14 July 2019
The story we have just heard, the Parable of the Good Samaritan as it has come to be popularly known, arises out of a discussion between Jesus and a Pharisee. A religious lawyer asks Jesus a question on the nature of the lengthy and complicated Jewish Law code. The stage is set by Luke with these words: “a lawyer stood up to put him to the test.”
Well, it’s not the first time, nor will it be the last, that a lawyer lays a trap by phrasing a trick question.
It was a leading question, the kind of question in which any kind of answer was likely to pose still further problems or lead to even deeper, more probing questions. It was, as we are told, a test question: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Now, right away we know that this man was a Pharisee, because the Pharisees believed in eternal life while the other Jewish party, the Sadducees, did not. Jesus, accurately judging the man to be an astute student of the law, asks him: “What is written?” In other words, use your own mind and knowledge and reasoning abilities to discern the essence of the law. Jesus, like many a good teacher, challenges the man to answer his own question by throwing the question right back into his lap.
No doubt, the lawyer knew the answer to his own question; after all, no good trial lawyer ever asks a question they have not already researched and answered. Without hesitating, the lawyer quotes directly from Deuteronomy: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
“Excellent!” Jesus says. “You are correct. Do this and you shall live; love God and your neighbor to this degree and you shall have eternal life. You have not only penetrated to the very essence of the law, but you have worded it succinctly. I’ll give you an A+.”
The question has been asked and the correct answer given. You would think that the man, having impressed the crowd and been praised by the teacher, would be pleased with himself, turn and go home. But, he continues to press Jesus further. After all, part of a lawyer’s job is to define the limits of responsibility, so he asks, “Just who is my neighbor?” In other words, where does my responsibility stop? Who exactly am I to love? And who am I free not to love?
Jesus answers him with a story. A story with a challenge. Perhaps Jesus’ most well-known story. The Parable of the Good Samaritan.
As familiar as the tale is, let’s take a fresh look at it . . .
The parable begins with a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. Even today, it is a desolate wilderness area that separates these two cities. It was a dangerous and lonely road in Jesus’ time – not one to travel alone, because thieves often stopped people along the way to rob them, beating them, or worse. This is the fate of the man Jesus tells about. He is stripped, robbed, beaten, and left for dead by the side of the road.
Not long afterward, a priest comes by, but for whatever reason, when he sees the brutalized man lying there, he does not stop, but continues on walking.
Then along comes another religious Jew, a Levite, a man who had duties in the great Jerusalem Temple. He, too, for reasons we can only speculate, passes by on the other side without stopping.
After that, an unexpected character in the story, a foreigner, a Samaritan comes on the scene. Now, when he sees the condition of the man lying on the road, he is, we are told, “moved with pity.” He kneels down, examines the man, finds something to use for bandages - perhaps tearing his own clothing - and washes, anoints and wraps the man’s wounds. Then he lifts the victim up, puts him on his own donkey, and takes him to the nearest inn. There, he asks the innkeeper to care for the man, keep track of the expenses, and when he returns from his journey he will pay for whatever is required.
When he finishes the story, Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which of these three men – the priest, the Levite, the Samaritan – which of these three do you think was truly a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
The lawyer answers, “The one who showed mercy.”
And the Lord replies, “Go, and do likewise.”
Now, let’s leave that lawyer fellow for a bit, and take a moment to consider the revolutionary nature of the Good Samaritan story. The parable focuses upon a merciful, tender-hearted Samaritan. That fact, in and of itself, is truly a startling and revolutionary feature of the tale. To have that type of person be the hero of the story would have been shocking, perhaps even painful, to the Jewish lawyer. Why? Well, in Jesus’ day, the Jews had no dealing with the Samaritans. The Gospels tell us that Jesus did, but most Jews would not. While Jesus and his disciples traveled through Samaria on more than one occasion – Jesus even taught and preached there - most Jews of Jesus’ day would, quite literally, not have set foot in Samaritan territory. There was such alienation and dislike, if not true hatred between the two nationalities, that most Jews would not go through Samaritan territory even when that was the shortest route. Most Jews would walk miles out of their way to avoid any contact.
I won’t go into the long history as to why Jews and Samaritans did not get along. Basically, it had to do with the fact that Samaritans were considered half-breeds and did not worship in the way orthodox Jews considered proper. The two peoples – Jews and Samaritans – were related, think of them as first cousins, and as we all know family disputes can sometimes be the ugliest and nastiest. The relationship between the two was not greatly dissimilar to the relationship between Palestinians and Jews today. So, for Jesus to feature a Samaritan as the moral hero of his story was shocking to his hearers. Imagine Benjamin Netanyahu telling a story featuring a Palestinian as the moral superior to an Israeli. It just wouldn’t happen.
Now, let’s return to that Jewish lawyer . . . We may have a tendency to dislike the man. After all, he did set out to test Jesus. He tried to embarrass Jesus in front of others and thought he could outsmart him. But maybe he deserves some credit, for when he was told of how the Samaritan met the needs of the bruised and bloodied traveler by the road, while the priest and Levite walked on by, he admitted – perhaps reluctantly, but he still admitted – that the hated Samaritan had been the kind of neighbor everyone should be.
The lawyer, from an early age, had been taught that there was no such thing as a good Samaritan; those two words – “good” and “Samaritan” - would have never been put together. Yet the good Jewish lawyer now admitted that, unlike the other two, the merciful Samaritan had been the true neighbor. So, let’s give the lawyer his due.
Now, you and I are also confronted by Jesus’ parable. Jesus’ teaching is still a powerful challenge for us all these centuries later, and especially, I would hold, in the current climate within our nation. Isn’t it true that we too – individually and collectively - may have trouble relating to certain people or certain groups? We are, each in our own way, often tempted to pass by those who are not like us, those we see as different. We may not understand them. We may be frightened or feel threatened by them. We may not be able to relate. We may simply feel uncomfortable around them – and so we avoid them. It seems almost a law of nature: like attracts, unlike repels.
In a sermon on the Good Samaritan, preached by the Rev. James Bordwine some years ago, he said: “action-oriented love (call it compassion, mercy, charity, whatever you wish) . . . action-oriented love is an indispensable characteristic of God’s people.” He went on to say to his congregation, “Having a ministry of mercy is not a luxury for our church; it is not an option; it is a biblical necessity. Showing the ‘Good Samaritan’ kind of love to the needy in our community, in our nation, in our world is not something to which we should be committed on an intellectual level only; it is a concept we must be putting into action on a regular basis.”
To that, we can only say, “Amen!” Of what good are we, as followers of Christ, if we leave those in need by the side of the road while we travel on. Of what good are we, as followers of Christ, if we are not good for others, especially the aged, the afflicted, the hungry and the homeless, the oppressed and terrorized, the bullied, the lost and the lonely – those who may make us uncomfortable because they are different from us?
If, in the end, we do not recognize these others as children of God, recognize these others as our sisters and brothers . . .
If, in the end, we do not have Christ-like love to offer them – all of them - then we do not have much to offer at all. If we do not have Christ-like love . . . if we do not have Good Samaritan mercy and love and compassion that moves us to action . . . we may, in the end, have very little that counts and commends us in the eyes of Christ.