Beyond US and THEM – a twist on the parable of the Good Samaritan

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.” 28And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” 29But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” 
(Luke 10:25-29)

So Jesus told him a joke.

A Jewish guy and a Chinese guy walk into a bar …

OK, it wasn’t that one, but I’ll come back to that one for those who haven’t heard it, and if you haven’t heard that one you’ve heard others like it that work off racial stereotypes. When I was a boy I used to hear jokes like that all the time. Most of them targeted the Irish and were always highlighting apparent stupidity!

I have no idea how the Irish managed to be stereotyped in that way as I have never heard any evidence suggesting that Irish persons really do have below average IQ’s. Perhaps it was all a vestige of my Protestant heritage, targeting the Southern Irish.    I really don’t know, but it’s easy to target a group like the Irish when you don’t know any Irish people or anything about them.  Racial stereotypes thrive on ignorance!

The other racially-orientated jokes I was familiar with in my youth were Scottish jokes, and that was because I’d been left a set of ancient Scottish joke-books by my great-grandparents who were Scottish. I still have those books – so old that they had no dates in them and were illustrated with traditional wood-print etchings!

My favourite book in the collection was entitled “Canny Tales Fae Aberdeen” and my favourite canny tale in the book concerned a gift shop opened by Scott McTavish in the main street of Aberdeen.

Shortly after opening, Scott’s friend, Sandy McTaggart, wanders in and says “Weel, this is a lovely wee shop you have here, Scott, all except for the blind in the window. It’s awfully shabby. Have you thought of getting a new one?” Scott grumbles about the cost of new blinds but assures Sandy “I’ll see what I can do?”  Only a few weeks later Sandy passes the shop again and notices a lovely new blind hanging in the window! He congratulates his friend “that’s a lovely frilly blind you’ve got, Scott, but how did you afford it?” Scott replied, “it was easier than I thought, Sandy. I just put a box on the counter here, labelled ‘for the blind’ and I got more than I needed!”

I find it easy to laugh at a joke like that as I’m laughing at my own ethnic heritage, and it’s from a book of Scottish jokes put together by Scots for Scots. That’s not the norm. We don’t normally tell jokes about ourselves. You don’t hear many jokes playing off stereotypes of the white Australian community (or at least I don’t hear many). I do remember one – an account by a traveller to our shores who was saying that he’d heard bad things about Australians before coming here, but once he got here he found Australians to be some of the most generous and hospitable people he’d ever encountered. He then added that it was only the white bastards that he couldn’t get on with! That traveller was Irish comedian, Dave Allen. Touche!

Yes, if we hear white-Australian jokes they are likely to come from an outsider. White Australians are far more likely to tell jokes about Asians or Arabs or about our Indigenous brothers and sisters, most of which make me cringe when I hear them.

Mind you, I do remember hearing one joke about Indigenous Australians that I was told was approved by the Aboriginal Land Council. I shudder to repeat it except that I think it’s worth sharing. It concerns a white Australian guy who runs over a group of Aboriginal people in his car while driving at high speed on a dirt road out in the bush.

The man doesn’t know what to do after the accident so he decides to bury the bodies. Just as he’s completing his grisly task, a police-car pulls up and asks him what he’s doing. He figures it’s best to be honest and tells the police how he’d run over a group of Aboriginal people and was now burying them. The police ask “were they all dead?” to which he replies “well, some of them said they weren’t but you know what lying devils they all are!”

That’s probably the only time you’ll ever hear that joke told in church, and it’s one of those jokes where the joke is really on us, and where our reaction to the joke is probably pretty close to the sort of reaction Jesus got to a lot of the jokes he told!

‘Did you hear the one about the Jewish guy who was travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hands of robbers?’ (Luke 10:30)

This is Jesus’ joke and most of us know it well, and we recognise it as a Samaritan joke, playing off that familiar form of racial stereotyping.  I suspect Samaritan jokes were a common source of humour in Jesus’ day, and I don’t doubt that a lot of Samaritan jokes would have been passed around between the disciples during their three years with Jesus, even if this is the only one that ever made it into print.

Now, in case you don’t know anything about Samaritans, let me tell you a thing or two about them. First of all, they are a lazy breed of people – all of them! They live on government welfare benefits because they can’t be bothered to get jobs. They sit around all day spending your hard-earned tax dollars on beer and pot, and the only reason they come to this country is so that they can take our women and take our jobs …  hang one a sec! They can’t be taking our jobs if they’re not working, can they? I’m getting a little mixed up but you get the basic idea. I’ll get back to the joke.

“A [Jewish] man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.” (Luke10:30-33)

“As if!” I hear you say! ‘As if a Samaritan would stop for a wounded Jew out of pity?  If a Samaritan stops near the prostrate body of a Jew, it’s to put the boot in! We know what these people are like, and they’re all the same!’

I think that’s why Jesus goes on to fill in the details of His story, lest we fill them in with our imagination.

“[The Samaritan] went to [the injured Jew] and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.35The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’” (Luke 10:34-35)

This is an offensive story because we all know that a Samaritan wouldn’t do that.  We know what they are like. They aren’t the sort of persons who care about us. We’ve heard of plenty of stories like this, of course – true stories – but they generally have the Samaritans playing the role of the robbers who beat up on the defenceless Jew and not the other way around. Of course, this is just a story!

That’s the weakness of Jesus’ joke, of course, or at least it seems to be. It’s a story about a Samaritan who doesn’t perform in accordance with the stereotype we constructed for him. Even so, it’s just a story and we’ve got no reason to believe that it was a true story. Do Samaritans ever really behave like that? None that I know of!

If we feel tempted to think that way, it shows that we didn’t actually get the joke, which is not really a joke about Samaritans but it’s one where the joke is on us!

It easy to miss the punchline in this joke as it actually comes quite early in the story!

“Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.” (Luke 10:31-32)

I know we covered that part of the story already, but were you offended by it?

I remember, as a youth, being brought up in the church and listening to sermons on this passage where the preacher would often speculate at this point of the story as to why the good guys – the priest and the Levite – would pass by on the other side.

After all, priests and Levites are a part of our tribe. They are one of us (or two of us) and they are exactly the persons we would expect to stop and help one of us if one of us where in trouble.

And so preachers speculate:

  • Perhaps the priest was late for his synagogue service?
  • Perhaps they were worried that the man was dead, meaning that they would be rendered ritually unclean if they touched the dead man’s body?
  • Perhaps they were concerned that the robbers who assaulted the man were lying in wait for another victim?

It was my friend Stephen Sizer (an Anglican priest in London) who pointed out to me that Jesus actually makes it quite clear why these two avoid the injured man. Indeed, it’s stated quite explicitly in the opening words of the joke.

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.”

The robbers left the man naked and half-dead (in other words, unconscious), meaning that the priest and Levite couldn’t see his clothing nor hear his accent.  They therefore had no way of knowing whether he was one of us or one of them!

This is how we distinguish between us and them. We discriminate on the basis of the way we dress and the way we speak. When someone says “G’day mate!”, he’s one of us! When someone speaks with a ‘funny’ accent, she’s one of them! When you see someone wearing a hijab, she’s one of them, and when you see a guy with a big, square beard, you know he’s one of them – a Muslim (or maybe a hipster).

I do have a problem with my stereotypes in that area. How many times have I been about to say ‘Salam Aleykum’ to someone with a great big beard when I’ve noticed that they’re drinking beer … out of a jar!

Even so, this is the way, and it’s generally the only way, that we can tell whether somebody is one of us or one of them – by looking at the way they dress and by listening to the way they speak, and in Jesus’ joke, in the case of the injured man, the priest and the Levite don’t stop because the man was naked and unconscious, and so they couldn’t tell whether he was one of us or one of them.

The shocking thing about the Samaritan in this story then is not simply that he is an impossibly nice guy who doesn’t fit his racial stereotype but it’s rather that he himself is one who doesn’t pay attention to racial stereotypes! He just doesn’t care whether the injured guy is one of his own or not! He doesn’t care whether he is a Jew or an Arab, and obviously neither does Jesus!

‘Go and do likewise’ Jesus says, and in case you misunderstood the punchline here, the challenge is not simply to ‘go and do likewise’ in terms of finding an injured guy and putting him on your donkey and taking him to a hospital, but rather the far simpler yet far more radical challenge of going and doing like the Samaritan does in showing an utter disregard for the distinction between us and them!

A Jewish guy and a Chinese guy walk into a bar. They don’t know each other but they sit next to each other at the bar as they knock back the schooners. With each drink the Jewish guy gets more surly. Eventually he turns to the Chinese guy and pours his beer over the other man’s head, saying “that’s for Pearl Harbour! My grandfather was killed at Pearl Harbour”! The Chinese guy is aghast and says ‘that was the Japanese, you idiot! I’m Chinese!’ His antagonist shrugs, ‘Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese – what’s the difference? You’re all the same.

The Chinese guy orders himself another beer and pours it over the Jewish guy’s head. That’s for the Titanic’ he says. ‘My great-uncle drowned on the Titanic!’ ‘I’m Jewish’, says the other guy. ‘What have I to do with sinking the Titanic?’ ‘Feinberg, Steinberg, iceberg – what’s the difference? You’re all the same!’ he says.

The truth is that they are not all the same, and the deeper truth, of course, is there is no ‘they’. I quoted Matthew Bolz-Weber last week in saying that “whenever we draw a line between us and them, we’ll always find the Lord Jesus standing on the other side of that line”, and isn’t that exactly what we discover here? Perhaps you thought that the “no Jew, no Greek, no slave, no free” thinking started with St Paul.  No! It all starts here, in the jokes of Jesus!

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” That was the original question that prompted the joke.  The answer, it seems, according to Jesus, has a lot to do with letting go of the distinction between us and them!

First preached at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on July 10th, 2016

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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