Robbers and Samaritans

You know the story of the “good Samaritan”. You do not have to be a particularly devout Christian or even a Christian at all to know the gist of the story. If you are Christian you have probably heard more sermons on that parable than you can count.

An unknown traveler is robbed, beaten and stripped nearly naked. We, the reader, and the people in the parable know nothing about him. Jew, Gentile, or Samaritan? Poor or rich? Pious or outlaw? We can’t know. The church folks pass by and Jesus leaves us to speculate why they do not stop. Even 2000 years later we can come up with several plausible reasons not to stop. But the Samaritan does stop and he cares for the man. He even pays for, what we might consider the Ancient Near East equivalent of his health care bill. So the question is asked. Who is my neighbor? And Jesus gives one of his clear and yet obscure and difficult answers.

In my experience, we talk a lot about the priest, and scribe and Samaritan. It is easy to label them, good guy, bad guys. We don’t talk too much about the victim other than to establish his lack of identity. He is the unfortunate guy.

We seldom talk about the crime either. But I wonder why Jesus makes the traveler the victim of a violent crime? Most of what Jesus personally does in the gospels has to do with the sick, the hungry and the poor. Jesus doesn’t spend much time – as far as we know- with victims of violent crime. The parable would still “work” if the man on the road fell desperately ill and collapsed on his travels. The parable would still “work” is the man was so impoverished that he fainted from hunger. So why is the man the victim of robbery and assault?

I think his status as victim is part of the answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?”. The man on the road is in trouble because of the actions of others. Some person injured another person- directly and violently. If, to borrow another biblical phrase, we are our brother’s keeper, not only are we to stop and help but we are not to rob and abuse.

Listen to today’s news. How much of the world’s troubles are because of our tiny, narrow view of who our neighbor is? Of course we are to help each other. But what is we also stopped leaving each other robbed and beaten?

“I’ve never robbed or beaten anyone!” you say. Neither have I. But yet, we all have been participants (willingly and unwillingly, wittingly and unwittingly) in systems and cultures and activities that have materially, physically injured others. This is where the gospel gets political. Not in terms of party allegiance and voting guides but in terms of how we individually and collectively engage the rest of the world. Who is my neighbor and how do I help them? And how do I not injure them? The world has been wrestling with this question since, well, Cain and Abel. To break out of these ancient patterns of behavior and action will be difficult. It always has been. New patterns of behavior  will require creativity.

As I blog my way through the Bible at Westminster Reads, I have been reminded that there are a lot of quite odd stories in the Bible. Many of those odd stories are about the prophets. Odd stories about their odd and holy engagement of the world. Here is an odd and not too well known story about Elisha and his neighbors.

8 Once when the king of Aram was at war with Israel, he took counsel with his officers. He said, ‘At such and such a place shall be my camp.’9But the man of God sent word to the king of Israel, ‘Take care not to pass this place, because the Arameans are going down there.’ 10The king of Israel sent word to the place of which the man of God spoke. More than once or twice he warned such a place so that it was on the alert.

11 The mind of the king of Aram was greatly perturbed because of this; he called his officers and said to them, ‘Now tell me who among us sides with the king of Israel?’ 12Then one of his officers said, ‘No one, my lord king. It is Elisha, the prophet in Israel, who tells the king of Israel the words that you speak in your bedchamber.’ 13He said, ‘Go and find where he is; I will send and seize him.’ He was told, ‘He is in Dothan.’14So he sent horses and chariots there and a great army; they came by night, and surrounded the city.

15 When an attendant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. His servant said, ‘Alas, master! What shall we do?’ 16He replied, ‘Do not be afraid, for there are more with us than there are with them.’ 17Then Elisha prayed: ‘O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.’ So the Lord opened the eyes of the servant, and he saw; the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. 18When the Arameans came down against him, Elisha prayed to the Lord, and said, ‘Strike this people, please, with blindness.’ So he struck them with blindness as Elisha had asked. 19Elisha said to them, ‘This is not the way, and this is not the city; follow me, and I will bring you to the man whom you seek.’ And he led them to Samaria.

20 As soon as they entered Samaria, Elisha said, ‘O Lord, open the eyes of these men so that they may see.’ The Lord opened their eyes, and they saw that they were inside Samaria. 21When the king of Israel saw them he said to Elisha, ‘Father, shall I kill them? Shall I kill them?’ 22He answered, ‘No! Did you capture with your sword and your bow those whom you want to kill? Set food and water before them so that they may eat and drink; and let them go to their master.’ 23So he prepared for them a great feast; after they ate and drank, he sent them on their way, and they went to their master. And the Arameans no longer came raiding into the land of Israel.  (2 Kings 6:8-23, NRSV)

It is a funny story. Even though Elisha knows what the king of Aram will do, the king still tries to trick Elisha. It is a story about sight, about vision. Both metaphorically and literally. Elisha has captured his enemies by offering to lead them. And then rather than hold them captive or kill them; Elisha feeds then and sends them home.

What does Elisha know that we don’t?

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