July 14, 2019
Earlier this week, I was trying to remember exactly where my grandparents had lived when I was a little girl. So I called my mom. My mother has never been known to give a straight answer to a question when there’s a story she could tell instead. So, when I asked “do you know the name of the street where Grandpa and Grandma lived in Pretty Prairie?” her answer started out with, “All three of us girls were born on Uncle Harry’s farm. I think Edie Beth was about a year old when mom and dad moved to Hutchinson…”
An hour later, I had heard stories about my grandfather hauling coal in the winter and ice in the summer, my grandmother recovering from typhoid fever in a sod house on the Kansas prairie when she was a little girl, my great-grandfather dying just shortly after he’d finally paid off a debt his brother had incurred years before, and a few other tidbits of family history. But I never did learn the name of the street where Grandpa and Grandma lived in Pretty Prairie.
There is something about the way God created us that makes us want to tell stories. And there is something about the way God created us that makes us eager to hear them. We learn through stories. We remember through stories. We love stories. I think that’s why Jesus uses stories so often in his teaching.
Last week, we saw Jesus send ahead 70 followers to tell people just how near to them God’s kingdom is. These disciples are the advance team, and their mission is successful. They come back telling stories of how even demons submit to the authority Jesus has given them.
After the 70 have all returned, Jesus prays a prayer of thanksgiving and praise to the Father, rejoicing in the Holy Spirit and blessing these disciples. Everyone’s feeling pretty good. This brings us to today’s reading from Luke’s gospel. Remember that Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem, but we are still a long way from that destination.
Luke begins today’s famous story with one of his signature introductions: “And behold.” Luke acknowledges what has just happened, and connects it to this story with “and.” But there’s that “behold” to show us that we are about to hear something new.
And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “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 as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”
But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.”
And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
The lawyer who steps up to question Jesus only asks two questions. The first is a test. A literal translation would sound more like, “Teacher, I will inherit life eternal having done or fulfilled or acquired … what, exactly?” It’s a messy question, and hard to put into simple words.
Jesus answers the question with another question. He does that a lot, have you noticed? Actually, he asks two things that are connected – and this is important. First, Jesus wants to know “What is in the law? You’re a lawyer, you know the scriptures; you already have your answer. You tell me what it says.”
But then Jesus immediately follows with a much more personal question – “How do you read it?” See, Jesus does not think of scripture as a dead and stagnant set of words that mean the same thing to everyone. The Word of God is living and active (Hebrews 4:12), and how we read it determines how we will respond to God’s message.
The lawyer doesn’t hesitate, but begins by quoting the Shema, “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is One. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)
We recognize the beginning of what we call the Ten Commandments, but in the Hebrew tradition, they are called the Ten Words. You see, the verb “shall” is not an imperative here. It’s more of an indication that something will surely happen in the future. Instead of “you must love the Lord your God,” it’s more of an assurance: you are going to love the Lord your God, because the Lord is the only God there is.
The lawyer adds part of Leviticus 19:18(b), and this blending of two verses gives us what we now call “the Great Commandment.” If we love God, we will also love our neighbor.
Yes, Jesus says, you’ve got it. Go do it. But just as Jesus turns back to his friends, who are still celebrating their successful mission trip, the lawyer asks a new question, and this isn’t a test. It’s an attempt to justify himself, to make sure everyone listening knows how righteous he is. This guy who was challenging Jesus a moment ago suddenly feels the need to get his approval, so he asks, “Yes, but … who is my neighbor?”
And just like my mom, Jesus decides that the best way to answer this question is to tell a story.
Jesus sets the scene. It’s the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. This road runs through treacherous wilderness, and its nickname is the Valley of the Shadow of Death. The distance from Jerusalem to Jericho is too great to be traveled on foot in a single day. You’d have to spend the night somewhere. This made travelers vulnerable to the robbers and nomads who live along the road.
