'Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" He said to him, "What is written in the law? What do you read there?" He answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." And he said to him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live."
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" Jesus replied, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, `Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.' Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" He said, "The one who showed him mercy." Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."'
--Luke 10: 25-37
In the summer going into my last year of seminary I was fortunate enough to study for three weeks in the Holy Land, visiting places like Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Galilee. One of the routes we took was the road between Jericho and Jerusalem, which has not really changed all that much in the last 2000 years. Now, as then, it is about a 17 mile stretch, dropping some 3600 feet in sea level and changing from a Mediterranean climate to a desert one. It is still narrow and rocky with sudden turnings, the perfect hiding spot for bandits. Driving along the road makes you realize just how intentional Jesus was in setting arguably his most famous parable on Jericho Road.
Jericho Road as it is today (photo taken on my trip to the Holy Land in 2011).
The parable of the good Samaritan is so well known that the character has become something of a secularized saint. We name hospitals and community service awards after the good Samaritan because the story’s message rings loud and clear. You don’t have to have a theology degree to understand that, just as the Samaritan acted neighborly to the man in the ditch, we, along with the lawyer whose question prompted parable, are to go and do likewise. What complicates things, what makes the parable’s message a bit more difficult for some of hear to hear perhaps, is when we take a good look at its setting and all that it entails.
Understanding the dangers of Jericho Road helps give the parable a lot of its punch. If Jesus had said, “A man was walking down a street in Jerusalem and fell into the hands of robbers,” we might still feel sadness for him, but we likely would not feel the dread. Anyone that heard Jesus mention Jericho Road would have thought to themselves, “Oh god no! He did not go down THAT road!” The fate that befell the man in the parable was the same as a great many who dared head down Jericho Road: robbed, beaten, left for dead. Saint Jerome, the man who translated the Bible from Greek into Latin, referred to Jericho Road as the Bloody Way because of all the violence that sojourners encountered. H.V. Morton, who was a renowned travel journalist in England in the 20s and 30s, once wrote how the locals warned travelers like him to get home before dark, lest they encounter trouble along Jericho Road. It was not a road that anyone traveled willingly.
Yet this is the setting for one of Jesus’ most radical teachings on compassion and mercy. It is on this road, a road of risk and fear, where poverty and violence abound, that “being a neighbor” gets redefined. We begin with the man (likely a Jew), who falls prey to a group of bandits. One might have heard Jesus mention the road between Jerusalem and Jericho and immediately thought, “Well, what did he expect? He shouldn’t have gone down that road anyway. He was just asking for trouble!” The story continues with a priest and a Levite, who walk past on the other side. Seeing as how they were forbidden by the Law to approach a dead body, who could blame them for not stopping? Why would they risk injury to themselves? They surely had good reason for hurrying up and getting to their destination. Up to this point we shouldn’t be at all surprised by the way the story is playing out.
It’s the inclusion of the Samaritan that truly flips the script, though. It cannot be stressed enough how much Jews and Samaritans hated each other. Samaritans were a mixed-race people who rejected the sacredness of Mount Zion and ignored traditional Jewish laws and customs. They were trouble-makers, their towns were considered the ghettos of the day, they were not welcome among Jews, and they didn’t particularly welcome Jews themselves—as evidenced in the reading two weeks ago when a Samaritan village soundly rejected Jesus, prompting two of the disciples to want to call down fire from heaven to consume the heathens. Yet it is one of these that the man encounters on this ever-dangerous road, one of these who treats him as a neighbor. The magnitude of the audience’s astonishment at the way the parable plays out is exemplified in the lawyer’s response when Jesus asks which one was a neighbor to the man in need. The lawyer begrudgingly mutters, “The one who showed him mercy.” He can’t even bring himself to say, “The Samaritan showed him mercy,” because of how outrageous the concept seemed. A Samaritan. Along Jericho Road. Mercy. Talk about unbelievable.
A Japanese icon of the parable of the good Samaritan.
Some things, though, never change. Just as the literal Jericho Road is still pretty treacherous, so are the equally troublesome figurative Jericho Roads, which are everywhere. They can be found in just about every city, and are the places where crime runs rampant. Ironically so many of them are named after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Rev. Traci Blackmon, a prominent pastor and preacher in the United Church of Christ, tells the story of her time as a church leader in St. Louis, which has Delmar Boulevard, a clear divide between an affluent south side of St. Louis and an impoverished north side that is filled with so much poverty and violence that the life expectancy is 26 years shorter than on the other side of the road. Delmar Boulevard is one of the modern-day Jericho Roads, where unacceptable treatment of people becomes an acceptable condition, where the modern-day Samaritans live. These are the roads that we avoid at all cost, but they are the roads that so many folks face each and every day. Every now and then, often times after we hear stories like the parable of the good Samaritan, folks will dare to venture onto the Jericho Roads to offer rescue or repair, shifting into crisis mode for a bit, but so often when things calm down those good-natured folks head back to the other side, and things gradually return to normal along the Jericho Roads, where the inhumane and cruel behaviors once again become acceptable, where the bandits thrive and today’s Samaritans tear each other apart. We all know where the Jericho Roads are. Some of us live on them. Some of us dare to drive on them day after day. But we all know where they are, and we can’t blame folks for avoiding them.
We regularly preach this parable as an example of charitable giving, but it is so much more than that. It was then, and it is now, about transforming our cultural expectations and understandings of who are our neighbors and what are our neighborhoods. A story about someone being beaten on Jericho Road was hardly surprising to anyone who heard it, but. no one would have expected to find mercy on Jericho Road, and even fewer would have expected to receive mercy from one as reviled as a Samaritan. This parable is meant to tamper responses like, “That traveler shouldn’t have been on that road to begin with!” and to quell the power that fear has over us, fear of “that part of town” and “those people” who live there. This parable engaged deep-seated prejudices that had become acceptable behavior at that time, and it called the lawyer and everyone else who heard it into a cultural transformation. For us today these questions are laid in front of us: Where are our Jericho Roads? How do we respond to those who dare traverse it? And who are our Samaritans, showing us how to be merciful?
Whether we are talking about a poor, predominantly non-white part of a city, or the border of a country overflowing with folks seeking refuge, the Jericho Roads are as real and as scary for folks today as when this parable was first taught. Yet now, as then, Jesus is there. He is the one who dares go down those roads day after day. He is the one who gets beaten, broken, and left for dead in the ditch. We walk and drive by him each time we venture along our Jericho Roads, but do we really see him? And when we do, will we have the compassion and the mercy to care for him, to be in relationship with him and to be transformed by that relationship? As the golden-tongued preacher, John Chrysostom, once said: “If we cannot find Jesus in the one who is hurting outside of our church, then we will not find him inside the church!”
The border between the United States and Mexico, a modern-day Jericho Road.