Many of you know that I’m an English teacher—so I’m interested in curious ways we use language. One of my favorites is the oxymoron. You know, the use of two words that are completely opposite to form a phrase, like “original copy” or “ill health.”
I wonder what it would have been like to be among the people listening to Jesus telling the parable we read today. If they knew that this parable would go down in history as the “good Samaritan,” I’m sure someone would have said, “that’s an … oxymoron!” We can only imagine that Jesus was using an example that would cause some jaws to drop.
The Jews had a long-standing beef with the Samaritans, going back to a story in Second Kings, in which the Samaritans refused to worship the Lord and went on serving their carved images, in spite of direct orders spoken by the Lord Himself.
In Jesus’ day they claimed to worship God, but they did so differently (and you know what we think of people who worship God in a different way!) and the relationship was still strained. Also, earlier in Luke we read that the Samaritans refused to receive Jesus on his way to Jerusalem, but we don’t know why. It’s the same with all the ethnic disagreements and prejudices we still experience today—they go back to some dispute or conflict, which may be now forgotten, but the resentment remains.
So this parable obviously came as a shocker to the Jews who were listening—in particular, to the lawyer who kept asking what it was necessary to do to receive eternal life. Do the same thing as a Samaritan? No way.
But I’ve been reading an interesting explanation of this parable by Fr. Robert Farrar Capon, a theologian whose works are always very challenging to me. Fr. Capon calls this the ”first of the misnamed parables.” He says it should be called the “Man Who Fell Among Thieves.”
Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. He knew what would happen to him there. He knew that he would suffer beatings and terrible pain and the cruelest death imaginable. Since this was on his mind, the central figure of the parable may have been the man who had been attacked, beaten, and left for dead.
And we, looking back on this parable and on what it foreshadowed, must think of that cruel death. As we affirm here every Sunday, it is Jesus’ death and resurrection that brings salvation to us all. That death is the means of our salvation, the answer to the question posed by the lawyer. Jesus’ cruel death was a gift to us that brings us eternal life.
The call for us is to think prayerfully about that death, and to thank our Lord and Savior for enduring it for our sake. If we have welcomed the meaning of that into our lives, living in the knowledge of Jesus’ saving grace, we will be moved to help others. If we do, it will be like ministering to Jesus in his passion. How could we pass by an injured traveler if we remember the suffering Jesus?
If we are conscious, in our daily lives, of the sacrifice Jesus made for us, we must act for those who are suffering—and it won’t be a matter of following a law, but of following an example. It will come from our hearts. We will embody another oxymoron—we will be “acting naturallyl”