The lawyer who approaches Jesus wants to know what he has to “do to inherit eternal life.” He makes the assumption that eternal life is a reward for what he does.
Jesus doesn’t argue with him on this. In fact, he agrees with him. But he doesn’t answer the question directly. He says, in effect, “You’re a lawyer, you tell me.” In other words, the answer is in the Scriptures. “You are a professional biblical scholar” – which is what a “lawyer” was in that culture – “you can answer your own question.”
The lawyer then quotes the most important and basic text in the whole Old Testament, the famous Shema in Deuteronomy 6: “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.” What we have to do, then, is to love God with our whole being.
The lawyer is to be credited, I think, because on his own initiative he adds another verse, this one from Leviticus: “and your neighbor as yourself.” In the other gospels it is Jesus who puts these two commandments together. We call his pairing “the Great Commandment.” We don’t know if the lawyer made this connection himself, or heard Jesus talk about it another time, or if it was a common teaching at the time, to put these two commandments together.
Jesus does not seem surprised. He affirms the man and his answer, and says, “There you go. Do this and you will live.” In other words, there is something we can do to inherit eternal life, it is about our actions and behavior, not just our opinions or thoughts. What we have to do to inherit eternal life is to love God with our whole being, and love our neighbor as ourselves. So go do it.
But this does not satisfy the lawyer, who actually has a deeper agenda that he is now getting to. He says, “Yeah, but who is my ‘neighbor’?”
Who is my neighbor? It is kind of a trick question because, if you read Leviticus, it appears from the context that the text is referring only to other Israelites. The lawyer wants Jesus to admit that this neighbor thing is just about helping your own kind. Gentiles, including Samaritans, were not “neighbors” in a strict sense.
The lawyer is looking for Jesus to either give the traditional answer, which says that only other Jews are your neighbors. Or he wants Jesus to get himself in trouble with the Jewish authorities by claiming that neighbor is a category that includes everybody. Such open universalism could not be tolerated. Everybody knows, they would say, that the Torah and eternal life are just for us, not for them.
Jesus’ ministry, and that of the early church, was radical and dangerous because of its openness and inclusiveness. Jesus would infamously heal, eat with, and befriend anybody: prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, women, Samaritans and other Gentiles, even Roman soldiers were not exempt from Jesus’ embrace.
He expresses this mainly through his actions and his parables. Jesus here doesn’t come out and say, “Everybody, even Gentiles, are our neighbors whom we are instructed to love as ourselves.” No. He tells a story. And by telling a story he makes a much more powerful point, while, as we will see, getting the lawyer to admit the answer himself.
The story starts off with a man making a journey along the steeply descending, winding road through the wilderness from Jerusalem to the town of Jericho. It was a notoriously dangerous road, noted for the activity of robbers. We assume the man is a Jew, though Jesus doesn’t say so.
On the way the man is mugged, and beaten rather severely. His clothes are taken, because textiles themselves had a certain value, and he is left for dead on the side of the road. The way Jesus talks about this is to say he has “fallen into the hands of robbers.”
The people listening to this story would have identified with the man who was attacked. Not just because he was a Jew like them, and they knew that road and how bad it was. But the observation that he had “fallen into the hands of robbers” was actually a description of their whole lives.
They knew themselves to have “fallen into the hands of robbers” as a whole society. Their entire lives were spent responding to the powerful forces who were systematically robbing them of their livelihood through crushing taxes, high prices and fees, high interest rates, even high exchange rates when you went to the Temple to worship God. There was no way to get ahead. You entire life was spent working to basically make the people at the top wealthy, healthy, and happy. There was an enormous gap between the few rich and everybody else, who actually did the work, but who had little to show for it, except debts and bills.
When Jesus tells this story, his hearers would have understood: “We’re that guy. We’re the man walking a dangerous road who has ‘fallen into the hands of robbers.’ He represents us.”
Two people pass by on the road. They see the wounded and perhaps dead man, and they don’t stop to help. Instead they hurry by. The person who has “fallen into the hands of robbers” is of no concern to them. And remember, if you identify with the mugged man, you realize that these people are not there to help you either.
The first passer-by is a priest, and the second is a Levite, kind of an assistant or associate priest. Jesus does not introduce these two characters by accident. He is saying to the people that, basically, your own religious establishment and institutions do not care about you. They are more concerned with the biblical regulations about purity, and the inconvenience and consequence of having touched a dead body. They don’t even bother to get close enough to see if the man is actually dead or not. Better not to take the chance.
“Your religion is part of the problem,” says Jesus. “These people have power, they have authority, they have status. They have something to lose. They are part of the upper-class that is living off of you. They are not going to compromise any of that to help you. They will find an excuse, no doubt an airtight biblical excuse, to walk by and let you die.”
So by now Jesus’ hearers understand that they “have fallen into the hands of robbers” and their own religious officials are not going to lift a finger to help them. Indeed, they don’t even believe it is their job. Jesus says, “Do not depend on them.”
