Road Story

Dear Friends:

A fly’s buzz cuts through the hot silence of noonday like the rasp of an iron file on rough stone. The rugged cliffs on both sides of the road magnify the irritating sound.

The man lies across the ruts, crumpled and twisted, with his arm flung across his face. The fly lands on his bloody arm and feasts.

A torn tunic is bunched around his waist. His bare back and legs are mottled purple and black, streaked with rivulets of scarlet that soak, dark as tar, into the sand around his head.

The man does not move. He may be dead. There is nothing on or around his body to identify him.

His habits proved his undoing. He comes up the steep road from Jericho each month with an assistant and two donkeys loaded with spices and balms for sale in Jerusalem. When his sales are made and his inventory exhausted, he sends the assistant riding one donkey and leading the other back down to Jericho.

He slips away to count his money alone, tying the bag of coins about his waist, keeping just enough in hand to pay for his room and meal for the night. Well before dawn he leaves, stepping carefully over the other sleeping lodgers. The night air is cold here in Jerusalem, 2500 feet above and 18 miles away from Jericho. He passes alone through the city gate and follows the road past the Mount of Olives and into the gorge.

It is the time when even bandits and competitors are asleep. If he keeps his steady pace he will be safely home in Jericho by mid-afternoon. He’ll eat a pomegranate in the warm, sweet air of the Valley of the Jordan.

Someone else knows about his departure. They have watched his routine. The cleverness of city dwellers does not carry far beyond the market place. They hurry and they miss a lot.

There are things that can only be learned in a cave above the road with enough time to wait and watch. People pass by, some of them again and again. A pattern emerges. The watchers, ask “why”?

The man passes by with the pack animals and assistant before market day. The late afternoon of market day, the servant passes riding one mule and leading the other. The donkeys carry nothing, that’s quite certain. In the early morning of the day after market, the gorge is still cool in shadow, the man makes his way down the road, alone, with nothing but his walking staff.

The man is nervous. He looks around a lot. He touches his waist often. The watchers, point out the signs to each other. This day, they will find out why the man does what he does. The watchers slip down to the road through the boulders.

The rising sun only lights the western edges of the serpentine gorge. It is still dark at the bottom along the road.

The merchant is one man against the three bandits. He is startled by the first one, suddenly appearing out of the shadows ahead of him. He turns back and there are two more of them, right there, and he has no chance. His attackers do not speak. One grabs his staff from his hand and throws it clattering on the stones beside the road. The man is shoved roughly back and the bandit behind him trips him.

He struggles to rise, but he is kicked, then clubbed, kicked again and again. A hand gropes his waist. The man instinctively tucks into a ball, but his robe is seized and ripped away and then the rope belt securing the  bag is yanked tight, burning his skin. The bag is pulled away with the clink of gold and silver. He reaches out frantically to try to take it back but this opens up his posture and the kicking and clubbing now begin in earnest.

The first and only words of the encounter are spoken. “Nice sandals. Hold him still while I take them off.” The man is pressed down against the sharp rocks and his gasps fill his lungs and nose with choking grit. His head is lifted and slammed to the ground. His jaw snaps against a stone, his ribs crack with the velocity of a heavy foot. Then an angry red darkness surges through him and. . . nothing.

By mid-morning, the road is better traveled, though still dangerous. It is a necessary place for men going about their business.

The man’s eyes are swollen. His entire face is crusted with a muddy glue of blood, mucus and sand. He can barely make out the passing strangers. He groans, but they do not stop. Nausea builds and he retches, though it makes him feel he will break in two from the excruciating spasms. He falls back, panting, but that effort hurts too much. He fights for consciousness.

A priest comes by. The man knows this by the tassels on the royal blue robe. The footsteps stop, then turn across the road and fade away. “A priest,” the man’s groans cause a wet cough and a searing pain to his ribs. “A priest would rather pray in the temple than help a man on the road.”

He sees the Levite walking behind the priest. He knows he will be there even before he sees him. Temple duty is the honor of a lifetime, but a splash of blood on those rich robes would mean shaming disqualification. “God of my fathers, hear my prayer and have mercy upon me. The help of man is worthless.” Even the exertion of a silent prayer causes him pain.

The sun is beating straight down in the gorge at noon. Flies are buzzing or is it ringing in his ears? He is in shock. He shivers with cold in the desert heat, and his eyes blur. “This road has meant my livelihood, but I will die here alone. . . I am so thirsty.” He struggles for focus but loses.

