The Good Samaritan
Just then, a faithful church member stood up to see if he was understanding Jesus correctly. He was intrigued by Jesus, but also confused. All of these stories and very few clear directions. He just wanted Jesus to spell it out for him. “Teacher,” he said, “how do I make my life meaningful? What am I supposed to do if I want God’s Kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven?” Jesus said, “what do you read in scripture? How do you interpret what you read?” The church member, saying words he had memorized as a young boy, said, “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.” Jesus said, “Yes, that’s it. That is why you are here on earth.”
“Okay, but what does that actually look like? Help me understand what you want from me.” asked the man. Jesus said, “A well-off, white man wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat was leaving Jerusalem and was headed to Jericho. You know how dangerous that road is, of course, and unfortunately, he was mugged. The man was badly beaten up, and even his clothes were stolen! His attackers left him on the side of the road to die.
Completely by coincidence, a pastor came by shortly after. She was on her way to a funeral, not to mention she was just scared. She decided someone better equipped to help would come by soon, so she crossed the street and kept going, intending to tell someone who could help when she got to Jericho. Shortly after, a deacon came down the road. He was on his way to a deacons’ meeting and they had a full agenda to tackle. He was sure someone else would come behind him, so he kept going too. He pulled out his phone and called his buddy to see what he thought should be done about making this road safer. Surely, they didn’t have to take such terrible risks every time they went back and forth between Jerusalem and Jericho.
The next person who came down the road was a black, transgender woman. She saw the man laying there and was overcome with gut-wrenching compassion. He was passed out, but through the blood and bruises, she could still see a confederate flag tattoo. She knelt beside the man and pulled a Black Lives Matter t-shirt from her bag. She used it to dab hand sanitizer on his wounds and then quickly ripped up the t-shirt and tied it around the man’s injuries to staunch the bleeding. She dragged the man up and got him to a clinic where she made sure the man could be treated and recuperate safely. She waited with him for a while, and put her own credit card down for payment on his bill. His wallet was gone, after all. No insurance cards or money to pay with. She didn’t even know his name. When she left, she told the nurses to please take good care of the man. She would come back with more money if it was needed.”
“So,” Jesus said to the church member, “which of these three became a neighbor to the man who had been robbed?” “The one who stopped. The one who helped him.” “Right,” said Jesus. “That’s what I expect you to do. Go be like that.”
Go do that, go be like that, says Jesus to the man who questions him. And of course, to us.
Our text for today from Luke 10 is very likely Jesus’ most well-known teaching. “The Good Samaritan” is a shorthand way of saying “someone who helps,” even for folks who have never cracked open a Bible. It’s the story we all know, and also, perhaps the story we most struggle to live by.
Before we jump into Jesus’ parable though, I want to take a look at the man who asks the question in the first place. I’ve heard and read a great many sermons that think this lawyer is just kind of being a jerk. They’re reading that the man is testing Jesus and trying to justify himself very literally. It’s not a wrong reading, it’s just not the only way to read it. The man may be asking Jesus these questions because he is trying to understand Jesus- it’s not a trap, he’s trying to figure out what Jesus believes so he can decide if they agree. It’s entirely possible that it is more like the lawyer, who by the way, would be an expert in Jewish law and thereby a very religious person, is simply asking these questions so he might fully grasp Jesus’ teachings. So for today at least, I’d like to suggest we give the lawyer the benefit of the doubt. His questions are genuine, his motive is understanding. And through that lens, his questions themselves are questions that we, too, genuinely ask of God. “God, what do you want from me? What are you calling me to? How can I make a difference in this world? What should I do in my day-to-day life to follow you more closely? What does my faith mean?” Any serious follower of Christ should be asking those questions. And if we are, if we are genuinely asking those questions, then Jesus’ answer might also frustrate us into asking more questions.