The first two people who accidentally happen by are a priest and a Levite. If you were the man lying in the ditch, who better to come along than someone whose life is dedicated to God? At the very least, you would expect no further harm to come to you. These must be the heroes, surely.
But they both hurry over to the other side of the road. Neither of these likely heroes stop to help. They probably wanted to avoid contamination – touching this man, who looked like he might be dead, would make them ritually unclean.
It is the third traveler who is moved to compassion. He gets down off his animal, cleans the man’s wounds with wine and oil, bandages him up and puts the man on the same animal he’s been riding. But there’s a catch. The kind person whose care has saved this man’s life is – a Samaritan. The very last person on earth any self-respecting Jew would ask for help.
There was a long history of animosity between the people of Samaria and the people of Israel. It went all the way back to King Solomon’s son, who had failed to keep the kingdom together, and ten tribes had renounced their allegiance to David’s line. They stopped worshiping in Jerusalem, and within a very short time, had turned away from worshiping God alone.
To make matters even worse, after the tribes of Israel and Judah had been carried off into captivity, those who had been left behind in Samaria had intermarried with people from other nations, erasing their unique heritage. The tribe of Judah – the Jews – didn’t even really consider the Samaritans to be Hebrews anymore. As far as they were concerned, the Samaritans were worse than Gentiles.
Remember that Jesus is telling this story on his way to Jerusalem through Samaria, and it was only a few verses ago that James and John wanted to call down fire from heaven on a Samaritan village that had refused them hospitality. The disciples and the lawyer who heard Jesus tell this parable would have had a hard time accepting a Samaritan as the hero.
The difference between the Samaritan and the two holy men who happened along that road between Jerusalem and Jericho wasn’t a matter of eyesight. All three of them saw the man lying in the ditch. The difference is what they did when they saw him.
The first two made a beeline for the opposite side of the road. Only the Samaritan saw the man and had compassion. Compassion means more than pity. It’s a gut-wrenching, heart-changing feeling. The Samaritan didn’t see an enemy lying in the ditch; he saw a person in need. He saw a brother, a neighbor, and his heart went out to this stranger.
Jesus says, “Go be like the Samaritan.” Not only “Go show mercy,” but “Go be like the person you snub. Go be like the person you think you’re more righteous than. Go be like the person you think is your enemy.
But consider this: what if, when Jesus says, “go do likewise” he isn’t referring so much to the Samaritan as the one in the ditch? What if he is saying not only “show mercy even to the people who disgust you,” but “allow the person who disgusts you the most to show mercy to you?”
See, when the lawyer wants to make himself look righteous by asking, “Who is my neighbor?” what he’s really asking is, “Who can I not treat as a neighbor? Who can I get away with not loving as I love myself, because they really aren’t my neighbors at all? While I’m eager to know who you want me to include, I need to know – who is it okay for me to exclude?”
And Jesus turns the question around. He asks, “Whose neighbor will you be? Who will you let be a neighbor to you?”
We like to identify with the one who does the right thing, but in this story, that person would be disgusting to us. We like to identify with the Samaritan when the story is all about how he stops, has compassion, treats the man’s wounds, and gives him a ride to the nearest inn.
We automatically identify with the person who has the means to offer help, but I wonder how often we recognize that this perspective assumes a certain level of privilege. The Samaritan in the story did not act out of a position of privilege. The Samaritan acted out of compassion, taking some personal risk in offering help to someone who had the power to cause him harm.
What humility it requires to accept grace from someone
to whom we have not been willing to extend grace!
Maybe this is the point Jesus wants us to hear in this very familiar story. Maybe his roundabout answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?” is really a way of getting us to realize that we aren’t always going to be the ones who come to the rescue.
Sometimes we are the ones who need to be rescued, and the one who disgusts us the most might be the very person Jesus has sent into our lives to pull us out of the ditch, wipe the dirt off our faces, bandage our wounded pride, and give us a ride to a place where we can heal and become whole.
Go. Do likewise.