The man awakens to a shadow. It mercifully relieves the direct sunlight for a few moments. “Are you alright?” The voice has an accent piercing through the man’s faltering consciousness. Even through the fog in his head, he recognizes and loathes that northern accent.

“A Samaritan! I am dying and he will finish me off.” Panic rises up through the pain. He struggles to speak, but only a harsh moan rattles from his chest followed by a weak, wheezing hack.

The Samaritan turns away and the sunlight pours on the man with a smothering weight of heat. He cannot breathe. His chest feels like lead.

“Here, drink some of this,” the Samaritan offers a goatskin of water. He sets it down and tenderly grips the man. The touch hurts and the man winces and that hurts more.

“I am going to turn you and put this bed roll under your head,” the Samaritan says. “You need to drink the water and then we will clean you up.”

The man’s mouth is still filled with grit and vomit. His jaw feels useless. He chokes as soon as the stream reaches his throat. “Spit it out, and we’ll try again.” After several sputtering tries, the water goes down and stays.

The Samaritan soaks a linen cloth in water and splashes some on the man’s face. He begins to daub with care, removing the crust, and exclaiming softly at each laceration and bruise. “I am afraid your jaw is broken,” he says. “You are bleeding from your ears, very bad!” he adds.

The bathing continues. The Samaritan pauses only to wring the now bloody cloth, and soak it again. The man moans and writhes a bit. “Just lie still,” the Samaritan says. “Save your strength. It feels to me like some of your ribs are broken. Was it bandits who did this to you?”

The man can barely nod in reply. He can see a donkey standing by quietly. It’s saddled and loaded for travel. The Samaritan goes to the donkey and strokes its neck and scratches its ears. Then he reaches into a pack. He pulls out a wineskin, a bottle of olive oil, and another cloth. He kneels beside the man again. “This will sting,” he says, “But we have to clean out these cuts or they will become infected.”

The first application of the wine brings a scream. The Samaritan stops and says,  “This must be done. Try to think of something to take your mind off of the pain.”

The man tries to pray silently against the pain, but he cannot remember the words even though he has prayed the Psalms since childhood. More people are passing by. They do not speak, but he can hear them murmur. The sight of a Samaritan tending a wounded Jew must be remarkable, but disgusting.

“I have to bind your ribs so you can travel. . maybe your poor jaw as well. Can you sit up?”

Receiving no response, the Samaritan, who is surprisingly strong, grabs hold of the man’s armpits and pulls him over and leans him against a boulder. The helpless, wounded, disgraced man trembles and sobs with shame and pain.

The Samaritan winds a cloth slowly, but tightly, around the man’s shoulder and ribs. Every twist causes a gasp, the man is too exhausted to scream. He feels like throwing up again.

The Samaritan takes out a knife and rips and tears away a strip of cloth before he secures the bandage around the ribs.

Then comes the worst.  The Samaritan loops the strip under the man’s jaw and begins to tie it off on top of his head. The pain thrusts like a dagger through the man’s head. He shrieks and passes out.

He dreams that he is being stoned. He is being jolted and pounded all over his body. His own panicked yells awaken him from the savage beating. “Good. We’ve arrived and you are awake,” says the Samaritan. The helpless man, tied to the donkey like a grain sack can only see the ground.

“I am sorry for the rough ride. I had to tie you on the donkey. We are walking slowly, but we can’t help the rocks and ruts. I’ve brought you to the inn at Bethany. The inn-keeper will take care of you here.”

“No money,” the man croaks his first words to his benefactor.

“It will be alright,” the Samaritan says.

The inn is a two-story stone and mortar building in the middle of town. The Samaritan halts the donkey. “I will get the inn-keeper to help me take you in,” he says.

Voices can be heard from inside. They become louder. Curses are shouted. Samaritans are not welcome in the inn. The wounded man knows this. He feels the same way about it.

The Samaritan backs out the door followed by the angry inn-keeper. “I tell you never, never come in here, Samaritan dog!”

“I tell you again,” says the Samaritan in an even voice, “that I don’t want to stay in your inn. I want you to take care of this man, a Jew. He needs to rest. His wounds must be tended. He must take nourishment to heal. Let us agree on a price now. I need to travel up to Sychar. I will be gone more than a week, but I will be back. If I am gone longer or there is more cost for a physician, I will pay it on my return. Let’s untie him and take him inside.”

The inn-keeper circles the donkey until he can see the man’s face, battered and swollen.” Who did this thing?” he demands.

“Bandits, on the road to Jerusalem.”

The inn-keeper peers at the face. “Who is he?”

