July 14, 2019, The 5th Sunday after Pentecost Year C, Luke 10:25-37
The parable of the Good Samaritan is probably one of Jesus’ most familiar and beloved parables. We hear it and we feel like we have it and its meaning down because we have heard it told so often. It is so popular that it has become part of our culture as we talk about those who come to the aid of the stranger in need as “Good Samaritans.” I think I’ve heard it at least twice in the past week as I heard it used to refer to the patrons who responded to the cries for help of a woman being stabbed by what turned out to be an ex-boyfriend in a popular restaurant in Worcester. And to the passerby who saw a house on fire and ran to alert the occupants and get them to safety before any life was lost .
It has also been popular to bestow non-profit hospitals and charities with the name, “Good Samaritan”, thus identifying themselves by their name as organizations where the poor, sick, or homeless can find help and care in their time of need. And there are Good Samaritan laws in some states that protect from risk of liability those “Good Samaritans” who try to help others who find themselves in a time of need for life-saving help and care. These cultural references to the “Good Samaritan” all contribute to a general understanding of the parable as a call that no matter who we are or what other important things we think we need to tend to, we should always stop and take the time to help the stranger in need. It tends to be a sort of feel good type of parable.
Yet, would the people of Jesus’ day have heard it in this way? Is that what they would have taken away from hearing the parable? That we should all simply be like the Samaritan? That we should be nice to people in need? New Testament and Jewish Studies scholar Amy-Jill Levine doesn’t think so. In her book, Short Stories by Jesus, she argues that this modern interpretation misses the deeper implications of the parable that the hearer in Jesus’ day would have easily understood in the parable, but that in our modern context slip by us unnoticed. She argues that most modern interpretations either miss, or try to downplay, how truly radical the message of this parable was to those hearing it.
Today’s Gospel reading that includes this parable begins with with a lawyer, an expert in Jewish religious law, asking what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus doesn’t answer the lawyer directly, but asks him what he knows to be written in the law on this subject. He wants to see what the lawyer knows and perhaps get at what his motives are in asking the question. And the lawyer gives the answer any good Jewish person would know and offer up, that he must love the Lord with all his heart, soul, strength, and mind and love his neighbor as himself. Jesus told him he indeed had the correct answer. Jewish law calls the faithful above all to love of God and neighbor. Jesus doesn’t tell him it will bring him the eternal life he says he seeks though, but instead Jesus says in doing this he will live. He will live here and now if he follows this as that is what Torah, or this part of the Hebrew Scriptures containing the law, is known to be for. Not preparing for the hereafter, but for life in the here and now. In answering his question Jesus redirects the lawyer for the first time in their interaction to the question he should instead be asking here – about how to live fully and completely in love in the present. Not to limit his scope to prepare for the after-life, but to show him how living into God’s expansive love can set him free to live in the here and now.
However, that wasn’t the question the lawyer really wanted to ask because we see that he won’t give up on trying to limit the scope of what he HAS to do, so he asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” We all know though that the real question here isn’t “who IS my neighbor” because that is a question that tries to broaden the scope of love as it implies, “who can I include in this neighbor category?” Instead, the question the lawyer is really asking is “who isn’t my neighbor?” Because as we read, he wants to justify himself. He wants to narrow the scope of that neighbor love he knows the Torah calls him to live out. He wants to see just who he has to include legally on a short list of neighbors.
So, it is here that Jesus redirects him for the second time to the question he should be asking at this point, as instead of answering his question directly as he could do, he tells him a parable. A parable of a man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho who is robbed, beaten, and left for dead. Not probably a surprising thing for those in that day hearing the parable as the road was notoriously dangerous. What does seem a bit surprising to us is the first two people who come upon and walk by the injured man, a priest and a Levite. Two religious professionals we would think would have known that their primary calls in life were to love God and their neighbor.
Over the years, I’ve heard preachers try to cut these two religious men some slack by saying that the reason they walk by is that they don’t want to become ritually unclean by touching a dead body as that would have prevented them from tending to their religious duties in the Temple. However, Amy-Jill Levine says that as the reading says the priest is going DOWN the road and not UP the road that knocks out that explanation as you would have to go UP the road to Jerusalem. Going DOWN the road meant going away from Jerusalem and away from their religious duties in the Temple there. That explanation is just one of many she says tries to let the priest and the Levite off the hook for their bad behavior.
Levine says there is only one good answer she’s heard over the years to explain why the priest and Levite fail to come to the aid of the man. She says that answer came from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a sermon on the text where he said that it was possible that the men were afraid for their lives and so focused on themselves by asking, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” Even if that isn’t their reason, the actions of the priest and the Levite here reflect the wrong choice in the situation and Jesus, by using them as the first two people who encounter the hurt man, is trying to send a message.
