I’ve had it sitting in my sermon file for years, a review of the book,In the Land of Magic Soldiers: A Story of White and Black in West Africa, by the journalist Daniel Bergner, whose book documents the gruesome aftermath of the civil war in Sierra Leone.
The title of Bergner’s book refers to the popular— desperate— belief in the region that certain rituals, going even to the extreme of cannabalism, will guarantee immunity to bullets. Hence, the term “magic soliders.”
What caught my attention in the review is the section that begins with this line: “What is of value in this book is less what it says about Sierra Leone than about the human condition.”
Specifically, the reviewer is referring to one human, Neall Ellis, whose story in the book says something offensive about the lot of us.
Neall Ellis is a white avaitor from South Africa. After a brief stint in the Rhodesian Army, he joined the South African Air Force, where he was awarded the Honoris Crux in 1983, and later attained field rank.
After retiring from the SAAF, Ellis used his savings and retirement funds to pay the tuition costs for local schoolchildren in war torn Sierra Leone.
He sent one young woman all the way to England, set her up with lodging, and paid her way through nursing school and, after nursing school, midwifery school.
He covered all the expenses of another young man’s medical school education in Johannesburg, as well as the extensive plastic surgeries required by a young woman who had been badly burned during the conflict in Sierra Leone.
And not just her— Ellis raised the funds to construct an entire burn hospital.
I’ve got a c-note that says it’s named after the Good Samaritan.
Ellis told the journalist that he was building the hospital, “because right now there isn’t a place like that in the whole of Sierra Leone, nowhere a victim can go to get that type of treatment. Seeing such a need, I can’t just pass on by.”
Admit it— you expect a sermon on this parable to segway into an illustration just like this of some real-life Good Samaritan making good on the lessons we all learned in Kindergarten.
Whenever you hear the Parable of the Good Samaritan, you expect to hear a story about someone like Neal Ellis.
Well, here’s the rest of Neal Ellis’ story.
After he retired from the South African Air Force in the 1980’s, Neal Ellis took a job as a mercenary for the government of Sierra Leone, piloting the sole combat helicopter the nation owned.
He took the job not for the pay, he admitted to the journalist, but for the work. He loved the thrill of rocketing and machine-gunning from the air, confessing to Bergner: “It’s better than sex. . . . There’s a lot of adrenaline going. You’re all keyed up, and when you realize you’re on target, that you’ve taken out the enemy, it’s a great feeling.”
According to Human Rights Watch, they’ve documented dozens of dead and wounded civilians, women and children, in scores of towns that Neal Ellis attacked. The burn victims whose medical bills Neal Ellis covers— Neal Ellis is responsible for their condition.
They’re in the hospital, because he put them there.
Even after In the Land of Magic Soldiers went to print, Ellis emailed the author mentioning another civil war that had broken out on the continent and how he was “hoping for a possible contract.”
Writing about Neal Ellis, journalist Daniel Bergner doesn’t call him a Good Samaritan.
Instead, Ellis makes Bergner question if there’s any such thing as a Good Samaritan.
Until the complexity of casting someone like Neal Ellis as Jesus’ protagonist in today’s parable has stuck in your craw, you’ve not really comprehended Christ’s answer to the lawyer.
We’ve all heard about the Good Samaritan so many times the offense of the parable passes us by.
It’s so obvious we never notice it: Jesus told this story to Jews.
The lawyer who tries to trap Jesus, the twelve disciples who’ve just returned from the mission field, and the crowd that’s gathered round to hear about their Kingdom, work.
Every last listener is a Jew.
And so, when Jesus tells a story about a priest who comes across a man lying naked, and maybe dead in a ditch, when Jesus says that priest passed him on by, none of Jesus’ listeners would’ve batted an eye.
When Jesus says, “So there’s this priest who came across a naked, maybe dead, maybe not even Jewish body on the roadside and he passed by on the other side,” NO ONE in Jesus’ audience would’ve reacted with anything like, “That’s outrageous!”
When Jesus says, “There’s this priest and he came across what looked like a naked, dead body in the ditch, so he crossed to other side and passed on by,” EVERYONE in Jesus’ audience would’ve been thinking, “What’s your point? Of course, he passed by on the other side. That’s what a priest must do.”
Ditto, the Levite.
