In today’s gospel reading we hear someone ask Jesus two questions. It occurred to me this week that our traditional interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan makes a really good answer to the first question. But that’s not the one Jesus was addressing with that particular parable…
This man who approaches Jesus is called a “lawyer.” This is not a lawyer in the 21st century sense of someone who advocates for someone in the legal system. This is someone who has spent a lot of time studying the Hebrew Scriptures: the Torah, the Prophets, the Writings. The text says he comes to “test” Jesus, but I don’t think we hear that word quite properly, either. He’s not necessarily trying to trip Jesus up, at least not in the story as Luke tells it. It’s more like a test drive. He is engaging Jesus this way to find out if he is a worthy teacher. Someone worth following.
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he asks. A worthy question, on the surface. A little weird if you think about it for very long. Setting aside what he meant by “eternal life”—I don’t think he had an image of a room in a heavenly mansion—what is required for someone to inherit something? Put a bit more bluntly, ‘Who do I gotta kill to get a little eternal life around here?!”
Setting that aside for a moment, it is clear that he
is seeking some sort of right-relationship with God, and he wants to know
Jesus’ advice on how to attain it. Jesus does what any good teacher of the time
would do, he turns the question back to the man: you have studied religious
law; what answers do you find there?
The lawyer answers back quite appropriately, distilling all of the Law into one (long run-on) sentence: 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 your neighbor has yourself.” Jesus accepts his answer. (I always picture Jesus patting him on the head, giving him a cookie, and telling him to go play outside now.)
But the lawyer presses on. He wants to “justify” himself—which may not be as self-serving as it appears in our English translation. The original Greek means something closer to “wanting to be strictly observant.” So maybe he just wants to do the right thing, but he needs to know exactly what that is. Life is complicated, we are all put in the position of having to choose between imperfect responses. Perhaps this pushing on reveals that he is aware that everything he has learned and done and tried to do has not been quite enough. He has not succeeded it “inheriting eternal life”—or at least doesn’t feel confident that he is such an heir—and needs to be assured that his efforts, though imperfect, are enough. He wants to figure out the boundaries. Who do I have to love the way I love God and myself? Who can I leave out, who must I welcome in? Love your neighbor as yourself, sure—but make sure you live in the right neighborhood!
So he asks that question. “Who is my neighbor?” In response Jesus tells this parable that we have come to call “The Good Samaritan.”
That phrase, “The Good Samaritan” has cultural meaning, even to those who have no idea it’s from the Bible. People know that a Good Samaritan is a person who stops and helps someone in need. We have “Good Samaritan Laws” to protect from litigation someone who tries to help another person who has had an accident.
Unfortunately, our cultural adoption of that phrase has perhaps dulled our ability to get what is really going on in this story. We have fooled ourselves into thinking it answers the lawyer’s first question: What must I do to inherit eternal life?
It doesn’t. It answers the second question. The one that, if we take Jesus’ answer seriously, challenges us to our core: “Who is my neighbor?”
Jesus tells a story using a familiar model. To the crowd gathered there, it may even sound like he’s about to tell a joke. We have “A priest, a rabbi and a minster walked into a bar” jokes…The comparable formula among the people listening to Jesus that day were “A priest, a Levite and a faithful Jewish man were walking down the road…” All those jokes that started out with a priest and a Levite are meant to poke fun at religious leadership, portraying them as out-of-touch elites who didn’t do much for the common man but take their oxen and offer a few prayers. The hero of this kind of story was always that third guy, the average Joe, the one who was like them.
But Jesus messes with the formula.
The faithful Jewish man is not the last to go down the road, he’s the first. And something bad happens. Something very bad. The thing that most people feared as they walked that road between Jerusalem and Jericho—an attack by a band of robbers. Being stripped of all valuables, beaten to within an inch of his life, and left for dead. His only hope is a kind passerby.
Over the years, we have come up with all sorts of excuses to address our shock at the utter lack of compassion shown by the priest and the Levite. We say, “Oh, they were just so focused on staying ritually clean so that they could do their job in the Temple…” I’ve even preached that sermon.
But here’s the thing: Jesus has them walking away from Jerusalem. In his story, they’ve already done their job at the Temple. That’s kinda the point: they really wouldn’t lose much by stopping.
More importantly, the Torah is quite clear that the expectation to ease suffering, to save a life, is more important than every other law. Even if they had been on their way to Jerusalem, the law would expect them to stop and help him, despite the cost of becoming ritually unclean.
But even this failure of the religious leadership is not what makes Jesus’ story so shocking, so scandalous. The stunning part—I would even go so far to call it the offensive part—was to make the hero of the story a Samaritan.
In Jesus’ time, Good Samaritan was an oxymoron. Jews despised the Samaritans. (To be fair, Samaritans pretty much loathed Jews, as well). They avoided each other—I read that the Jews of that time would take the long way around, rather than go on a more direct road that might lead to an encounter with a Samaritan. Samaritans were as bad as lepers. The only good Samaritan was a dead one. To call a Jew a Samaritan was deeply insulting.
Jesus makes the Samaritan the hero, the one with the power to show mercy or withhold it. Jesus puts the lawyer in the ditch and challenges him to accept a helping hand from the least likely person in the story. Jesus doesn’t even give the lawyer the chance to be the good guy, the one who overcomes his prejudice and helps his enemy. Jesus takes his self-justifying answer to question one and shows him that he is the one who needs mercy. He is not the neighbor offering love—he’s the one receiving it. Eternal life is not something we earn, it’s something we receive. We do not have the power to control or limit the mercy of God.
Jesus’ point is that we will only experience the fullness of God’s kingdom, “eternal life,” when we understand that we are not the ones in charge of deciding who receives mercy. When we accept that in God’s kingdom, everyone is our neighbor. Not just the person in the house next door or down the street who looks and acts and speaks and thinks like us, but the one who is completely other. The refugee and the border patrol guard. The guy in the red MAGA hat and the chick in the Bernie t-shirt.
And the point is not just to reach down into the ditch when one of them is in trouble, but to have the humility to accept their hand, stretched out, when we’re the ones left bloody and bruised by the violence of this world.
Following Christ means shifting our perspective from question one, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” to question two, “Who is my neighbor?” The beauty of that journey is, that the more we come to accept that the answer to question two is “Everyone,” the more we experience the transformative power of Christ’s redeeming love to give us what we were really asking about in the first place.