When I say ‘Good Samaritan,’ you’d probably know what I meant even if I hadn’t read the passage from Luke just now (which, to be fair, doesn’t use the phrase at all). It’s a phrase we all know and have even used of someone who’s been especially kind or generous.
But even though we all know this parable, I suspect, I think it’s worth spending some more time with it.
We start with this lawyer who’s asking Jesus questions. There’s nothing wrong with that on its face; asking questions of Jesus can be a good and important and life-giving spiritual practice. But Luke tells us that this lawyer just wants to test Jesus. At the very least, it’s not a great question. I hate to say that–I believe in asking questions, even if they’re not great questions–but man, the lawyer has really missed the point with this question. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” First, in Greek the verb he uses here implies that the lawyer is asking, ‘What is the one thing I have to do once to get eternal life?’, as if eternal life is the sort of thing you drink a magic potion for and awesome! all done! set for all eternity! Um, no. But I’ll get there. Second, the idea of inheriting eternal life is… a bit off. Amy-Jill Levine describes the problem so: it “presumes eternal life is a commodity to be inherited or purchased on the basis of a particular action rather than a gift freely given.” (Short Stories by Jesus, p. 78) And, finally, the lawyer is also being really selfish with this question: he is focused entirely on his own salvation rather than on the community as a whole.
Jesus, of course, answers a question with a question: basically he asks, ‘What do you think?’
The lawyer’s answer is technically correct: “‘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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” These are quotes from Deuteronomy and Leviticus, that is, from the very heart of the Jewish law and their understanding of what it meant to be Jewish. These are in fact oft-quoted passages that are often placed together.
To come back to the lawyer’s original question, then, the lawyer knows perfectly well, at least on paper, that a good life that follows the law is one that is full of love and respect for both God and people, and this is not the sort of thing that you do once and are done with forever. This is not a magic potion of eternal life! No, this is a way of life, one that shapes you and so one that is constantly changing as you learn more about the people around you and how to love them.
And Jesus answers, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”
If you think I’m getting ahead of the story itself–maybe. But the set up is important to the parable Jesus ends up telling, and so much of it echoes what the parable tells us in a different way.
And now to the parable itself: the lawyer asks ‘Who is our neighbor, then?’ because he just can’t let it go. And Jesus tells the parable: a man travels the very dangerous road between Jericho and Jerusalem, and is attacked and left for dead. A priest walks by and refuses to help him; a Levite walks by and refuses to help him; finally a Samaritan walks by and helps him, cares for his wounds, and pays an innkeeper to give him a safe place to stay and recover.
First: often people will use this story to criticize the Jewish law, and say that the priest and the Levite didn’t stop because of the purity rules in the law. But, as we were just saying, the law is about loving God and loving one another. The law, in fact, instructs everyone to care for those in need, including ritually pure people like priests and Levites. What they should have done, according to the law, was stop to see if the man was still alive and, when they realized he was, to help him. But instead they both kept walking.
Martin Luther King, Jr. preached about this parable the night before he was assassinated: “But I’m going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It’s possible that those men were afraid. [….] You know, it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around, or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking and he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. So the first question that the priest asked, the first question that the Levite asked, was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But then the Good Samaritan came by and he reversed the question. ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?'” (“I’ve Been To The Mountaintop.”)
Original readers would have been shocked by the fact that it was a Samaritan who finally helped the traveler. Samaritans and Jews had been fighting for centuries by Jesus’ time, about how to worship. These fights would sometimes get violent, and Jews at least would go miles out of their way to avoid Samaritan areas–a big deal, of course, when you’re walking. Amy-Jill Levine imagines the story today as an Israeli man being attacked on the road. An Israeli army medic walks by without helping; an aid worker walks by without helping. Then a Hamas man stops to help, when Hamas proclaims vehemently that all Jews deserve to die.
The parable reminds us that love should go outside of boundaries. It should not be constrained by who we like or who we live by. Rather, love is for everyone.
To come back to the lawyer’s questions at the beginning, though–not so much the questions themselves as the way the lawyer asked them–the questions remind us to ask some questions of our own. What sort of life do we want to live? Who are we really willing to love? Do we say the proper words, as the lawyer does, without living it out? Do we really live according to the tenants we believe in and the creed we’re about to proclaim?
And so may the parable remind us to love more. May it remind us to look around us, at the people we usually notice and the ones we don’t, and also notice what God is doing so we can take part in it. May we love.
Alleluia, and Amen.