Sermon on Luke 10:25-37 for July 14, 2019, Pentecost 6C. Audio can be found here for several weeks.
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”
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 given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, 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 while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
New Testament Scholars all agree that one of the most certain things we can know about the historical Jesus is that he told parables. Many of them contain surprises. Sometimes they completely reverse our expectations.
Jesus’ parables are set in normal life — they are about farmers in their fields or families with rebellious sons, or sheep that get lost.
The parable we call The Good Samaritan is probably Jesus’ most well known and loved, even if it is also so well ignored. But we cannot ignore it. This parable has never been more relevant, so let us try to take a fresh look at it again.
The Biblical Scholar and his Questions
It begins with a confrontation. Luke calls the man who confronted Jesus a “lawyer” but the “law” that he was a trained expert in was not civil law, it was the Law of Moses, the Torah. So, we would call him a Biblical scholar.
Anyway, he asks a question that we think we understand, but most of us probably do not. He asks,
“what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
It sounds like he is asking how to get to heaven. That’s not what he was asking. Most Jewish people had no concept of heaven yet. But they did have the idea that there were two ages you could live in: this one and the coming one. This age is full of evil, oppression, and suffering; the coming age would be an age of justice and vindication of the righteous.
How does the new age arrive? Opinions differed. Maybe God would just miraculously intervene, maybe God would empower humans to successfully overthrow the Romas, just as God had done in the stories of Joshua’s armies defeating the Canaanites, many years before. Messiah would be the leader, of course.
But anyway, the righteous would live in the age to come, and that’s what this Bible scholar wants for himself.
The First Answer
So Jesus asks him to answer his own question. At least this is how Luke tells it. In Mark, which was the first version, the scholar asks Jesus, and Jesus answers; but today, we are reading Luke’s version. So Jesus asks the question:
“He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”
The Bible scholar answers. He goes to the very law that is at the heart of Judaism.
“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;”
That law became the basis of the creed, the Shema, that faithful Jewish people recited twice daily, so it is at the heart of Jewish identity and spirituality.
But, interestingly, the bible scholar adds a second law, in the same breath, even the same sentence, saying,
“and your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev. 19:18)
Neighboring in Torah
Now, the word “neighbor” is going to become a big deal in this story, so let us just take a moment before we continue to ask, “What was so important about the neighbor?”
Every Jewish person would know that “neighbor” was a huge concept in the Law of Moses. In English, “neighbor” translates a couple of Hebrew words, which together occur over 200 times. It is a huge concept. Let me give you just a couple of examples:
“If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor.”Deut. 15:7
Here are a couple from the Ten Commandments:
“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.Ex. 20:16
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”Ex. 20:17
And the last example I will give actually supplies the reason for the law based on the very character of God. It is a law about making a personal loan and taking something for collateral:
“If you take your neighbor’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down; 27 for it may be your neighbor’s only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate.”Ex. 22:26
So God’s compassion requires that the cloak, even though it is collateral for the loan, be returned so the poor person has something to cover herself in the cool Palestinian night.
You can see how important this concept of neighbor is. You have huge ethical obligations to your neighbor. Care of neighbor is right up there with the foundational obligation to love the Lord your God. Some scholars have called this the ethics of “neighboring.”
So Jesus says,
“You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
The Poisonous Question
And now comes what I am calling the poisonous question. Luke tells us the bible scholar’s motivation for asking it: he wants to justify himself.
Think about that. That means he is aware of his own track record. Maybe he has been ethically responsible to some people, people he considers legitimate “neighbors,” but not to everyone. Is he off the hook? Here is the poisonous question:
“he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
In other words, what are the limits around my ethical obligations?
Whose cloak do I need to return at night, after a loan, and whose can I just keep, and it is okay with God?
Who must I not bear false witness against, and who is okay with God to lie to?
Whose wife am I allowed to covet? What are the rules; where are the boundaries?
