Jesus used this parable to challenge the religious establishment of His day. Today, the parable compels us to challenge our own community of faith, an American Church that is only belatedly responding to the AIDS pandemic, which last year alone killed 3 million people. Most of them were in Africa.
The lesson, which begins in Luke 10:25, answers one of the most profound questions in all of Scripture, asked in the story by an expert in the law: "Who is my neighbor?"
We find Jesus' answer in the actions of the four main characters: the victim, the priest, the Levite and the Samaritan.
The only thing we know for certain about the victim is that he was in dire need: beaten, wounded, bleeding, and possibly dying. We don't know why he was beaten. He may have been an "innocent" victim, unjustly attacked. He may have been a robber, beaten by fellow thieves. Jesus did not feel that it was relevant whether the man who had been beaten was at fault.
Today, as many as 46 million people are infected with the AIDS virus. In southern Africa, one in five adults is infected. If Jesus, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, did not distinguish between those who became victims because of sinful behavior and those who were innocent victims, should we? In truth, we are bound by Scripture to respond to all those beaten and left by the side of the road by this devastating virus.
Scripture makes clear who has the right and the responsibility to judge: It is God, not us. Yet we judge people with AIDS. We conveniently forget that we all would be dead if we faced such a certain death for any of our sins - including indifference to those who are suffering.
That sin, of course, is the only one Jesus condemns in the story of the Good Samaritan, and is embodied by the next two characters in the drama: the priest and the Levite. They represent the religious establishment of the day. We are told that they saw the man and yet they passed by on the other side of the road, unwilling to help. They knew what was right, but failed to act.
In 2002, World Vision commissioned a study through the Barna Research Group to determine the willingness of the Christian community to get involved in fighting the AIDS epidemic. When evangelical Christians were asked whether they would be willing to donate money to help children orphaned by AIDS, only 3 percent answered that they definitely would. More than half said that they probably or definitely would not help. The survey found that by many measures, non-Christians were more inclined to help.
How should the Christian community respond to those affected by AIDS? The fourth character of Jesus' parable shows us.
The Samaritans were often despised by the Jews, and considered them heretical and unclean. Nevertheless, this Samaritan saw the man at the side of the road "and took pity on him." He bandaged his wounds and poured oil and wine upon them as a salve. He put the man on his own donkey, transported him to an inn, and left money for his care. And he promised to return to check up on the man again. It was not a minimal response. It was a complete engagement.
The Samaritans of the AIDS crisis seem just as unlikely to today's religious establishment: the homosexual community, Hollywood, political liberals, the U.S. government, the United Nations, secular humanitarian organizations, and even a rock star. Bono, lead singer of the group U2, has been a prophetic voice on AIDS. When addressing a group of Christians in Washington, Bono asked, "Will American Christians stand by as an entire continent dies for 'small money'?"
Years from now, the AIDS pandemic will be judged as one of those rare crossroads in human history, where everything that comes after it will be seen through its lens. Every generation struggles with events and crises that ultimately define it. Every generation has its sins - of commission and omission. The lens of history can be brutally honest in its judgment.
How could American pioneers justify their treatment of Native Americans? How could pre-Civil-War America have tolerated slavery? How could churches in America have turned a blind eye to racial discrimination in the '40s and '50s? And how can the American church, with all its resources and influence, fail to respond proportionally to the greatest problem facing the world?
I am certain that God expects His people to act, not remain silent. I am certain that God sees these widows and orphans as our neighbors, lying beaten and bleeding on the side of the road, helpless and needing our help. And I am certain that He calls us to stop, show compassion, comfort them, bind up their wounds and see that they and their children are cared for.
How? By advocating for right theology in our churches and right policies by our government. By praying for people with AIDS, for the children they leave behind, and for their caregivers. By volunteering with local organizations serving people affected by HIV/AIDS. And by supporting our brothers and sisters in Africa and elsewhere in their efforts to stop this epidemic and care for those whose lives already have been shattered.
Jesus ends the Parable of the Good Samaritan with a powerful challenge. When He asked the expert in the law which of the three men had been a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers, he answers with a new understanding: "The one who had mercy on him."
Jesus then looks at this man and concludes what is perhaps the most powerful moral teaching in all of history with a command of just four words. "Go and do likewise."