2000 years have passed since Jesus taught in parables to his disciples and the curious crowds. And in those 2000 years, there have been at LEAST 2000 original explanations for what those parables mean. That's the problem with parables: when Jesus neglects to give us a detailed explanation, we scurry to quickly explain them ourselves. Our search for clarity isn't a bad thing; most of the time, our desire to better understand Jesus and his teachings comes from a desire to obediently and wholeheartedly follow God's will. But the dark side of our search for understanding is when we think that we've “got it.” Because that's usually the place where parables cease to have power over us; when we're sure we understand, we've also probably shielded ourselves from the sting and scandal of Jesus' words. Which is why, this morning, I want to retell you the parable of the Good Samaritan. But this time I'm going to try and make it sting just like it stung the first folks who Jesus told it to. Like one of my favorite authors said, “If you read Jesus' words and you aren't mad, you're probably reading them wrong.”
He lay gasping for air, the sharp pains in his chest signaling that his ribs were probably broken in several places. He kept blinking to keep his eyes clear as the cut on his forehead kept pumping out a stream of stinging blood to the time of his heart beat. He would have wiped the blood away with his hands but the muggers had done a thorough job and he could just as easily have starred in the next Iron Man movie as move his shattered fingers. The best he could do was let his head loll to the side and watch his life drip off the side of his nose. It was dark, the deep dark of the night when dawn is still just a hope on whispering lips. The yellow-hued streetlights flickered unreliably and so his foot was the only part of him really visible on the broken and uneven sidewalk that he had formerly walked along. It struck him as deeply unjust that if he was going to die here, “Staying Alive” by the bee-gees was a terrible last song to serenade him out. Why hadn’t they taken his Ipod?
Pain has a way of muddling your perception of time, so he didn’t know if he’d been laying there for 1 minute of 1 hour when he heard a muffled voice approaching. The blood loss was making him drowsy but if he squinted just right he could make out the figure that bobbed in an out of the dim lights along the opposite side of the road. It was…a…guy? In fatigues. Reminded him of his friend Rich from college who’d dropped out and gone to basic and eventually become an officer. Was that army? Or marines? Regardless, there he was, flipping through his smartphone screen, blithely confident in his ability to defend himself from the dangers of late night strolls through the inner city. What was South Dallas to a man who’d survived Baghdad?
Here was his chance. He tried to yell out for help, but all he could manage through his gritted teeth was a guttural moan that cut through the night. He watched the soldier looked up startled, immediately checking his angles and feeling for the small of his back where he apparently carried his gun. He twitched his foot to catch the man’s eye, and for a moment felt hope run through him like warm coffee. But the hope spilled out of him like his blood continued to do, as he watched the soldier take a hesitant step forward and then back. He couldn’t be sure, but in the light it seemed like the soldier’s face got white and his breathing got shallow and he covered his face as he ran through the night, away from the horror of his broken body. PTSD was a bitch.
He coughed once and regretted it. There was lots to regret about tonight, foremost being the idea that he could somehow take a quick walk from his house to a gas station to pick up some cigarettes at 2am. He’d never worried about the streets where he lived before, never suspected his neighbors, never thought he’d spend his Saturday night laying half sprawled in the grass hoping for a stranger to call 911. Was he going to die here? Who would take care of his dog or call his family?
He rolled his eyes and took a breath (ouch) and managed to roll himself onto his side. If he was going to die here, he could at least check out the scenery. And that’s when he saw her. Was it a her? He’d never seen a woman wearing a priest’s collar before. She had blonde hair just like his high school girlfriend, the kind of blonde that he was sure no human actually came by naturally. And heels? If he’d known priests wore shoes like that, he would have gone to church more often. She was tall and looked like she moonlit as a karate instructor, with a fast gait and eyes that told him she brooked no nonsense. He knew he’d lost a lot of blood when he thought about calling out and asking for her phone number. Last rites would probably be more appropriate.
It took him a moment to realize they were staring at each other; judging by the horror written across her face, he looked even worse than he felt. And he felt pretty bad. Just like the soldier had, she rocked back and forth on her feet, as if her body and mind were at odds with each other about what to do next. Her hands closed and opened erratically and he tried to imagine those hands holding his own while he sat in a hospital bed. And then he watched her slowly back away from him (even though they were separated by a whole two lane road). He liked to think that he saw the glowing face of her phone light up as she walked away; maybe she was calling the police….maybe someone would help him. Someone, please help me…please.