No one hearing Jesus tell this story would’ve been offended by their passing on by.
No one would’ve been outraged.
As soon as they saw the priest enter the story, they would’ve expected him to keep on walking.
The priest had no choice— for the greater good.
According to the Law, to touch the man in the ditch would ritually defile the priest.
Under the Law, such defilement would require at least a week of purification rituals during which time the priest would be forbidden from collecting tithes, which means that for a week or more the distribution of alms to the poor would cease.
And, if the priest ritually defiled himself and did not perform the purification obligation, if he ignored the Law and tried to get away with it and got caught then, (according to the Mishna), the priest would be taken out to the Temple Court and beaten in the head with clubs.
Now, of course, that strikes us as god-awful.
But, the point of Jesus’ parable passes us by when we forget the fact that none of Jesus’ listeners would’ve felt that way.
As soon as they see a priest and a Levite step onto the stage, they would not have expected either to do anything but, exactly, what Jesus says they did.
If Jesus’ listeners wouldn’t expect the priest or the Levite to do anything, then what the Samaritan does isn’t the point of the parable.
If there’s no shock or outrage at what appears to us a lack of compassion, then— no matter how many hospitals we name after this story— the act of compassion isn’t the lesson of the story.
If no one would’ve taken offense that the priest did not help someone in need, then helping someone in need is not this teaching’s takeaway.
The takeaway is the who, who is doing the helping.
The point of the parable doesn’t start with the what, but the who.
Just like Neal Ellis, this Samaritan has a more complicated backstory.
In Jesus’ own day a mob of Samaritans had traveled to Jerusalem, which they didn’t recognize as the holy city of David, and at night they broke into the Temple, which they didn’t believe held the presence of Yahweh, and they ransacked it.
And then they littered it with the remains of human corpses, bodies they dug up and bodies killed.
Whereas, the priest and the Levite would not touch a dead body in the ditch out of deference to the Law and it’s ritual obligations, the Samaritans made a mockery of God’s Law by vandalizing the Temple with bodies they’d robbed from the grave.
In Jesus’ day there was no such thing as a Good Samaritan.
That’s why, when the parable’s finished and Jesus asks his final question, the lawyer can’t even stomach to say the word “Samaritan.” “The one who showed mercy” is all the lawyer can spit out through clenched teeth.
You see, the shock of Jesus’ story isn’t that the priest and the Levite fail to do anything positive for the man in the ditch.
The shock is that Jesus does anything positive with the Samaritan in the story.
The offense of the parable is that Jesus casts someone like a Samaritan as the protagonist.
We get it all backwards.
Jesus isn’t inviting us to see ourselves as the bringer of aid to the person in need.
How flattering is that?
It says a lot about our privilege that we automatically identify with the rescuer in the story.
We get it backwards.
Jesus isn’t saying that loving our neighbor means caring for someone in need.
Of course, loving your neighbor means caring for someone in need.
But that’s not what Jesus is doing here.
Not only do we forget that every last listener in Luke 10 is a Jew, seldom do we notice what prompts Jesus’ story in the first place.
What does Luke tell you?
Luke reports, “The lawyer, wanting to justify himself, asked Jesus: ‛Who is my neighbor?’”
This lawyer is attempting to establish his enoughness before God all on his own.
This is what Jesus is picking apart with his parable.
Jesus shows you what St. Paul tells you in Galatians— that, if justification could come through our keeping of the commandments, (if it was as easy as this lawyer supposes), then Christ died for absolutely nothing.
So, what does Jesus do to this lawyer and his self-justification project?
To this expert in the Law, Jesus tells a story where the hero is the personification of unrighteousness under the Law.
Jesus skewers the lawyer’s good, godly self-image by spinning a story starring an ungodly sort like Neal Ellis.
And then, like Jesus does in the sermon on the mount, Jesus amps up the expectations to an impossible degree. Jesus overwhelms the lawyer by crediting to the Samaritan a whopping fourteen verbs worth of compassion and care, count them up.
And finally, in order to blow the lawyer’s self-righteousness to smithereens, Jesus lowers the boom and says, “Go and do likewise.”
This is where our reading of this passage tends to run off the rails. What Jesus is driving at here with his, “Go and do,” is heavy, and the demand is the same for me, and it’s the same for you too.