Jesus asks the man about what he knows of scripture and how he interprets what he reads there- a reminder by the way, that scripture is alive and we are to contend with its meaning. So, the man rattles off the fundamental answer to his fundamental question- “I am supposed to love God in every possible way, and to love my neighbor as much as I love myself.” Bingo, says Jesus. I’d suggest that the man’s second question, the one that is intended to justify him, is asked out of frustration. “Yes, Jesus, I know that answer. I’ve been saying those words my whole life. But what does it mean in my day-to-day life? How will I know I’m doing it right?” We tend to skip over the lawyer’s questions to get to the story, but I think they are deeply important. These questions reveal the heart of being a faithful follower. What am I supposed to do, God, and how will I know I’m getting it right? So then, Jesus’ answer, which, as always, is both beautifully complex and painfully straightforward.
He launches into this story. A story that I obviously took some creative license with earlier, but my choices were rooted in Jesus’ telling. Jesus speaks of a man and then three others who are all leaving Jerusalem and heading to Jericho. This road was a known danger, but was often used nonetheless. In this story, the man who is robbed, the Priest, and the Levite are all Jews, but more importantly, they all represent the common, dominant culture of Jesus’ audience. The man is robbed, and one would expect, one would hope that the Priest and Levite would help. They are supposed to be safe and responsible. They have something in common with this man. And yet, perhaps for reasons that felt valid to them, they do not help. They pass by on the other side.
Instead, a Samaritan stops to help. Our Bibles say something like “he was moved with compassion or pity,” but the Greek word used here actually means something more like “it ripped his heart out” or “it gutted him” to see the hurt man. I chose the word “gut-wrenching” because the Greek is actually related to one’s gut- where they believed the soul dwelt. And here’s the thing- Samaritans and Jews are enemies. In fact, if you flip back to Luke 9:51-56 you’ll see that the residents of a Samaritan city refused to let Jesus enter because he was headed to Jerusalem. According to the Jews, Samaritans had descended from those who remained in Jerusalem during the Babylonian captivity. They intermarried with people from other groups, and became impure in the eyes of the Jews. These two groups grew to hate each other so much that they would travel out of their way simply to avoid being in one another’s territory.
I want to be clear- this is not an opportunity for us to read antisemitism into the text; this should be a moment for us to wonder “who are my enemies? who would I avoid at all costs?” Because if we’re being honest, those people exist. I chose two particular groups of people, but I could have reversed them. I could have chosen a Republican and a Democrat, someone who is prolife and someone who is prochoice, the Proud Boys and the drag performers, undocumented immigrants and someone who is anti-immigration, a welfare recipient and someone who opposes any social supports. Jesus’ point is that there is no such thing as “the other,” there is no such thing as someone else’s child, there is no such thing as someone undeserving of our help, there is no such thing as an only child. There are only God’s children, and anyone in need is your neighbor. Anyone. Whether you like them or not, whether you trust them or not, whether you agree with them or not. According to Jesus, anyone in need is your neighbor.
The lawyer asks, “who is my neighbor?” And Jesus answers with this story. He ends with his own question “which of these has become a neighbor to the man who was robbed?” I’ve always been intrigued with the way Jesus structures this conversation. The man asks “who am I supposed to love?” but Jesus’ language points to the one who gives love as the neighbor. It highlights the reciprocity of the love. Some days you are the Samaritan, other days you are the man who was robbed. And Jesus literally asks “who has become a neighbor” to the man who was harmed. It’s a choice. Being a neighbor is a choice you make, and it is demonstrated by the way you love other people, even when you don’t have to, even when you don’t want to. You choose to show up and be a neighbor.
Of course, we live in a world that is so terribly divided, so polarized, and we are at risk of becoming so cold towards one another that our hearts are incapable of being moved by compassion as the Samaritan’s was. Our fear and distrust of the other has made us brittle. We cling so tightly to our false sense of security and safety that our hands can’t hold anything else. We cross the street rather than confront the suffering of another.
The word that Jesus uses to explain what the Samaritan felt when he saw the man, it is a visceral, physical word. It’s almost gruesome- a compassion so strong it feels like your insides are ripped out of you. In the Bible, that word is only ever used by Jesus or used to describe Jesus’ own compassion. It was never used that way before Jesus. That’s powerful, right? Jesus looks out on the world and sees people he loves and their suffering rips his heart right out of his chest. And then Jesus looks at the lawyer, looks at us, and says “go and do likewise.”
Go and do likewise. Amen.