We live in miracle-times in so many ways; just consider the GPS devices that many of us have mounted on our cars (or even on our smart-phones). We tell it where we are and where we want to be and a pleasing voice tells us “turn here.” Now we all know where we are and where we are going, right?
Where are we? Where have we come from? Where are we going? Those questions provoke us to think about our entire lives, don’t they? What is the path we are on? Are we going in the right direction? How close to the end of the road are we? Is there still time for a course-correction if the pleasing voice says, “turn here”?
We have before us this well-known story of the Good Samaritan; it’s a story that takes place entirely on a road. The poor victim lies half-dead beside the road where the robbers left him after they took what they wanted. The priest, the Levite and the Samaritan are all on the same road too – though differently, as we will see.
A Road Story within a Road Story
But before we get to this road story, we hear another story. It starts out as an entrapment story on another road; as Jesus makes his journey to Jerusalem, passing through Samaria, he is challenged by a Torah scholar (which is a much better way to think of this man than a “lawyer:” the law he was expert in was the law of Moses: torah). The torah scholar has a question. The best way to understand his question is to think of it as an “end of the road” question.
25 “what must I do to inherit eternal life?
This is the question: how can I know I will end up in the right place? He was thinking: “We all know how it’s going to go; God is going to fulfill his promise to Abraham someday in a dramatic fashion. He is going to swoop down, punish the evil pagan bad guys, rescue his chosen people good guys, and presto, this age will end, the age to come will be here; the Kingdom will be restored. How can I inherit life in that age to come?
The “life” question becomes a “law” question on that road because Jesus asks the expert; well what does torah say? Give me some “law of Moses”.
26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”
So the expert puts two quotations together, and suddenly the “life” question that became a “law” question has become a “love” question. The law of Moses clearly teaches that the road you need to be on if you want life in the age to come is the road of love: love for God, and love for neighbor.
27 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.”
The expert clearly had not squandered his student loan money; he had learned well, and Jesus congratulates him: yes, Love God and neighbor, and you will be on the road to life in the age to come. Jesus agrees:
28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
Second Try: the Line Question
The torah scholar may be proud of being right, but he is also frustrated: his trap did not work, so he tries again. What he needs to do is to get Jesus to say something contrary to torah, the law of Moses. If he can trap Jesus into doing that, then “gotcha!” He asks the now-famous question:
29 he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
So now we come to Jesus’ road-to-Jericho story. If the life question led to a law question, and the law question ended with a command to love, then the life question has now become a line question: where do you draw the line? Whom do you need to love, to fulfill the law, so that you can be on the road to life?
That is, besides loving God; that part is clear. We must love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. As every torah scholar “knows,” that must mean doing what he wants, when he wants it, and how he wants it. And of course, what he wants is for all of his chosen people to keep themselves from all the things that defile you, right? – like working on the Sabbath, eating non-Kosher food, worshiping idols, touching blood, or corpses, or bad people – the list is pretty extensive. But it’s important. After all, didn’t Israel go into exile because she became “defiled” in these ways” (as our Amos reading remembered)? The right road is the road that keeps your hands clean (plus all that other stuff about justice and widows and orphans and other minor issues).
Is that how we love God? Is that the path to life? Is that the right reading of torah, the law of Moses?
Jesus tells the story of the events on the road from Jerusalem down to the coastal city of Jericho to put the love and life question in a new light.
We all know the story: the poor victim is robbed and beaten and left half-dead; we can assume this means unconscious. He must look dead. If he is bloody, or if he is a corpse, then touching him will defile you, according to Moses’ law, so if what God wants most is for us to show our love for him by keeping undefiled, best keep to the other side of the road. That’s the decision both the priest and the temple-worker, the Levite make.
As Jesus tells this story, it is important to see the way in which these two men are on that road that day:
31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road;… 32So likewise a Levite,
By contrast, here comes a non-Israelite man who is not on that road by chance, but rather, purposefully; he is “on a journey”:
33 “But a Samaritan while traveling…”
The word “traveling” literally means “journeying”. He was intentional about what he was doing. He was paying attention, noticing, thinking.
We all know the story: Jesus says that the Samaritan,
33 …when he saw him, he was moved with pity.
“Pity” is a pitiful way to translate this, I think, because it is such a strong word. Other translations say he “felt compassion” – which is better. It moved him in his guts. Compassion is what the Psalmists tell us God himself feels towards us, his children:
“As a father has compassion for his children, so the LORD has compassion for those who fear him.” Ps. 103:13
This Samaritan, (as every good torah scholar “knows”) is already a “defiled person,” and he certainly isn’t worried much about further defiling himself by touching a bloody corpse. So he rescues the poor guy, goes out of his way to treat him with emergency care, takes him to a place to recover, lays out cash for the man, writes a blank check, and promises to return.
How do we make sure we are on the right road? How do we make sure that our destination will be “inheriting life” in the age to come? How do we know we will end in the right place? The law says, loving God, of course is where it has to start, and then loving neighbor. Where is the line? Who is my neighbor?
’ 36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
So, the question about the law of love really is indeed a line question. Where is the line? Who is inside the line? For whom do we need to feel compassion? Who is included in the “neighbor” definition? For Jesus the question is, “Who isn’t?”
“But, but, but! But what about people who deserve their fate? But what about gays? What about gays with HIV/AIDS? What about illegal aliens? What about socialists? What about people who are in the wrong political party? What about people who want to do things the way I don’t like them done? What about people who live in other countries? Isn’t there a line somewhere?”
God is not being loved as long as there is someone on the other side of a line. The path to inheriting life in the age to come is the path of loving God and neighbor without limit, and without lines. Are we on that path?
The Intentional path
It is an intentional path. The people traveling “by chance” missed it. Only the one who knew he was journeying was on the path to life. He acted intentionally – he saw, and he moved towards what he saw, and what he saw was a person made in the image of God, who needed another person to be compassionate. He used his own resources, his oil and wine. He spent his money – which never happens “by chance” but is always the result of intentional decision making. Are we on the same path?
There is still time to make decisions, intentionally to get on the right path. Jesus is calling us to get on the path today.
“Go and do likewise.”
Love without limit, love without lines. This is the essence of the law, and this is the path to life. Love God with everything – heart mind, soul and strength, and love neighbors with intentional, sacrificial gifts of time, and talent, and treasure. Let compassion flow to the same extent that we have received compassion from God through our Lord Jesus.