It was hard to stay awake. The pains of his body rippled through his consciousness and in his daze he could imagine that he was only just resting here on this fragment of sidewalk and desiccated patch of grass. He suspected that this was shock, that his brain was scrambling to mitigate the violence he’d just experienced, but all he knew was that it was late and dark and he hurt (so bad, so bad) and all he wanted to do was fall asleep (even though somewhere deep in his subconscious a voice cried out a warning: STAY AWAKE, STAY AWAKE, LIVE, STAY AWAKE!). He would close his eyes for just a moment. Just a moment and then he’d try again to lift up his wounded limbs and find the help he needed. Just closed for a minute…
“Hey. Hey! Man, are you okay? What happened to you? Can you hear me?!”
He tried to respond, but it seemed he was trying to swim through a pressing darkness to the voice calling to him.
“Look, I’m going to call an ambulance. Can you hear me? Wake up man! You’ve got to stay awake!”
He could feel his eyelids fluttering, and swimming against the tide of unconsciousness, he said “Okay, okay, I’m awake.”
“Damn, damn, I’ve got no cell reception here. Look, I’m going to get my car and drive you to the hospital. Stay awake man. I’m coming back. I’m coming back!”
It was quiet again, quiet except for the pounding of feet as his frantic stranger ran towards their car. Foot steps and far away noises of cars and the frantic barking of dogs, and wind blowing through drought-stricken trees and windows banging loose in their frames, and the slow beating of his heart and the shallow pace of his own breath, and the low murmur of his ipod as “I got you babe” sang tinnily through his speakers and into the cement where the earphones had fallen. And somewhere in the midst of all the noise and all the silence and all the pain and all the blackness he felt himself being lifted (OH GOD HOW COULD IT HURT MORE) from the ground and laid across the fabric of a backseat and then he knew nothing else.
When he woke again (minutes later? Hours later?) he found himself in a hospital room, his clothing gone and replaced with thin fabric shells and cords and stitches and beeping monitors spelling out his vitals in a visceral morse code. He would have jerked in surprise except he was wholly incapable of anything more than a low moan and a slow glance around the room to gather his surroundings. It would have been a normal hospital room if not for the uniformed police officer standing at the foot of his bed.
“Son, can you hear me?” The cop moved to the side of his bed and sat down in the closest chair, pulling out her pad of paper and a pen. “Yes,” he croaked. “Good. Now, I’ll be getting your statement about who did this” she gestured expressively to the battered state of his lower half “but first we need to deal with the man who brought you here. Did he tell you anything? Do you know why he stopped for you? Were you supposed to meet with him?” He looked at her in surprise and confusion, her tense and clipped questions becoming more and more alarming. A light movement at the door to his room caught his eye and he realized there were suited men listening to their conversation. If he was watching a political thriller, he would have sworn those two were federal agents.
“Son, I need you to answer me.” She was fierce but also a little scared.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I remember someone picking me up and telling me they were taking me to a hospital but I don’t remember anything else.”
One of the men in the doorway moved quickly into the center of the room. “Son, the man who brought you into the hospital was Omar Shafik Hammami, one of the FBI’s most wanted terrorists. And not only did he bring you hear at risk to himself, but he also left a suitcase of money next to you filled with close to $200k and a note that said ‘for the medical bills.’ Who were you to Mr Shafik? Why would he risk himself to help you? Who was he to you?”
He didn’t know how to respond to that question. He didn’t know how to respond to any of this: to the mugging and the strangers who abandoned him to suffering to his miraculous rescue or this sudden interrogation. He’d just wanted some cigarettes.
“Son. Who was he to you?”
Who was he? He was the man who saw him. He was the man who had stopped for him. He was the man who had mercy on him. He was the one who had come back. He was the one who had saved his life. He was the one who risked everything for him. And apparently, he was also a terrorist. Who was he?
He closed his eyes, and took a breath. And another. And another. For a while there, he hadn’t been sure about how many more breaths he would have. He breathed and remembered the faces of the ones who passed him by and the voice of the one who stopped for him and he said:
“Who was he? I guess….I guess he was my neighbor.”