It’s a teacher’s trope, really: the first one tries. The second one tries. The third one succeeds.
Think about it. The first little pig builds his house from straw. The wolf blows it down. The second little pig builds his house from sticks. The wolf blows it down. The third little pig builds his house from bricks. The wolf does not blow it down.
For Goldilocks, the first chair was too hard. The second chair was too soft. It was the third chair that was just right.
Whether found in Cinderella’s two stepsisters, or King Lear’s three daughters, or the old king’s Three Sons, we usually find two older siblings failing upon some quest only to be bettered by a successful younger – a successful younger who’s often rejected, scorned, mocked, minimized. So common is this pattern that we might call it try and fail, try and fail, try and succeed.
Maybe this is why Pythagoras called three the noblest of numbers: three is that number that allows a pattern to emerge for that pattern-craving species we call human beings.
So, no: this pattern of three didn’t begin with modern fairy tales but would have been wildly familiar even to the students of Jesus himself. Now, in the case of today’s little big story, his parable is delivered directly to a single person – a lawyer who tries to put Jesus to the test. And what you can know about those parables delivered to a single person rather than to disciples or to crowds is that the single person is about to experience what we might call an original “come-to-Jesus meeting.” In other words, we might do well to imagine Jesus turning his attention to the single person full on and addressing him by all of his names as I remember my southern mother to do: “Richard Loren Held, I want you to listen to me right now. And I want you to listen good.”
So, for a priest to pass by the man in the ditch would have been expected. For a Levite to pass by the man in the ditch would have been expected. For even in this context, Jesus’ first two characters would have anticipated the successful third, you see. Try and fail. Try and fail. Try and succeed.
So, to this point, we find no provocation. Jesus isn’t challenging anybody. The pattern was familiar. Were Jesus to fulfill the pattern in a way anticipated by his listeners, he would have had a priest pass by, a Levite pass by and an Israelite provide care for the man in the ditch.
Larry. Curly. We anticipate Moe.
Huey. Dewey. We anticipate Louie.
Rose. Blanche. We anticipate Dorothy.
In this story we have Priest. Levite. Israelite. Priest: meaning, those descendants of Aaron, the brother of Moses. Levite: meaning, those descendants of Levi, a son of Jacob. And Israelites: basically, those descendants of Jacob’s other sons. And so it is that when we encounter the last name Cohen or Kane, it may suggest a priestly lineage because such names are derivatives of the Hebrew word for priest. When we encounter the last name Levine or Lewis, it may suggest a Levite lineage because such names are derivatives of the Hebrew word for Levite and so forth.
Priests, Levites and Israelites are terms which speak to paternal lineage, you see, not worldly accomplishment.
But Jesus seldom leaves his audience unsurprised. He didn’t fulfill the pattern of three with a priest, a Levite and an Israelite, such as would have been a predictable trio. Instead, his story would have completely disarmed his listener with a priest, a Levite and at last, a Samaritan.
In modern terms, he would have completely disarmed his listening by following Larry and Curley not with Moe but with Scar from The Lion King; or by following Huey and Dewey not with Louie but with Saruman from The Lord of the Rings.
So, not only did Jesus shock his audience by fulfilling the pattern of three with a Samaritan – someone who would have represented centuries of enmity to Jesus’ listeners – the Samaritan comforts the man, binds his wounds, shares oil and wine and uses his own animal to transport the man to an inn where he might recover.
This is the story we call "The Good Samaritan." (Again, the names were ascribed later.)
In the story called "Talents," Jesus told about a rich man (which wasn’t a positive label, you’ll recall) a rich man who tried to enroll his servants into his worldly ways. Not surprisingly, there were three of these servants, two of whom did as they were told and a third who resisted, even under the threat of punishment.
And whether we look to the world without or to the world within, don’t we find that there can be a certain resistance to challenging the ways things are? Dr. Emilie Cady – an early contributor to Unity thought – called this resistance to challenging the ways things are chemicalization. When a new consciousness meets an old consciousness, life can get bumpy as the old consciousness gives way.
I have found this to be true individually: I begin to move toward positive change and it’s as if there’s something ancient within me that clings in desperation. I have to wonder if this isn’t true collectively as well: we begin to move toward positive change and it’s as if there’s something ancient within us that clings in desperation.
Perhaps it can be said that our first little big story spoke to the courageous commitment to one’s values, even amidst the threat of punishment. It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who spoke to this in his famous essay, that “for nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure.”
Jesus told a story about a rich man who tried to enroll his servants into his worldly ways. And the third servant basically said, “No, thank you.” Emerson went on to say that to be yourself in a world that’s constantly trying to make you something else, this is the greatest accomplishment.
And today, we explore that story I call "Travelers." A shocking trio of priest, Levite and Samaritan. And let me pause to say, as well, that while I offer some possible thoughts about these teaching stories, the real encouragement is for you to allow these stories to speak to you. Allow these stories to come alive in you. Mature spiritual community doesn’t describe a setting in which some man tells you what to think and you agree, you see. “Good sermon today, pastor,” isn’t indicative of a deep personal spiritual work.
Now, here’s what Jesus didn’t suggest. He didn’t suggest an antisemitic interpretation in which the new ways of Christianity arrive to trump the old ways of Judaism. That’s not what he suggested. Nor did he suggest that he be inserted into the story as the Samaritan, who arrived to provide assistance to the man (even to humanity itself) in the ditch. Self-aggrandizement isn’t the mark of any authentic spiritual teacher. The early church created that Jesus.
Jesus was answering the lawyer’s test about the Jewish scriptual dictate to love God and Love neighbor when he suggested that not only did the Samaritan comfort the man, bind his wounds, share oil and wine and use his own animal to transport the man to an inn, he went even further. I like to think that Jesus simply wasn’t done provoking the lawyer. As the saying goes, Jesus may have comforted the troubled, but Jesus troubled the comfortable as well.
He went even further by giving the innkeeper money to meet the man’s needs. And then he went even further by promising to return. And then he went even further by promising to cover any additional expenses the man’s healing might require.
This is what speaks to me. In this teaching story, compassion goes even further. Not only does compassion see the need, compassion fulfills the need. Not only does compassion speak the prayer, compassion answers the prayer. Not only does compassion anticipate the healing, compassion initiates the healing.
Whether in our inner worlds or our outer worlds, maybe Jesus suggests a universal principle that we must live into the thing for which we would pray. If we would realize greater prosperity in our lives, pray; but then go even further by living into the consciousness of prosperity. If we would realize greater health in our lives, pray; but then go even further by living into the consciousness of health. And if we would realize greater love in our lives, pray; but then go even further by living into the consciousness of love.
Pray, but then go even further. Otherwise, we just keep walking past the higher possibilities which long for our recognition.
Pray, but then go even further: this is what speaks to me today. Jesus finished his lesson by looking at the Lawyer and saying, if you really want to understand the law, “Do that.”