbors. Go, and do likewise. May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.

© Joanne Whitt 2019 all rights reserved.

[1] Deuteronomy 6:5.


[2] Leviticus 19:18.


[3] Rhabdomyolysis.


[4] Nicholas Kristoff, “She May Have Saved a Life. Then She Was Arrested,” May 15, 2019, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/15/opinion/texas-teresa-todd.html?login=email&auth=login-email


[5] Miriam Jordan, “An Arizona Teacher Helped Migrants. Jurors Couldn’t Decide If It Was a Crime,” June 11, 2019, in The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/11/us/scott-warren-arizona-deaths.html.


[6] Kristoff, ibid.


[7] In John’s gospel, Jesus is passing through Samaria and asks a local woman for water. “The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?’ (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans (John 4:9).


[8] Debie Thomas, “Go and Do Likewise,” July 3, 2016, http://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/1023-go-and-do-likewise.


[9] Kristoff, ibid.


[10] See, for example, Simon Romero, Zolan Kanno-Youngs, Manny Fernandez, Daniel Borunda, Aaron Montes and Caitlin Dickerson, “Hungry, Scared and Sick: Inside the

Migrant Detention Center in Clint, Tex.,” July 9, 2019, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/07/06/us/migrants-border-patrol-clint.html.


[11] William R. G. Loader, http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/LkPentecost8.htm.

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