Jesus was a prolific storyteller. One of Jesus’ more famous and scandalous stories is the parable of the Good Samaritan found in the Gospel according to Luke, chapter 10.
It begins with a man traveling down a road when he is overtaken by robbers who beat him, steal his belongings and leave him to die. The first person to come upon the beaten man is a Jewish priest. Certainly a “man of the cloth” will help this dying man, right? Wrong. He passes by on the other side of the road. Maybe he was late for a trustee meeting at the temple.
The second person to come upon the nearly-dead man is a Levite. He’s another highly religious man just like the priest. He probably has much of the Jewish Bible memorized, including Leviticus 19:18: “You must love your neighbor as yourself.” This religious man is definitely going to stop and help, right? Wrong again. He also passes by on the other side of the road.
The third person to come upon the battered and bruised man is a Samaritan, who stops to bandage the man’s wounds and saves his life. The fact that the hero of the story is a Samaritan, who stops to bandage the man’s wounds and saves his life. The fact that the hero of the story is a Samaritan might not mean much to you, but it meant a lot to the Jewish people who first listened to the story. Jews had nothing good to say about Samaritans. For Jews, Samaritans were outsiders who were always up to no good. No self-respecting Jew would ever help a Samaritan, nor would they expect a dirty-rotten Samaritan to show sympathy to a Jew. You can imagine how shocking it must have been to the Jewish listeners when, of all people, the Samaritan in the story is the one person who stops and cares for the dying man.
Two highly religious people saw a person in desperate need of help and did nothing. The Samaritan, the one with the questionable behavior and bad theology, was the one who showed mercy to the dying man and save his life. The Samaritan was the good neighbor, not the two religious men.
In telling this story, Jesus challenged his fellow Jews to go and live like the Samaritan, not like the people who believe they’re religiously superior to everyone around them. On another occasion, Jesus directed even harsher words toward the overly-religious people of his community, saying, “I assure you that tax collectors and prostitutes are entering God’s kingdom ahead of you.” (Matthew 12:31)
Does Jesus dislike people who are religious? No. However, Jesus does get frustrated when people’s religious beliefs prevent them from showing grace and mercy. In the case of the priest and Levite, both of them thought they were doing the right thing by avoiding the dying man. They knew their Bibles well and knew that touching a dead man would have made them ritually unclean (Numbers 19:11). But the way Jesus tells the story, the priest and Levite did the wrong thing because they failed to show mercy. They had biblical support for their actions, but they also left a man to die along the side of the road, which is just plain mean. It’s possible, then, that being ungracious or failing to show mercy overshadows any of our seemingly correct Christian beliefs or behaviors, even when they are supported with verses from the Bible. Sometimes right answers aren’t enough.
I’m not asking you to minimize the beliefs that help you make sense of your Christian faith. The denomination and church to which you belong is part of a long history of interpreting what Jesus and the Bible teaches. We should never stop discussing and debating what it means to be a Christian in our current contexts. However, I am asking you to remember that the point of the Christian life is neither to memorize Bible verses nor to declare a lot of right answers but to show mercy.
And the most merciful thing you could ever do for someone is to introduce them to the love of Jesus Christ.
A right answer won’t save anyone, but the grace and mercy of God in Jesus Christ is big enough to save the world.
Adam J. Rodgers is pastor of Stoneboro Presbyterian Church.