Gogh, Vincent van, 1853-1890. Good Samaritan, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54697 [retrieved October 22, 2018].
Scripture Reading • Luke 10.25-29 (NIV)
One day an authority on the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to receive eternal life?”
“What is written in the Law?” Jesus replied. “How do you understand it?”
He answered, “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. Love him with all your strength and with all your mind.’ And, ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ ”“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do that, and you will live.”
But the man wanted to make himself look good. So he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
When we hear “lawyer” we probably think something along the lines of courtrooms and cross examinations and legally binding agreements. That’s not what the people gathered around Jesus would have thought.
They would have connected the lawyer with someone more like a theology professor. J. Ellsworth Kalas writes,
“A lawyer in first-century Israel was really a theologian, because the law of the Jewish people was that section of their scriptures they referred to as the Books of Moses–the first five books of the Old Testament. To know the law, therefore, was to know the purposes and teachings of the Hebrew scriptures. One obeyed the law to please God, not to stay out of the courts. (J. E. Kalas, Parables from the Backside, p.12).
This theologian tested Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus has this great (and probably kind of frustrating) way of responding to a question by asking another question. “You’re the theologian/bible scholar, here,” Jesus said, “how do you read it … what is your take on scripture’s answer to this question?”
The expert responded with a combination of two verses from the law – Deuteronomy 6:5, “You shall 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 Leviticus 19:18, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
It was the answer Jesus seemed to be looking for.
Just knowing the answer wasn’t enough, though.
That’s where things get challenging. It is one thing to know it. It is another thing, and it seems like one of the most important things to Jesus, to actually do it.
The theologian felt like he needed to justify himself … I mean, if Jesus says you are on the right track, it seems like that should be great, but it wasn’t enough for this guy … “Who is my neighbor?”
I wonder if the question is really something more along the lines, “Who don’t I have to love?”
Jesus answered the lawyer/theologian with a parable (Luke 10.30-37):
Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. Robbers attacked him. They stripped off his clothes and beat him. Then they went away, leaving him almost dead.
A priest happened to be going down that same road. When he saw the man, he passed by on the other side.
A Levite also came by. When he saw the man, he passed by on the other side too. But a Samaritan came to the place where the man was. When he saw the man, he felt sorry for him. He went to him, poured olive oil and wine on his wounds and bandaged them. Then he put the man on his own donkey. He brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins. He gave them to the owner of the inn. ‘Take care of him,’ he said. ‘When I return, I will pay you back for any extra expense you may have.’
“Which of the three do you think was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by robbers?”
The authority on the law replied, “The one who felt sorry for him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do as he did.”
Jesus’ parables draw from everyday life experiences and common knowledge in first century Palestine.
There are some differences between the lives of people living 2,000 years ago in the Middle East and our lives today. The more we can fill in some of those pieces, the more a parable can have an impact on us.
Living in the United States there is information that seems like it has been built into us.
- If I say, “red light” what is the first thing you think? (Stop!)
- Or, what about, “Green Eggs and ________” (Ham!)
These are things we just know.
We can’t explain when we learned them or how we learned them … We just know them. Some knowledge is just built into us because we are alive when and where we are.
People who lived in first century Palestine would have had that kind of built in information too…when they heard about the road from Jerusalem to Jericho they would have automatically thought – oh man, that’s a dangerous road, that guy could get into in trouble if he’s not careful.
They would have made connections when they heard about priests, Levites, and Samaritans.
To the people first hearing this parable, they might have expected the parable’s pattern to go “Priest, Levite, layperson.” Maybe that would have set up a us, the regular people, verses them, the religious authorities, interpretation. Or since Jesus was talking to a lawyer, maybe they would have guessed the third person to walk up and see the wounded and stuck traveler would have been a lawyer.
They wouldn’t have expected a Samaritan to be the third person to come down the road and see the man. And when they heard Jesus say that it was a Samaritan, maybe they would have thought,“Oh great, are you kidding me? A Samaritan? Now he is really going to get kicked while he is down. Could things get any worse for this guy?”
I bet no one would have guessed it would have been the Samaritan who would turn toward the half-dead traveler with compassion.
Israelites and Samaritans were enemies.
They hated each other. They went out of their way to avoid each other. Sometimes they even went to great lengths to be punks to each other.
To the people first hearing this story, a “Good Samaritan” would have sounded like an oxymoron.
All the current examples I could think of are so loaded … for us, the Samaritan, would be that group of people you think is so wrong … so offensive, you can’t imagine them doing anything good or helpful.
Jesus making the hero of his story a Samaritan would have been shocking.
It makes it more than just an us, the regular people, versus them, the religious elite, story. It makes it troubling … jarring … more interesting and more challenging.
It challenges how the lawyer defines neighbor … it reshapes his question.
In his reflections on this parable, Jim Edwards writes,
“For the lawyer, ‘neighbor’ is a noun. “neighbor is an object to whom one owes duties – burdensome duties that the lawyer desires to avoid … For Jesus, ‘neighbor’ is a verb, a way of behaving toward people in need that gives life to both giver and receiver … For Jesus, one does not have a neighbor; one is a neighbor, or better, becomes a neighbor… to be a neighbor is not a condition one inherits … but a choice one makes to render the tangible assistance one is able to render to those in need of it, and to render it irrespective of ethnic, religious, … racial differences. The lawyer does not expect the conclusion to which the parable leads him; the fact that he cannot bring himself to say ‘the Samaritan’ in answer to Jesus’ question may betray his difficulty in accepting the full ramifications of the parable.” (Edwards, PTNC: Luke, pp. 323-324).
Jesus moves the question from “Who is my neighbor?” to “How can I be a neighbor to the person who needs a neighbor the most?”
Can you imagine how humiliating and degrading it would have been for the half-dead guy on the road to be in such desperate need, absolutely helpless, watching as the first two people who saw him, went out of their way to avoid him, “passing by on the other side?”
We don’t hear why the priest and the Levite turned away from the man in need when they saw him … your guess is as good as mine. Jesus tells us that when the Samaritan saw the man, he had compassion for him, he moved toward him, and he used the resources he had to help.
The Samaritan, the unlikeliest neighbor, offered the man suffering in the road dignity and worth.
That is how Jesus’ love works … Jesus turns toward us in our pain … in our brokenness … in our messiness and neediness and he gives himself to give us life. So often, I think, we want to avoid pain … to walk around messes … to pass need by on the other side, but that isn’t how God works … that isn’t the life God calls us toward.
‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. Love him with all your strength and with all your mind.’ (Deuteronomy 6:5) And, ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ ” (Leviticus 19:18)
This love, according to Jesus, moves toward pain. It doesn’t shy away from complicated situations.
Man, that is convicting.
What if that was what the church was known for?
So often I hear from people who feel like their pain is too much for Jesus and they need to get their act together before they can have anything to do with God. Or they don’t want to burden God or the church with their messes. In Jesus’ response to the lawyer/theologian, it looks to me like the church should be known for being a neighbor, for turning toward the hurting, for being where the pain is … for giving itself to offer life-giving-Christ-like love.
Because Jesus has been a neighbor to us, because he has seen us and turned toward us, and loved us even when we have been difficult to love, Jesus calls his disciples, Jesus calls his church, to turn toward the people we see who are in pain … he invites us be neighbors, to reach out with God’s life-giving and life-shaping love.