Jesus and Social Distancing

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Most of us know the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). In the setting of this parable, a religious expert is trying to test Jesus.

A man is traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. (Since he’s from Jerusalem, there is a good chance that he is Jewish.) On the way to Jericho, he is robbed and beaten up.

While lying along the road, two men see him; one is a priest and the other, a Levite. (In a contemporary sense, we can substitute pastor and deacon.) Both of these men pass by him (perhaps they were practicing social distancing). But then, another man comes along who, instead of passing by, treats the victim’s wounds, brings him to a place to recover, and even pays for all his expenses. And this third man, Jesus tells us, was a Samaritan – not what the religious expert was expecting! Why? Because Samaritans were the enemies of the Jews, and the Jews likewise hated Samaritans.

The reasons for such enmity are long and complicated; not unlike the hatred we witnessed between Serbs and Muslims in modern Bosnia; between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, or the current antagonism between Israelis and Palestinians. The hatred between Jews and Samaritans in Jesus’ day went way back, literally centuries. But here, in this story, the Samaritan is a good guy – actually, the hero of the story. The story would have been next to impossible for the religious expert to hear. A good Samaritan was an impossibility.

So, Jesus ends his story with a final question: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” The expert responded, “The one who showed mercy on him.”

The Good Samaritan Balthasar van Cortbemde (Library of Congress - Public Domain)
The Good Samaritan (Balthasar van Cortbemde)
Library of Congress – Public Domain

Notice that the religious expert couldn’t even say the word Samaritan.

And Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

So what can we learn from this?

The point isn’t to discourage social distancing due to the coronavirus. We should absolutely follow the guidelines we’ve been given by federal and state authorities. The more diligent we are, the faster this pandemic will pass.

But there is a social distancing we should not be practicing.

We call this story, The Good Samaritan. If you notice in the text, the words, “good Samaritan” are not in the story. For those listening to Jesus, this phrase would have been what we now call an oxymoron – a combination of words that makes no sense. So we see that a good Samaritan was impossible.

It didn’t exist.

There weren’t any GOOD Samaritans.

Think about what this story might be called in a contemporary context? If Jesus were living in Israel today, he might just tell a story about the Good Palestinian. Or, if he was addressing the Palestinians, he may tell a story about the Good Israeli.

If Jesus were living here in the U.S., he might tell us a story about the Good Muslim. Or the Good Socialist (to the Bernie bashers) or the Good President (to the Never Trumpers).

In this parable, Jesus is telling us three moral principles:

First, that just as there are good Samaritans, there are good Muslims, good Palestinians; good socialists, good capitalists, good democrats, good republicans; good liberals, good conservatives. Good people on Fox News and good people on CNN.

There are even good Christians – something I found hard to believe growing up Jewish.

There is something convicting, even subversive about this story, because it insists that people who some of us don’t consider “good,” can actually be more good, more loving and more kind than we are. In other words, we need to be careful not to make judgments based on a person’s lifestyle, ethnicity, politics, race or religion. They may be a greater candidate for the kingdom of God than we are (speaking as a Jewish Christian); for as Jesus said elsewhere, the last shall be first, and the first last.

Second, Jesus is teaching us that today’s Samaritan is our neighbor, whom we are called to “love”, whether they are Muslims/Christians, socialists/capitalists, liberals/conservatives; leftists, LGBT’s or devotees of MSNBC.

They are all our neighbors.

In other words, we are to love those whose lifestyles, politics, personality, behaviors, and beliefs we just don’t like or agree with. I would add here, we love them with God’s help!

Finally, Jesus reminds us that our neighbor is anyone who needs our kindness and compassion i.e., the elderly, the homeless, the widow, even our next-door neighbor – especially during these days of social distancing.

Today, as we are sheltered in our homes, let us strive to become more like the good Samaritan and find ways to reach out to our neighbor.

May you find shalom in these uncertain times.