“I do not know his name. What does it matter? He needs rest. Help me get him inside now.”

“Why would you do this for a Jew?”

“So many questions. Are you open for business or not? My money spends the same as Jewish money. Why do you care about my motives? More to the point, would you, a Jew, not help a fellow Jew? But since you’ve asked, I found the man hurt and helpless lying on the road. He needed help or he would die. I’m helping him, that’s all. Now you help him, for my money, if not your righteousness. And remember, I will pay you for what my deposit hasn’t covered when I return.”

“I should take the word of a Samaritan for this?”

“You should take the money of a Samaritan for this.”

The inn-keeper finally concedes. “Alright then. Let’s take him inside.”

As they pick up the man between them, the inn-keeper recognizes him. “Aha, I know this man. He is a merchant from Jericho. He has stayed here before when the weather was bad.”

“Good, then he will be at home with you,” the Samaritan says over the man’s renewed groaning. “Take some of the money, and buy him new clothes. Bring him a physician

They place the man on a straw pallet. The inn-keeper tells a servant to bring the man water and to make a stew. “He can only eat soft food for now.”

The Samaritan takes out a bag and counts out money; one pile for a two week stay; another for clothes,  and another for the physician.

He is surprised as he takes his leave to find a small crowd gathered outside. They stare at him silently as he waters and feeds his donkey. “A Samaritan who has touched and cared for a Jew–who would believe this?”

The story is news to be sure. It will be repeated and quickly make its way up the few miles to Jerusalem. There it will be discussed and debated over meals, in the market place, and in temple courtyards.

The proud purists will resent the crossing of boundaries. Businessmen dependent on the route for transport will call for improved security on the road. Priests and Levites will assert that nothing can come before the importance of the Temple and their service to God there. Religious scholars, experts in the law and ethicists will study the story and probe it for loopholes in the obligations of the law. A  few people will pause and marvel over the compassion of the Samaritan, but then exclaim with two-edged, self-excusing praise, “I could never do what he did.”

A conservative and learned expert in the law sits down for an interview with the new and radical rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth. He asks, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus answers his question with a question, “What is written in the Law?” How do you read it?”

The scholar answers, “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 love your neighbor as yourself.”

“You have answered correctly,” says Jesus. “Do this and you will live?”

The expert justifies his status by the delivery of carefully-nuanced interpretations of the law. There is no purpose for his existence if the pathway to eternity is this simply and easily traversed. He asks Jesus a needle-sharp, follow-up question, “Who is my neighbor?”

There are scribes present this morning to record the discussion and disciples are there who will always remember and marvel at Jesus’ reply. One of them, years later, repeats it word for word to a Greek physician who writes it down for the ages.

Jesus waits and looks off across the city to gather his thoughts before replying. Then he begins. “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers . . . .”

He tells the story, as only he can, as if it is their own story, which of course it is. The expert and the onlookers are transported back to the blood-soaked sand and the unlikely meeting of the beaten, broken man and his rescuer.

The rest of them, caught up in the story, have forgotten the question that it was meant to answer by the time Jesus finishes. He has not forgotten. He looks straight at the proud expert and asks him, Which of these three–the priest, the Levite, or the Samaritan–was a neighbor to the man who was robbed and beaten?”

The tables of the discussion are turned. It is a breath-taking question. The expert had asked who is the neighbor that I must love? Jesus now asks him in effect,  “To whom are you a neighbor? Who do you need to love as if your very self?”

The expert responds, thoughtfully, but hesitantly. “The neighbor to the man is the one who had mercy on him.” Even now, the expert can’t bring himself to give specific credit to the Samaritan. Prejudices die hard, but they are mortal, and love is their enemy.

“You do the same thing then,” says Jesus to the expert.

The interview is over. The expert has opinions to render. Jesus is moving on to do what he came to do, which is to die and bring new life to all of them– broken victims, robbers, Samaritans, pretentious priests, workaholic Levite passers-by, shrewd inn-keepers, dispassionate religious scholars, nit-picking experts in the law, loop-hole seeking ethicists, scribes, servants, disciples, Greek physicians, and most assuredly, you and me.

What the Samaritan was willing to do for the abused traveler for two weeks, Jesus is willing to do for all of us for eternity at his expense. On the night before he died, Jesus told his disciples, “My Father’s house has plenty of room. I am going there to prepare a place for all of you.” We all will fit in there you know. It’s a great story. It’s a true story. Tell it to someone so they can come too.

“O taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy are those who take refuge in him.”

Under the mercy of Christ,

Kent

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