The Parable Answer
So, in response, Jesus tells this famous story. It has all kinds of clever details. The victim in the story is stripped — so he is wearing no ethnically-identifiable clothing.
He is half-dead, so he is not talking — you cannot know what language he speaks, or what regional accent he may have.
So how do you know if he is a Jewish man, a neighbor, in need of your compassion? Maybe he is even a Samaritan half-breed? We hate those guys. They are heretics. And they are not people we call “neighbor.”
So, in the story, two people come down the road; they see him, but pass by without helping him. No reason is given — but every Jewish person would understand. Both of these men work at the temple. One is a priest, the other a Levite. If they become religiously impure they cannot do their jobs until the period of impurity expires. Touching a corpse — if he is dead already, or touching blood — we assume this victim is pretty bloody — make you impure, according to the Law of Moses. So, of course, they have “good,” religious reasons to pass by.
A third man comes down the road, and this is, indeed the despised Samaritan. And, as Jesus liked to do in his parables, expectations of what would happen are reversed: the miserable Samaritan stops to help. In fact, his help is outrageously profuse and generous.
He went above and beyond the call. Not only did he give him emergency first aid, but he also put the victim on his own donkey, and put him up in an inn. Not only that, he promised the inn-keeper a blank check for his expenses!
Who does that? Well, someone who is “moved with pity” meaning, compassion, as Luke tells us the Samaritan was. Just as God’s motive of compassion was given in the law about obligations to a neighbor, so this Samaritan too, was motivated by the same reason: compassion.
So Jesus wraps up with another question to the Bible scholar — and this too is a complete reversal of expectations. We are waiting for an answer to the scholar’s poisonous question, “Who is my neighbor?” But instead, we get this, from Jesus:
“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
The answer is obvious:
He said, “The one who showed him mercy.”
Mercy is another synonym for compassion.
“Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
It is so interesting to me that Jesus told this parable in this way, to make it impossible to know the victim’s identity. He is just a human being. The only relevant question is, are you willing to see him as a neighbor and treat him as a neighbor?
It’s no small question. Remember, neighboring is right up there with the command to love the Lord your God as the basic requirement for life in the age to come.
So why is this almost universally disregarded? History is filled with racism, bigotry, ethnic animosity and identity-based discrimination, violence, and exclusion. I have seen it up close in Croatia. I have seen it up close in America. We have all seen the news. It is the oldest story humans tell.
We like “us,” we hate “them.” We are compassionate to “us,”, we are enemies with“them.” We know who our neighbors are, and to the devil with the rest of them.
I had a conversation with a Christian leader several years ago when the subject of waterboarding suspected terrorists was in the news. He actually said to me, “But these people are not Americans. They are not protected by the constitution.” Right. They are not citizens. So, God is okay with torturing them? They must not be neighbors? I wonder if the Good Samaritan was worried about constitutional rights? Something tells me it was not a concern.
As far as I understand it, the criteria for showing compassion that Jesus used was simple humaneness. Treating people humanely is what matters. It is exactly how we would want to be treated. This applies across the board.
That’s why it is wrong to treat people of other races, ethnicities, or orientations inhumanely. That’s why it is wrong to treat incarcerated people inhumanely. That’s why it is wrong to treat undocumented people inhumanely, no matter how they crossed the border. Our humanity requires that we treat them humanely.
Pushing it Further
I believe this extends to our own grandchildren too, which is why it is so urgent that we protect the climate of the planet they are going to be living on.
I want to push the question a step further. Why should the same thing not be true for our treatment of animals as well — at least those creatures who are capable of conscious suffering? I believe they must be treated humanely as well, though it almost feels ridiculous to say that, here and now, when we do not even treat immigrant children humanely.
So, the story we read ends with another question. Clearly, the biblical scholar got the answer right: Who was the neighbor to the victim? It was the one who showed compassion. Jesus confirmed his answer, saying,
“Go and do likewise.”
So, the final question is, did he?
Or, maybe the question is, “Will we?”