Jerusalem is the hub of life in the Holy Land. Today as in ancient times trade flows from a rim of small villages to and from this hub.
To the east lies one of these villages, the little town of Jericho. It is a spot of green beyond the treeless mountains. In the lonely wastes nearby Jesus once spent forty days fasting, praying, and overcoming the temptations of Satan. Five miles beyond he was baptized in the Jordan. Just a few miles south, this river empties into the Dead Sea and becomes a wilderness of water. Beyond lie the mountains of Moab, where Moses once could see but could not enter the Promised Land.
At Jericho are ruins of ancient walls that fell to the trumpets of Joshua. Here, a quietude belies the turbulent ferment of Jew versus Arab. Here, war could break loose once more and violent death curse the land. Jericho still carries an aura of destiny. Jericho still beckons travelers from afar.
“A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho,” the Savior said, “and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.” (Luke 10:30.) Thus begins the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Like countless other pilgrims to the Holy Land, we went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, a drop of 3500 feet in seventeen miles. We traveled a smooth highway much like those which cross the deserts of Southern Utah. We traveled at such speed that we caught only a glimpse of an ancient roadside inn, now in ruins. And we had no time to stop at a dairy farm just beyond Jericho where a herd of cows had been given to the Arab youth of Jordan by our own Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
We wanted to see the Jordan river before sunset, and we did. But we resolved to return the next morning at sunrise for a leisurely adventure into the same country. On our return visit we caught a sight unnoticed the day before: five roads to Jericho, four of them off to the side.
A few miles down the road we saw a camp of Bedouin tribesmen in their black tents. The rising sun was breaking over the mountains of Moab, and up from the floor of a dry canyon a young herdsman was driving his goats. We stopped to witness this ancient practice.
Our guide helped us talk with this boy. We began asking about his people and his work when from nowhere sprang a tribesman. His voice shook with anger, and above his head he clenched a menacing rock. We ran to our car as our guide tried to explain the innocence of our venture. In a moment he too ran amid a shower of rocks, and we sped away. We were shaken by this encounter.
Several hours later when we retraced our way to Jerusalem, this place on the road to Jericho recalled for us the ancient parable of the man who fell among thieves. And when we reached the point of the five roads, we stopped to examine them more closely.
Ever since, our thoughts have dwelt on the significance of those five roads to Jericho. Four of them protrude from the ancient landscape: rocky, overlapping, washed out, and abandoned. One of the five is straight. What of the other four?
In our mind’s eye we saw the first road as a trail blazed by some ancient adventurer seeking new land. Perhaps he was pursuing a new trade route, searching for new friends, or fleeing from an enemy. His path was crooked like the wandering of a lost animal trying to find its way. Without him, there would never have been the road to Jericho of which the Savior spoke.
The second road seemed to be that of the predator, the thief who plunders the unwary. Here he lurks around the unexpected turn. This is the road of deception and violence, where twisted minds malinger on a twisted trail.
The third road seemed to be a highway of the aristocrat. He travels in churchly robes, or as a Levite whose tribal rank places him above that of other men. He and his retinue appear safe because of their prominence and power.
The fourth was the road of the outcast, whose mission took him through hostile country but whose persecuted heart did beat to the rhythm of mankind.
The fifth road was straight and smooth. It seemed to be the road that has taken two thousand years to build. It invites all men to abandon the twisted and hazardous trails and follow its direct route to Jericho.
At one point all of these roads converged, and it was at this point we saw unfolding in our minds the drama about which Jesus told in his famous parable. A “certain man” was pursuing his road to Jericho. He fell among thieves whose road of plunder intersected his road of duty. Then “by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.
“And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.
“But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him,
“And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.
“And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him: and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.” (Luke 10:31–35.)
Those are the crisp details. But the point of the story comes from a question asked of the Savior: “Who is my neighbour?” The Savior, commenting on the parable, answered, “He that shewed mercy to him.” Then he said, “Go, and do thou likewise.” (Luke 10:37.)
These five roads to Jericho are mute evidence that men of all stations travel by whatever routes they choose. However, they share a common destiny: a perilous highway of life. When abandoned to evil, this highway leaves no man safe. Evil can stalk in the treachery of thieves or in the hypocrisy of priests. On it goodness can travel in the cloth of the forsaken and in the heart of the persecuted. No man knows who may attack or who may heal, who may act as a stranger or who may act as a neighbor.
These roads to Jericho tell us that safety lies only in the hearts of men. Therein dwell empathy and friendliness, generosity in spite of hurt, blessedness in spite of abuse. These roads teach us to travel by the straight way, whether we be adventurers, men of piety, men of honored origin, or victims of prejudice—and that way encourages us to be watchful for those less fortunate, helpful to those who hurt, and mindful of those doomed by neglect.
These roads teach us what a neighbor really is.
A neighbor is one who will serve a stranger without ceremony.
A neighbor is one who does not flee disaster but lingers to examine and relieve distress.
A neighbor is one who is prepared to help when help is needed.
A neighbor is one who may be lonely and despised yet is compassionate.
A neighbor is one who acts generously out of love, not out of duty alone.
A neighbor is one who refutes slander by good deeds.
A neighbor is one who thinks well of himself and loves others as himself.
A neighbor is one who sees his fellowmen not as Jews, Levites, or priests but as men—one who thinks of himself as a man among men who are all equal in the sight of God.
Compassion and mercy are the qualities held in high esteem by this narrative. Yet there are other values that emerge: the value of sincerity as opposed to hypocrisy; the value of love as being higher than duty; the value of universal love as preferred to restricted love. These values challenge those of us who might be content to take care of our own and forget others, particularly those who curse us and abuse us.
We can easily draw parallels in our own society. We can select those among us who are universally disliked and substitute their name for Samaritan. We can change Jericho to a place nearby—a school, a workshop, or a way home.
The thieves can be slick-talking promoters, shoplifters, gangsters, road hogs, or people who refuse to pay their bills. And the priests and Levites can be callous bureaucrats or churchmen who are too busy with “duties” to respond to unscheduled needs; doctors who neglect the sick; employees who refuse to work; employers who refuse to make good a poor piece of merchandise or who overcharge their customers or underpay their help.
The “certain man” can be a child who is neglected, ignored, or abandoned. He can be a retired person, a widow, or an inexperienced youth.
All of these characters in modern dress can be of high or low station, black or white, church members or nonmembers. Or they can be nations in a world of nations each of whom can choose to fill its role with distinction or dishonor.
The five roads to Jericho are traveled by strangers and neighbors. At every turn the eternal question repeats: “Who is my neighbour?” These roads invite us to look carefully and choose the highway of our Lord who said:
“I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
“He that is greatest among you shall be your servant.”
“He that shall humble himself shall be exalted.”
“Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”