July 10, 2004
Every once in awhile it is valuable to take a parable and turn it upside down. This is particularly true of today’s parable of the Good Samaritan, because the meaning of this parable is so well known that it is almost a cliché: we are to act like the Good Samaritan and help others who are in need. The parable has even influenced the English Language. If you were to stop and help someone fix a flat tire, that person could likely call you a “Good Samaritan.” We have “Good Samaritan laws” that penalize people who do not help others in certain circumstances. Now there is nothing wrong with reading this parable as an invitation for us to help those in need. But if any parable needed a new twist or a different perspective, it would be this one.
So how can we read the parable differently? We can do so by changing the character in the parable with whom we identify. Instead of seeing ourselves as the character who gives (that is the Samaritan) we can see ourselves as the character who receives (the man who fell in with the robbers). This radically changes the meaning of the parable. Instead of inviting us to give to others, the parable shows us how God gives to us, how salvation comes to us, how the kingdom enters our lives. We can even change the name of the parable. Instead of calling it the parable of “The Good Samaritan,” we can call it the parable of “The Man in the Ditch.” We can ask how is that man saved? How does life come to him?
It comes as a surprise and as a gift. The parable is telling us that often God comes into our life as a surprise. The man in the ditch would have expected that the priest and the Levite, good people that they were, would stop to help him. They did not. But who could have thought that a Samaritan would have pity on him? Remember Jews and Samaritans were enemies and would not even greet one another on the street. So who could have guessed that this Samaritan would stop and show him mercy? No one. It was a surprise. In the same way, God surprises us.
God’s coming is also a gift. The parable tells us that God sends us life without our ability to earn or merit it. The man in the ditch could have called out to the priest or the Levite, reminding them of their obligation to help him as a fellow Jew. But what claim could he make upon his enemy, the Samaritan? The Samaritan could rightly say to him, “I owe you nothing,” and he would be right. Therefore, his willingness to stop and help was a total gift, a complete grace. That is how God comes into our lives.
The parable of The Man in the Ditch tells us that life comes to us in ways we can never predict or ever deserve. Your own experience of life confirms this. Look at the surprises in your life: the way you met your spouse, the work your children chose to do, the decisions that led you to where you live and with whom you associate. Who could have predicted any of these things? Look at how much in your life is unearned: that you were born in this country, your health, the people who love you. No one owes this to you. Yet it is your life. It comes as a gift.
If God comes to us as a surprise and as a gift, it is clear that there is no way we can control God’s presence. We can, however, get ready for it. We can open ourselves to God’s will. The stance of the believer is a radical openness to whatever God will do. We should never say to ourselves, “God can not do this for me.” God is always surprising us. So we can find someone to love us, we can fight this cancer or this addiction, we can find the strength to understand and forgive. We should never try to limit God’s activity to only the things that are due to us. God is always giving us more than our due. Therefore, we should willingly seize whatever opportunity is given, appreciate the relationships that are ours, and be willing to accept help from another.
The key to the kingdom of God is radical openness to God’s will, knowing that God will always surprise us and embarrass us with generosity.
The lawyer in the Gospel asks Jesus, “Teacher, what I must I do to gain eternal life?” The Parable of the Man in the Ditch has the answer. It tells us that each day we should wake up, put our two feet on the floor and say, “Lord, here I am. Surprise me with more than I deserve!”