Who wouldn’t want to be a “Good Samaritan?” We’re so used to connecting the word “good” to the character of the Samaritan it’s easy to miss the scandalous nature of this parable. What if there’s nothing good about a Samaritan? No one in Jesus’ audience would have applied the word “good” to a “Samaritan.” Do you still want to be a Good Samaritan? If you go back to chapter nine, you’ll discover that Jesus ran into trouble in Samaria. He was turned away from a village because he was heading toward Jerusalem. Fortunately, Jesus didn’t follow the advice of James and John who wanted to call down fire from heaven to consume the village, but that goes to show that something is up in the story of the Good Samaritan (Lk 9:51-56).
Not long after Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan villagers, he sent out the seventy to preach. After they returned from their mission trip, Jesus was approached by a lawyer. Now, I need to let you know that Luke doesn’t seem to like lawyers. I’m not sure why, but he’s not a big fan. So you know the lawyer in this story is going to come off badly!
This lawyer “stood up to test Jesus.” He did what Satan did in the temptation story. This lawyer—who is part Satan and part Ben Matlock—tries to trick Jesus into saying something theologically incriminating. He asks Jesus: “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answers this question with one of his own: “What is written in the Law?” How do you read it? Here’s how the lawyer read the Torah: We’re supposed to love God with our whole being (Deut. 6:5) and love our neighbor as ourselves (Lev. 19:18). Jesus said to the lawyer: Good, “do this, and you will live.” Not just for eternity, but in the “here and now!”
It’s all so simple. If you love God and your neighbor, you will live. St. Augustine understood this. He wrote that the ultimate end of Scripture involves loving God and loving our neighbor. Then he went on to say that any interpretation of Scripture that “does not tend to build up this two-fold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought.” [On Christian Doctrine, ch. 36]. For some reason, the lawyer didn’t get the meaning of these two commandments, because he felt like he had to justify himself by asking Jesus: “Who is my neighbor?”
When it comes to neighborliness, what comes to mind? I think of the Grays. We moved from the big city to the small town of Mount Shasta when I was about three years old and the Grays were our next door neighbors. Don was my age, so he became my very first best friend. Don had three older siblings. A couple of years back, Cheryl and I had lunch with Don, Mary Beth, Doug, and their spouses. Only David and his wife were absent. We told stories. Actually, Doug and Mary Beth told stories about me and my family. While they were our “neighbors,” they became family. It’s been more than fifty years since we moved away from Mount Shasta, but I still think of the Grays as family. So is this what the Law has in mind when it speaks of loving our neighbor?
I think the lawyer would have been happy if Jesus had people like the Grays in mind. They’re easy to love. Unfortunately for the lawyer, Jesus had something else in mind.
One commentator suggested that when it came to the definition of neighbor love, the lawyer wasn’t focused on either God or neighbor, but on himself. That’s why he asked the question. He wanted to narrow down the definition so it didn’t require much of him.
When the lawyer asked this question, Jesus answered with a parable. When it comes to the characters in the story, we need to acknowledge that the priest and the Levite aren’t symbols of what is wrong with Judaism. In addition, this isn’t a story about legalism or religious purity. It’s a story about two people who failed to do what the Law required and the unexpected person who did fulfill the Law.
This parable has taken on a life of its own. As Amy-Jill Levine pointed out it has come to mean whatever we want it to mean. It has become so ingrained in our cultural life that George W. Bush could make a pledge on behalf of the nation in his first inaugural address that “when we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to the other side.” It might work in a twenty-first-century political speech, but how did that original Jewish audience hear Jesus’ words? This is an important question because this parable has too often been misinterpreted and misused, with Jews bearing the brunt of it.
So, here’s what we know: There was a man traveling down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. This road is only eighteen miles long, but it was a rather dangerous route. The audience would have resonated with Jesus’ description of the attack on the man by a group of bandits. They’d heard plenty of stories about people get stripped of their clothes and being left for dead. This was nightly news. What they wanted to know was if anyone stopped to help. Is there going to be a hero in this story?
Jesus continues: A priest was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. When he saw the man lying in the ditch, he passed by on the other side. A Levite did the same thing. Luke doesn’t offer any motives. He just describes their move away from the man. They didn’t do this because they were worried about missing their turn in the Temple. They were heading away from Jerusalem not toward the Temple. They simply passed by on the other side, even though The Torah required them to tend to the wounded and the dead. Now Jesus has everyone’s attention. If the priest and the Levite fail to do their duty, surely there is a third person who will care for the man. This is the traditional pattern. They’re expecting this character to be an Israelite. The problem is, this is a parable and parables tend to toss in surprises.
Jesus does have a third person in mind. He continues: “A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion.” (Lk 10:33 CEB). If you had been there in the audience, you would have heard gasps of surprise. No one expected Jesus to introduce a Samaritan into the story.
This Samaritan doesn’t represent Jesus or a marginalized person. Remember he’s wealthy enough to provide long-term care for the injured man. The reason why the audience gasped was that Samaritans and Jews had been enemies for centuries. If you were a Jew the idea that a Samaritan was good, was laughable. That’s like saying you can be a good murderer. A Samaritan would have returned the favor when it came to Jews. These two communities were like the Hatfields and the McCoys. They were related but they hated each other with a passion. So, Amy-Jill Levine points out that “The parable, in its original setting, is not about the type of prejudice that creates people on the margins; it is about hatred between groups who have similar resources.” [Short Stories by Jesus (p. 112)].
The inclusion of the Samaritan is meant to surprise us. It grabs our attention because it’s so unexpected. It’s sort of like using Vladimir Putin as a role model. The identity of the person is less important than what this person does. Not only does the Samaritan have compassion for the man in the ditch, he acts on that compassion. He bandages the man’s wounds and puts him up in the inn. He tells the innkeeper he’ll pay for the man’s care when he returns. He’s not just promising emergency care; he’s promising long-term support.
When Jesus finished telling the parable, he asked the lawyer, “which of these three was the neighbor.” The lawyer couldn’t bring himself to say the word Samaritan, so he said: “the one who showed him mercy.” Jesus responded: “Go and do likewise.”
To speak of loving God and loving neighbor does not require theological precision; it does not ask for a particular location of worship (Gerizim, Jerusalem, Mecca, the Ganges, or Ssogoréate . . .); it does not speak to a particular book (the Torah, the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Christian Bible, the Qur’an, or the Book of Mormon . . .). Loving God and loving neighbor cannot exist in the abstract; they need to be enacted. [Levine, Short Stories by Jesus (p. 114)].
The priest and Levite are just ordinary people who fail to do what was expected of them. The Samaritan is the unexpected person, who does what we should all do, but often fail to do. He might be the enemy and yet he saves a life, which is what the Torah commands. This leads to the next question, could there be some good in the people we deem enemies? Could it be that the one we consider our enemy will be the one who comes to our aid?
Who is our neighbor in an increasingly polarized age? Who truly loves God and neighbor?
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
July 14, 2019
Picture Attribution: Swanson, John August. 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=56548 [retrieved July 13, 2019]. Original source: www.JohnAugustSwanson.com – copyright 2002 by John August Swanson.