But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came to the place where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.
Note: This runs substantially longer than the typical post, but I hope you’ll take a few extra minutes to read it through and pray you’ll benefit from it.
In the late Seventies, a group of fatuously privileged college grads hammered out a bestseller called The Official Preppy Handbook, a coy, self-satirizing guide to all things upper-crusty. As a middle-class preacher’s kid about to enter a snooty Midwestern university, the book was a godsend in that it tipped me off to the customs many of my classmates learned growing up. The lifestyle and behaviors it described gripped me with anthropological fascination. The Handbook included a glossary of coded lingo snobs used to talk above or about outsiders. All these years later, one phrase sticks in memory: NOKD, an acronym for “Not our kind, dear.” I remember it because it alerted me to two unalterable facts about myself. First, no matter how well I mimicked my school chums, I would always be NOKD in their eyes. But more important, its cruelly elitist, out-of-hand dismissal of less fortunate people violated every value and principle of my Christian upbringing.
Crossing the Street
Reading Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan inevitably brings NOKD to mind. A traveler gets mugged. Thugs rob, strip, and beat him, leaving him half-dead in the gutter. A priest comes along, sees the victim, and crosses the street to avoid him. A Levite soon follows and does the same. Both dismiss the wounded traveler as unworthy of their time or attention, possibly thinking his misfortune results from his own criminal pursuits, the proverbial deal gone wrong. Then a Samaritan arrives. Crossing the street never crosses his mind. Without questioning, the Samaritan treats the man’s injuries, puts him on his donkey, and checks into an inn, where he spends the night caring for the victim. The next day he leaves after paying for the traveler to remain until he recovers. He asks the innkeeper to look after the traveler, promising to return and reimburse any additional expenses.
Ironies abound in this, Jesus’s most touching story on record. To start, it’s illuminating to note what prompts it. A legal expert challenges Jesus to single out the most important law. He immediately identifies two: Love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. We see this as the watershed moment when Christ crystallizes His core ideal. But the lawyer hopes to trick Jesus into playing loose and fast with the Law. So he presses Him, asking, “Who is my neighbor?” Once Jesus finishes the tale of the Samaritan, no doubt the lawyer regrets he asked. This initial irony introduces the others.
By not assigning a nationality to the traveler and setting the story on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, Jesus makes it plain he’s a Jew. What’s more, a passing detail—the man’s nakedness—rules out the priest and Levite’s NOKD responses might be justified since simply seeing the traveler is circumcised reveals he is “their kind.” Jesus’s choice of both occupations also carries ironic indictments. Together, they represent the religious and legal establishments’ heinously phobic rejection of “unclean” members of society. There are also contradictions exposing each man’s failure to do his job. The priest practices salvation through blood sacrifices; yet he refuses to stain his hands with the traveler’s blood while ministering to him. The Levite embodies the Law; yet he overlooks the love-your-neighbor statute Jesus just quoted from Leviticus 19.18. What we’re left with is intolerant religion and skewed legalism at their worst.
Jesus’s point would have been taken had He stopped there. But He lands the final blow by making a Samaritan His story’s hero. Centuries of animosity divided the Jews and the Samaritans. The latter regarded themselves “the forgotten tribe” of Israel. They practiced a variation on Judaism that also worshiped the One True God and awaited a Messiah to restore status unjustly denied them. This infuriated the Jews—God’s “chosen people”—no end. And here’s Jesus, saying a Samaritan who stops to care for a half-dead Jew does the work of a priest, a Levite, and then some. He’s not concerned about dirtying his hands to save the man’s life. He fulfills the law to love his neighbor. He gives up comfort, time, and money for the man’s welfare. He promises to settle the traveler’s tab, knowing in all likelihood he’ll never receive the gratitude and recognition he deserves. The biggest irony of all: from the Jewish perspective, the Samaritan is NOKD; from the Samaritan’s perspective, however, the Jew is “his kind”—a neglected victim urgently needing compassion and care.
“Go and Do Likewise”
After the story, Jesus asks, “Who was the man’s neighbor?” “The one who had mercy on him,” the lawyer concedes. “Then go and do likewise,” Jesus tells him. The abiding power in “The Good Samaritan” rests in its explanation of how to obey Christ’s commandment to love. It’s easy for gay and other ostracized believers to read the story and latch onto the traveler, closely matching their personal experiences with the religious and legalistic prejudice he suffered. And it’s easy for all Christians to picture themselves as the open-minded, concerned Samaritan. But what about the priest and the Levite? It’s not merely easy, it’s lazy and incorrect for us to smugly look down on them as “not our kind.” Indeed, it saddles us with the very sin we revile in them. Loving our neighbors as Christ expects starts by accepting God has no NOKD children. Everyone is “our kind”—including those who have no time and interest and feel no obligation to care for us. Samaritan love is an all-or-nothing proposition. Instead of listening to reasons why others don’t merit love, we hear and obey Christ’s voice. Go and do likewise.
"Love your neighbor as yourself."