Go and do like that Samaritan, Jesus is saying, help every single person in need who comes your way, regardless of how busy you are.
No matter the circumstances, no matter the cost, no matter the safety. Book them a room. Give the front desk your Amex Gold Card and put no restrictions on room service.
And do it, Jesus is saying, like that Samaritan. Do it with the purest of intentions, with no thought about yourself, without any expectation of recriprocation or promise of reward. Do it spontaneously, provoked solely by the love of God alone, and do not be disappointed when they recidivize.
Do it just like that— spend fourteen verbs on every single person. Do it no matter if they’re wearing a “MAGA” hat or a “Black Lives Matter” tee.
Do all of that, perfectly, from the heart, and on your own, all by your lonesome, you will be justified.
How’s that working for you?
This parable is not about helping people in need.
This parable is about helping you recognize your need.
For a savior.
YOU’RE THE ONE IN THE DITCH!
And while we were yet enemies, when there was “no health in us” and we were as good as dead in our trespasses, the Son of God condescended to us— he took flesh— and he got down into the ditch with us and he loved you, his neighbor, more than himself, carrying you in his body, lavishing upon you his every last verb, sparing no expense, until his love for you drove him to fall among thieves, bloodied and beaten and ditched by a world too busy to do anything, but pass him by.
In his book,In the Land of Magic Soldiers, journalist Daniel Bergner doesn’t call Neal Ellis a Good Samaritan.
He calls him “a haunting figure…haunting, because the strange blend of compassion and cruelty in his life is a reminder of what we all carry within us. He’s a reminder of how fragile is our human predicament and of how we are all in need not only of rescue, but also repair.”
Or, as the Apostle Paul puts in Romans, rectification.
We’re in need not only of rescue, but also rectification.
We’re the ones in the ditch.
But before Jesus Christ departed us by Death and Resurrection, he left us not his Discover Card, but his Holy Spirit.
He left us his Holy Spirit to nurse us back into health.
He left us his Holy Spirit to rehabilitate us.
To rectify— to make right— the image in which God, the Father Almighty made you.
Before he left, he left you his Holy Spirit.
And his Holy Spirit, the Apostle Paul writes to the Ephesians, is the deposit that guarantees the inheritance this lawyer was inquiring about with Jesus.
The Holy Spirit is the deposit of eternity in time.
The Holy Spirit is the present-tense downpayment of the future life this lawyer seeks.
That’s this lawyer’s other error; he thinks eternal life can only begin somewhere down the line past the present.
As Karl Barth liked to joke—what sort of eternal life would it be if it begins after something else? If eternal life is eternal, it cannot come after anything.
Because it’s eternal, it’s always already and always ongoing, and though it is always also still not yet, the Holy Spirit is the deposit of it in the here and now.
The Holy Spirit is the deposit of the not yet in the now.
The practices of the faith, therefore, the work we engage in the Spirit:
The sandwiches you make at the mission center;
The tutoring you contribute to at-risk kids;
The service you offer to our neighbors;
The shelter you provide for the homeless, and
The support you send to churches along the border.
They are not ways we in Christ’s stead help the poor.
They are the ways that Christ’s Spirit uses the poor to heal us.
They are not ways we rescue the needy stranger.
They are ways the Spirit rectifies the stranger in need that you call “you.”
They are not ways we go and do likewise— there’s only one way for us to be justified.
The practices of the faith— they are not ways we go and do.
They are ways we are done to.
Done to by the Holy Spirit.
Until the Holy Spirit has rendered us likewise.
We’re all born lawyers.
We need to be made Christians.
So hear the Good News:
While we were yet enemies, Christ died for your sins and was raised for your justification to be given to you not as your wage for what you go and do, but as an unconditional gift, no matter where you go or what you do.
By grace through faith, you already possess irrevocably what that lawyer pursued.
But your rectification?
For that, our Rescuer has left his Spirit.
So all you lawyers, lay all your doings down.
They can’t cure what ails you still.
Lay all your doings down.
And come to the table.
Come and be done to.
Come and be done to by the Spirit of our Good Samaritan.
Come, and with bread and wine, be done to by the Spirit of the Samaritan, who is determined not only to rescue you from the ditch of Sin and Death, but to bind up all your wounds, heal your every affliction, and strengthen you in your weakness until you are what you eat.