Now the audience would have been wondering who, if anyone, is going to help the man bleeding in the gutter. At which point Jesus says, “But a Samaritan, while traveling, came near him.”
Samaritans were considered an impure race of semi-Gentiles. They descended from foreigners who intermarried with Jews centuries before, and adopted a kind of un-official version of Judaism. They were second-class citizens, and the two groups couldn’t stand each other. Samaritans mostly lived in an area north of Jerusalem, so this one was a foreigner, traveling in Judea.
At the mention of a Samaritan, I imagine some of Jesus’ hearers scoffing: “Right, a Samaritan, like he’s going to do anything.”
But, of course, it is the Samaritan who is “moved with pity” and actually helps the man. Indeed, the assistance he gives is so wildly over-the-top that the point is unmistakable.
The man whom everyone would have despised, and who would have despised them, is the one who actually turns out to be the good guy. The Good Samaritan, as we say. I suspect people would have started turning Jesus off at this point, because his story just became unbelievable.
You can plug all kinds of different categories of people into this story if you want to give it an impact today like it had then. For the priest and Levite we could substitute religious and/or political authorities of our day. People we’re supposed to depend on to help us, who, in the end, don’t. They are more concerned with their own status, connections, position, their own purity and political viability, than with helping one poor slob who got mugged. Which is to say, us, the ones who have “fallen into the hands of robbers.”
And for the Samaritan we would have to substitute some class of people we do not like or trust. The Samaritan is a Muslim, an undocumented alien, a Tea Party activist or Occupy Wall Streeter, a gay or lesbian person, someone HIV-positive, a registered sex offender, an ex-convict. Whomever you fear and even hate the most, that’s your Samaritan. That’s the only person you’re going to be able to depend on when all the official helpers have decided to ignore your plight.
This is what Jesus is saying. Your leaders have failed. Help will come from God… through the most rejected kind of person in your life.
After the story, Jesus asks the lawyer a pointed question: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” Jesus thus turns the original question, “Who is my neighbor?” on its head. He reverses it, and answers the question, “Whom am I supposed to be a neighbor to?”
I think Jesus thinks these are basically the same question. If you ask, “Who is my neighbor?” that is like asking, “Whom am I supposed to love?” We are neighbors to each other. If one is in need, the other has to help… and vice-versa. Being a neighbor is a mutual, reciprocal, shared relationship. It takes two, at least. If I have little, my neighbor is the one with more who is therefore able to share. If I have much, my neighbor is the one with little with whom I am able to share.
Jesus’ point, as always, is that the outward characteristics of a person – their race, religion, ethnicity, family, political views, economic status, gender, sexual orientation, even what they have done in their past – none of that matters. When it comes to a neighbor it is merely the raw and immediate question of suffering. If a neighbor is suffering, you help them. Period. End of story.
Everyone is our neighbor, and everyone is a neighbor to us, because we all share in this basic human, mortality. We all have the same flesh and blood.
The neighbor is the one who takes a detour in the rat-race of daily existence because of the need and suffering of another. The neighbor is the one who sets aside their own agenda and schedule, even some of their own values and morals and beliefs, because of the cry of someone else’s mortality to theirs. The neighbor is the one who realizes that, one way or another, we have “fallen into the hands of robbers” and there are many who are left bleeding in their wake.
Jesus would have us open our eyes to the need and suffering around us. And he would have us go out of our way to rather extravagantly take care of others… especially those who are not particularly liked or cared for in general.
I think the gathering of disciples is called to take special care for the people in a society whom nearly everybody rejects. The unpopular and the universally reviled. The people it is hard to raise money to help. The people whom some would say deserved what they got, or who brought it on themselves, or who wouldn’t be in their predicament had they exercised some personal responsibility. The people whom, we are told, we should not help because it would only encourage them to make the same bad decisions again. After all, the Samaritan in the story went out of his way to help someone who was, in effect, an enemy.
Following Jesus means, well, following Jesus. It means doing what he did, in so far as that is possible for us. It means being instructed by his example of love, service, healing, liberation, and blessing.
Our church is going to experiment with following Jesus in a significant way on May 20. That’s what we are calling “be-the-church Sunday.” On that day, we will not be worshiping in the morning, but we will be sent out on three different missions o f service to people in need.
Now, it’s not like worshiping isn’t also a way of being the church. God also calls us to worship, praise, prayer, and hearing the Word. But on this day we’re going to concentrate on how an essential element of the church’s work is to be sent out. I guess, the point is to avoid looking like the priest or the Levite, passing by human suffering while trying to serve God. On that day we’re going to take a detour. Instead of gathering we will be sent into the community.
This is a very exciting project and one in which I hope you will all participate. I am sure that after we have been sent, our times of gathering for worship will be that much more powerful and significant.