It was a very odd request for a religious retreat. “Think of someone you cannot stand,” the leader said. “I mean, someone you really despise. Don’t say their name out loud, but think of them. It might be an individual, someone you know. It might be a theoretical person – someone who represents something bigger. It might be a group or even nation of people. But make sure it’s someone you do not like – at all – and picture them in your mind.”
The person was a respected leader, so none of us really wanted to question them. But it did make us squirm a little.
I’m not used to being told there are people I don’t like. Okay, I’ll readily admit there are people who would fall on that list, but I don’t like to admit it. I like to think I’m better than that. And that, I came to discover, was the point of this exercise.
“Now that you’ve got that picture firmly in your mind,” the leader said, “I want to tell you a story. A person was going from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell among thieves…”
“Ah, I know this story,” I thought. “This is the good Samaritan. It’s a nice story. A couple of pompous people who think they’re better than others get caught out. They think they’re religious and important, but they won’t stop to help this poor guy lying in the ditch.”
I continued in my thinking, as the storyteller continued telling the story – kind of like a bit of background music that I didn’t need to pay too much attention to. Until…
“Now,” the leader said, “imagine you are the person lying in the ditch. You’re bleeding, you’re hurting. You’re not sure you can move because it feels like your leg is broken.
Two people – folks you know from church – came nearby but wouldn’t do anything. What are you going to do? Now, you hear one more set of footprints. Take that image I asked you to put in your mind earlier – the image of the person you cannot stand. Now, see them standing over you, asking, ‘are you okay?’ What do you do?”
I hadn’t quite expected that.
And maybe my “gulp” was akin to that of the people who first heard Jesus tell this story.
Jews and Samaritans did not like each other. They did not trust each other. It’s not that they out-and-out hated each other, they just thought the other was not nearly as good.
The other did things wrong – worshipped in the wrong place, held people to the wrong standards, etc., etc., etc. Over history, the “other” simply came to embody everything that was wrong with the world. All the bad things that happened? It was “their” fault.
And that’s probably why Jesus told this story.
Samaritans are not someone we deal with much. But this is a story not about racial and inter-religious relations 2,000 years ago – it’s about us. How do we envision the “other”? How much evil do we make them embody?
And what do we do when they – and they alone – are the ones to offer us help?
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