Why did the Samaritan cross the road? Why did the Samaritan cross the road? That’s basically it, right? That’s essentially what Jesus says, right? Kind of? Maybe? Why did the Samaritan cross the road?
Now, you’ve got to try pretty hard to get Jesus’ words into that exact format, but I think it’s doable. If you run his spoken Aramaic words through the written Greek format leaning heavily on a Latin filter before the English version pops out – those words still aren’t exactly what Jesus says, but I sure could make a more compelling case for it that way! Couldn’t I?
Why did the Samaritan cross the road? That’s basically the buildup. That’s essentially the essence of it all. But, I admit, the words Jesus speaks aren’t an exact match in that format. And I’ll tell you exactly why I think that is: because that format hadn’t exactly been created yet. In 1847 a New York magazine entitled the Knickerbocker first published it. Except they said “street” instead of “road” and “chicken” instead of “Samaritan.”
And their answer… (Do you know it? Do you know why the chicken crossed the street?) Yeah, to sell magazines. That’s right, to sell the magazines they had. No, because it’s funny. It’s funny – chickens crossing the street. It’s humorous. That’s why the chicken crossed the street – because it’s funny. Also, their actual printed response was, that’s right, “to get to the other side.”
Now, this format, this line, has survived for over 175 years now, since 1847. So, it begs the question, “Why do you think this laughable line has had the longevity it has had?” Yeah, because it’s funny. It’s humorous. But also because it’s so adaptable. It’s so malleable. You can make it fit just about anything you need. You can make it your own.
It’s also worth mentioning that the Knickerbocker back then didn’t even call this a joke. There was no joke section. There were no comics included. They used it as an illustration in an article about anti-humor: a quip that might seem like a riddle but offers us a straightforward, unfunny solution. That’s anti-humor.
So, when I go through the process of reduction and boil Jesus’ words down into this concentrated form (whether you think it’s a faithful paraphrase or not), when I claim that basically Jesus essentially said, “Why did the Samaritan cross the road?” how does that strike you? As a riddle or a joke or is it something more than either of those? Is it an illustration? Is it an example? Is it a model? Is it an explanation? Is it a case-in-point? Is it a for-instance?
And, while we’re on the topic, why did the Samaritan cross the road? What’s the answer? Is there an answer? Is there just one answer? Could it be multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank?
Now, this is where it starts to get more fun for me. We could continue to argue the rendering of Jesus’ words into this questionable quip, or we could argue the response. Let’s spend some time there now, shall we, with the response?
Question: why did the Samaritan cross the road?
Answer (and let’s keep it simple at first): maybe because he wanted to. Maybe, simply, because he had to. Maybe because something was blocking the other side. Maybe a mean looking chicken was already on that side and it forced him (the chicken forced him!) to cross the road. I don’t know. Do you know? Do you know? Who knows?
Why did the Samaritan cross the road? Maybe because he was a big fan of anti-humor. Perhaps crossing the road was easier than circling the road. Perhaps crossing the road was easier than crossing the Delaware. I don’t know.
Why did the Samaritan cross the road? Maybe because he was a funny, punny guy. Perhaps it was because he saw a Samaritan’s purse over there and it looked real nice and he wanted to go get it for his wife. I don’t know.
Why did the Samaritan cross the road? Do you know? Who knows?
But let’s travel a little more with this Samaritan, shall we? Let’s go a little deeper with this. If we want to get all the way in the real nitty-gritty with this, then let’s dive into the real nitty-gritty with this, shall we? Questioning the answer to this question is just like questioning the question itself. You can make it fit just about anything you need. You can make it your own. It’s so adaptable. It’s so malleable.
Why did the Samaritan cross the road? Really, the number of answers is limited only by the number of respondents. You can come up with any answer you want. And that’s exactly what people have done over the years with what Jesus said.
Maybe the Samaritan crossed the street because he wasn’t very street smart. The Samaritan lived in a different world than the priest and the Levite - same world, but different world – you know what I mean? You’re not always supposed to cross the street to check on a guy like that, you know. How do you know he’s actually hurt? How do you know he’s not just playing a trick on you? How do you know he doesn’t have a buddy waiting in the wings to jump you? You just don’t do that. You don’t go over there, you ditch the dude in the ditch because it might be a trap. It might be a setup and you yourself might end up stripped, beaten, half-dead, or worse.
Yeah, maybe the Samaritan crossed the street because he wasn’t very street smart. I had this answer given to me in Atlanta when I was leading a Bible study at a youth center. The kid said, “This story’s wack. You just ain’t supposed to do stuff like that. I wouldn’t have ever walked up to him.”
So, maybe the Samaritan crossed the road because he didn’t know the real-world road rules. Or maybe the Samaritan crossed the road because he did know. Maybe he knew all too well the religious rules of the day. The priest didn’t stop to help. The Levite didn’t stop to help either. Both are people who are connected to the religious institution of the day. Both are people who supposedly care for “the other.” Now, we can talk about purity laws. We can talk about clean and unclean and ritual holiness – complexities that both of them dealt with. We can talk about how they might have been on their way to helping someone else. We can talk about how they might have been late to a very important board meeting. But facts are facts, folks! And neither of them stopped. Neither of them helped this man lying half-dead in a ditch.
So, countless bloggers and endless articles, and all the nones (N-O-N-E-S) like to point out the church’s hypocrisy here. And they’ve got a point. Why did the Samaritan cross the road? Maybe he knew the underside of religious institutionalism all too well. Maybe he figured that the do-gooders weren’t going to do that man any good. So, he decided to help, because he assumed (correctly) that they wouldn’t.
