JOPLIN, Mo. —
It is commonly recognized that parables target only one point. It is also commonly recognized that there are exceptions to any rule.
The story of the Good Samaritan begs that exception.
The purpose of the story is to answer the question posed by a rich young ruler: Who is my neighbor? The purpose of the plot is to demonstrate why the neighbor question is such a problem. It is obvious Jesus intends to make religious bigotry an issue and to answer the question.
To say that the choice of this plot opens the door to the subject of religious prejudice is an understatement. Because of the volatility of religious conflict, Jesus actually blew the door off its hinges. We cannot dodge this issue.
The characters in our story are Jews and Samaritans. The social and religious conflict between these people is well documented -- there was no love lost between them.
The story opens with an unfortunate Jewish traveler lying in a ditch -- beaten, robbed and left for dead. The motive for this violence might have been robbery, or it might have been religious hatred, or a combination of both.
Three additional travelers happen upon the scene: A priest, then a Levite and a Samaritan.
The priest and the Levite were good people. It would be unfair to portray them as greedy and self-centered, unable to be touched by these circumstances.
Legitimate questions confronted each of them. For instance, the body in the ditch could possibly be a trap set by thieves. Surely, we can feel their fear.
There was also a religious question. Contact with a corpse would have rendered both the priest and the Levite ceremonially unclean, thereby prohibiting them from their temple responsibilities. It must have been difficult for them to choose between duties.
Because the audience in this story was primarily if not totally comprised of Jews, people were sympathetic when their fellow Jews -- the priest and the Levite -- each chose to look the other way. They, too, were well aware of the danger of travel in those days and they understood the call to religious duty.
Then Jesus drops the bomb. A Samaritan, considered by the Jews to be ceremonially unclean and a religious heretic, arrives on the scene and springs into action. He, of all people, is the answer!
Surprise and even anger erupt within the crowd. How could this Samaritan receive such acknowledgment from Jesus?
If we are serious students and practitioners of our faith, then we must see this story set in today's world. This would suggest that if the audience is Christian, Jewish or Muslim, then the one who defines neighbor would be identified with one of the other two religions.
How does this make us feel? What are our thoughts? What is our reaction?
If true to his word, the Samaritan reached out into the future. He'll be back, he says. He obligates himself to future involvement. He will remain a Samaritan, but he will care for his Jewish neighbor.
This is not a random act of kindness. It is a way of life for this Samaritan.
In the future, there will be forthcoming opportunities for interfaith activities. In light of our story, can there possibly be any other response than to say we will be there?
No more disjointed acts of kindness, but a way of life shown to us by Jesus' Samaritan.
Craig Tally is the senior minister of First Community Church in Joplin. His column appears bi-weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.