Amy-Jill Levine says that the audience hearing this parable in Jesus’ day would then have assumed they knew that message thinking that the third person who would walk by after a priest and a Levite would be an Israelite and that person would definitely stop to help. Because if the religious professionals didn’t stop, then it would of course be the everyday person of faith who would be the one to demonstrate how to fulfill the call to love of neighbor. However, we see that isn’t who Jesus has as the third person to walk by. Instead, it is a Samaritan.
That would have been shocking to the hearers as the Israelites and Samaritans saw one another as enemies. Levine says they were at odds for centuries fighting about everything and anything religious as she writes, “Each claimed the true descent from Abraham, true understanding of Torah, the correct priesthood, and the right form of worship in the proper location.” (Short Stories of Jesus, pg. 98). Hearing the third person to walk by was a Samaritan would have the Jewish people listening to Jesus likely thinking that they would rather die there by the side of the road than have a Samaritan touch them, never mind help them. And that is exactly why Jesus chose the Samaritan. Because hearing that a Samaritan, the person whom they hated with a passion and would try to avoid at all costs and who felt the same about them, was the person who actually stopped and helped the wounded person by the side of the road, would have been offensive to them. It would have scandalized them. It would have shown them that there was no one who could NOT be a neighbor to them. The human boundaries they and we set up to divide ourselves were being shown by Jesus to be meaningless.
Today, who might that person be for us? Who might so offend us that being helped by them would be virtually unthinkable? On the Journey with Jesus blog this week Debie Thomas suggests some possibilities. She writes, “A progressive Democrat is robbed, and a far-right Republican saves her life. A racist white cop is robbed, and an African-American teenager saves his life. A transgender woman is robbed, and an anti-LGBTQ activist saves her life. An outspoken atheist is robbed, and a Bible-thumping fundamentalist saves his life. A border patrol agent is robbed, and an undocumented immigrant saves his life.” She says her goal isn’t to trivialize the real differences that divide us politically, religiously, racially, or ideologically today with this list, but to help us to see how deep the divide was between the Israelites and Samaritans. How Jesus holding up the Samaritan as an example of love of neighbor was radical and offensive in a visceral way to the hearer much like these are for us.
Therefore, the goal wouldn’t have been for the hearer to put him or herself in the shoes of the Samaritan giving help as we tend to do, but to put themselves in the place of the wounded man dying by the side of the road receiving help from the Samaritan. When we do that, when we place ourselves in the position of the person totally helpless and dependent on someone, anyone, even our worst enemy stopping to help us and show us mercy because that forces us to see our need for the other. It so jars us that it reorients us enough to recognize our need for mercy means that we need each other to live fully as God intends.
Jesus in selecting the Samaritan as the helper of the wounded man invites the lawyer and the hearers to to prepare for eternal life once we have died – that was viewed as covered by God – but to live now by in God’s kingdom life in the present. He does this by inviting them not to a narrow and rigid definition of who their neighbor is, but a radically expansive one. He invites them to an inclusive vision of the kingdom where even one like the lawyer who so hates the Samaritan that he can’t even say his name in reply to Jesus’s question of who was a neighbor to the man who was robbed, still recognizes the Samaritan acted as neighbor to the wounded man as he was “the one who showed him mercy.”
Mercy transforms us. It moves us beyond simply fulfilling our legal responsibility to fulfilling our neighborly responsibility to love one another. It moves us beyond ourselves and toward the other. Indeed, in the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s sermon on this text while he said it was fear for the self that prohibited the priest and the Levite from helping the wounded man as they asked, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to ME?” He said the Good Samaritan, the one who acted with mercy, flipped the question to ask, “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to HIM?” Mercy turns us outward to the other in love. It moves us beyond ourselves to broaden our definitions of who is included in God’s call to love of neighbor. It moves us to love as God first loves us, with mercy and forgiveness and without limits or restrictions, so that we may go and do likewise.
In times when it seems as if we are hopelessly divided and cannot ever turn and reach out to those so different from us with love, Jesus tells us through the parable of the Good Samaritan that through mercy we can. He tells us that God’s mercy received transforms us to turn outward to not just receive mercy from another in our most vulnerable of times of need, but to share it as we go and do likewise showing mercy to the other. This parable helps us to reimagine ourselves as part of God’s kingdom, a kingdom beyond what we can imagine on our own, where God appears to us in the neighbor we least like – if truth be told, in the one we despise – and scandalizes us with mercy, compassion, and love in spite of our differences, erasing the boundaries we create to divide us from them. Go and do likewise Jesus says and then you will live. May it be so. Amen.