Why did the Samaritan cross the road? Some joke that the Samaritan might have crossed the road to get away from Samaria. All of Jesus’ disciples wanted to avoid Samaria. Maybe the Samaritan was trying to do the same. William Barclay talks about this as “Samaritan-shame.”
Why did the Samaritan cross the road? Others still point to the complicated history of Samaria. The Samaritans were the ones who were allowed to stay after the Assyrians came while others were sent off into exile. So, some like to point out that many Samaritans benefitted from the banishment of their brothers and sisters. Amy-Jill Levine wonders if the Samaritan was suffering from “Samaritan-guilt” perhaps.
Why did the Samaritan cross the road? Was it “Samaritan-shame”? Was it “Samaritan-guilt”? Was it righteous indignation? Was it religious hypocrisy? Why did the Samaritan cross the road? We can come up with as many answers as we want. To be funny. To be practical. To get away from some feeling. To get closer to some meaning. The answers are limitless! To assist, to humor, to take care of, to play a part of, to alleviate another or alleviate himself …
Why did the Samaritan cross the road? The truth is, we can come up with all the answers we want because, ultimately, Jesus doesn’t say. All Jesus does is tell us a story – a story about one guy in a ditch and two other guys who walk by without stopping to help. But then a Samaritan who does. Jesus gives no rationale. Jesus gives no punchline. Jesus gives no final conclusion.
The closest we get to an explanation is in the brief introduction to this Samaritan stranger when Jesus says, “But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity” (10:33). “Moved with pity.” I love that phrase. What do you think it means? What does it mean to you? “Moved with pity.”
Pity can mean a lot of different things. Pity can be a feeling: a feeling of sorrow, a feeling of compassion. It can come from another’s misfortunes. It can come from looking at one’s own lamentations. Pity can be a feeling; it can be a co-feeling, a shared feeling with another, for another, caused by another. Pity can also be causal itself. It can be a result, an effect, an outcome from a feeling. Pity can be a cause caused by regret or disappointment: What a pity! What a shame! What a shameful pitiful pity!
The word “pity” does mean something, but “pity” is a pretty vague term to say the least. Truly, it’s a pitiful term if you’re attempting to parse out an explanation here. That’s why some translations avoid the word “pity” altogether, and they say something like “deeply moved.” I think this cheats the language in our text today, but it reveals a nuance. You see, at its root, the word “pity” is connected to the word for bowels – for the innards, from the gut.
So, in the story Jesus tells, “a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity” (10:33) … moved with compassion … deeply moved … moved from deep within … moved from his gut to help this man. And so, help this man he did: oil, wine, bandages, animal, inn, denarii. So, help this man he did!
Now, let’s pause to recalibrate for a second: we’ve rephrased Jesus’ story into a question, we’ve established that the question has more answers than we’ll ever be able to get to, and the only rational conclusion Jesus alludes to is based on someone’s gut-instinct, and that’s it, so … hmmmmmm … I think it’s time to bring in the lawyer. Don’t you?
We haven’t talked much about the lawyer yet, but he was the catalyst for this world story (at least this retelling of this whole story). He “stood up to test Jesus” the text tells us. He knows the law (10:28). He talks about “eternal life.” He wants to “justify himself” the text says. And he wants to know what it means to be a “neighbor.” And, ultimately, Jesus lets him answer his own question by putting it back directly to him.
There was one who followed his gut to help another in the story Jesus told. Then Jesus asked the lawyer what his gut said about being neighborly. Basically, Jesus essentially asks: “Why did the Samaritan cross the road?” Knowing there are limitless answers that could come from this. Knowing that the lawyer would have to think about it right then and there on the spot. Knowing that he would have to give voice to his own sort of gut-reaction.
Basically, Jesus essentially looks straight back at the lawyer and frames it in such a way as to say, “The Samaritan acted from his gut, now what does your gut tell you?” Basically, Jesus essentially asks the question, “Why did this Samaritan cross the road?” And the lawyer answers: to show “mercy.” Intriguing answer, right? Compelling answer, right? Nowhere else in the passage does the word “mercy” appear. But yet, that’s how the lawyer responds. Out of literally a limitless number of responses available to him, he comes up with: “the one who showed him mercy.”
Now, questioning the answer to this question is just like questioning the question itself. You can make it fit just about anything you need. You can make it your own. It’s so adaptable. It’s so malleable.
What was it about what Jesus said… or better yet, what was it that the lawyer heard… that made the lawyer say “mercy”? Not love. Not kindness. Not faithfulness. Mercy. Not gentleness. Not generosity but mercy. Out of any and every response the lawyer could have given, he chose to respond with “mercy.”
Then Jesus simply says, “Go and do likewise.”
How interesting! Maybe that’s what he needed to say. Maybe that’s what the lawyer needed to feel. Maybe that’s what he needed to experience that day. Maybe that’s why Jesus left it open like that.
Why did the Samaritan cross the road? The lawyer answers, to show “mercy.” Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.” What about you? What’s in your gut? What’s your answer today?
You see, this whole thing - it’s funny and it’s not funny at all, it’s humorous and it’s anti-humor. There are literally limitless ways to answer this question, but if you were to offer up the most straightforward solution in your mind right now, what would you say?
What’s your answer? Why did the Samaritan cross the road? Now, “Go and do likewise.”
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen.