July 14, 2013, Pentecost 8 – The Parable of the Good Samaritan
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The gospel that we read this morning tells about a meeting between Jesus and a lawyer. A lawyer in that time and place wasn’t what we think of as a lawyer: someone who goes into court and works on a legal case, or to settle a dispute, or to negotiate a contract. The lawyer that stood up to question Jesus was more of a scholar: an expert on Jewish Law. He would have known the Law of Moses in detail, and he would have studied the writings of the Rabbis who wrote commentaries on the Law. The Law wasn’t just a job for him; it was his whole life. It was on the Law that he based his understanding of who God was. And so, like so many of the authorities of the Temple, the Priests and the Scribes and the Pharisees, he saw this itinerant preacher who was drawing enormous crowds of people to listen to him, as a threat. It was an affront to men who had spent their lives studying the Law to hear a peasant from a backwater town speak the word of God as if he was an authority. And so this lawyer stood up and put Jesus to the test. It’s a strong word in the Greek; he set out to really put Jesus on the hot seat, as it were.
“Teacher,” he asks, “What do I have to do to inherit eternal life?” He is clearly hoping to catch Jesus in some error and humiliate him before the crowds, but Jesus doesn’t take the bait. “You know the Law,” he said, “You tell me how you read it.” And of course the lawyer has the answer at his fingertips, “In Deuteronomy, Moses wrote, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” And again, in Leviticus, Moses gave us these words, ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.’ Those are the words by which we must live.” And Jesus replied, “You’re right; you have understood correctly. If you do those things you will live.”
And then an interesting twist happens, because the lawyer, the expert that had set out to make a fool of Jesus, suddenly feels the need to prove himself before Jesus. Luke writes, “Wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” Remember, this man’s whole life was studying the Law, and about measuring and quantifying so that people could know whether they had fulfilled its requirements. It would have made sense to him, if it is the command of God that we are to love our neighbor, that there must be a way to define who is and who is not a neighbor. In fact, in Jewish Law there were all kinds of regulations about keeping pure, and avoiding contact with certain people, with gentiles, or with anyone who was ritually unclean for any reason. Israel was a society that identified itself as a people set apart, a unique people, holy to God, (and not only that, but a small nation that had almost always lived with enemies on all sides). So it made sense to ask who exactly Moses was talking about – and who he wasn’t talking about – when he commanded the Israelites to love their neighbor.
And so, wanting to justify himself before Jesus, he asked him “How do I define those people that count as my neighbors? What are the parameters for obeying the command to love my neighbor?” As a lawyer, he was trained to think in precise definitions and technicalities like that. But as a man in the presence of Jesus, I can imagine, he also felt a need to prove himself, to measure up, to not be found wanting. He had come to ask his question about earning the reward of eternal life as a test for Jesus, but he found himself put to the test instead.
And in reply, Jesus did what he so often did, he told a story. And not only did he answer with a story, but in typical Jesus fashion the story doesn’t really an answer to the question at all. Jesus had no interest in defining who is and who isn’t our neighbor. The message of the story of the Good Samaritan is about what it means to love. And to teach that message, Jesus compares the actions of three men: a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan. It’s a pretty loaded cast of characters, like a joke someone might tell about an unpopular ethnic group, because Samaritans and Jews were not friendly with one another at all. The difference is that instead of making the Samaritan the butt of a joke, Jesus makes him the hero of the story.
The back story is the terrible plight of the traveler who has been beaten and robbed and left for dead on the side of the road. We don’t know whether he is a Jew or a Samaritan, or something else entirely, and that doesn’t make any difference – Jesus didn’t put the Samaritan into the story, because he wants to prove that Jews and Samaritans ought to treat one another as neighbors. He made the Samaritan the hero of the story so that the lawyer would be able to recognize love even in the face of his own prejudice.
As the story goes, each of the three men happens upon the scene entirely by accident. It’s mere coincidence that brings them there. They are just going about their business, each one busy with the affairs of their own lives, until they see the man. Each man sees the unfortunate victim lying by the road, and in the Greek each man reacts with a single word. In the case of the priest and the Levite, Luke uses a single word that means “passed by on the other side.” “He saw,” Luke writes, “and he passed-by-on-the-other-side.” But in the case of the Samaritan, “He saw,” and then Luke uses a single word that means, “he had compassion.”
The story presents love as a moment of decision. We go about our lives, we blunder along minding our own business, until we see someone – God brings someone into our lives who needs help. It probably won’t be someone who’s been beaten and robbed and left half-dead, it might just be someone who needs somebody to listen to them. It might be a homeless man asking for spare change or our spouse needing a little patience or forgiveness. It might even be our literal neighbor, the kid next door selling Girl Scout cookies or asking to mow our lawn for us. Like the men in the story, the moment of choice comes when we see them. God brings someone into our lives so that we see, and in that moment of seeing we have to make a choice.
Option A is passing-by-on-the-other-side, and there are always a billion and one reasons why that makes sense. If they wanted to justify themselves, the priest and the Levite could always find a way to justify not loving. We are busy, they say to themselves, we are tired, we have to keep our priorities straight, we just don’t have time. They tell themselves all these things, and they might even be true, but the bottom line is that they choose not-caring. They choose to pass-by-on-the-other-side. They see, and instead of love they choose not-love.
But the Samaritan chooses option B – he sees, and he chooses to care. He chooses to have compassion. He loves, and loves lavishly and abundantly – he binds up the man’s wounds, washing them with olive oil and wine, and he lifts the man onto his own donkey and spends a whole day at the inn caring for him. And then he pays for his continued care. He loves with all his heart and mind and soul and strength. He loves by doing all the things that compassion and mercy require.
It’s a parable, so it’s exaggerated, everything laid out in stark black and white size extra large, the vicious robbers and the pathetic victim, the cold-hearted men-of-the-cloth and the warm-hearted foreigner. Life doesn’t really present itself like that; it’s so much more complex and messy and ambiguous in real life. I am sure the lawyer knew that as well as we do, but he understood the point. He got it. “Which of the three men was a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” Jesus asked him. “It was the Samaritan,” the lawyer answered, “it was the man who showed mercy.” And Jesus sends him on his way, “Go then, and do likewise.”
In his confrontation with the lawyer, Jesus didn’t see an enemy, he saw a neighbor. The lawyer had stood up in the crowd to humiliate him publicly, and Jesus could have turned him away with a smart rebuttal. He could have justified himself in passing by on the other side, as a way of avoiding conflict. But that was never his way. He saw, and he chose to respond with compassion. Showing mercy, he knew what the lawyer most needed. The lawyer knew all the right answers; he knew the words of the Law; but he hadn’t yet understood the law of love and grace that fulfills and supersedes the whole Law. Offering love, Jesus invited the Lawyer into the way of love. We don’t have any way of knowing whether the lawyer went back to join the other Jewish authorities in opposing Jesus and plotting his death, or whether he chose that day to follow the life that Jesus had shown him. That is his story, which only God knows.
But we can hear the teaching of this parable of the Good Samaritan for ourselves, each time God brings someone into our lives, and there are always those particular people we can tell, we just know, he has put in our way. We see them, and there are only two choices we can make; there’s really no middle ground. We see them, and seeing, we can choose to pass by on the other side. Or we see them, and seeing, we can choose the way of life: we can choose to have compassion, and having compassion, we can do in obedience what mercy asks of us, however small or great that might be. Because that is what it means to love our neighbor. And that is the way of abundant life.