“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
What new is there to say about the parable of the Good Samaritan? It is, arguably, one of the foundational moral stories of our society. It has meaning, it holds a place of honor, even in non-religious circles.
So what new is there to say?
One of the truths I am continually relearning is:truths I know like the back of my hand are often precisely the truths I need to re-hear again. We tend to take for granted that which is familiar. We tend to overlook the power of the familiar tale because we are so certain we know it already, have heard it before, and have digested every kernel of insight there is to savor.
Interestingly, that’s exactly how this parable starts. It starts with a man –a lawyer– who believes he already knows everything he needs to know. The Bible calls this guy a lawyer, but that doesn’t mean he’s Board Certified in Intellectual Property. By calling him a lawyer, the Bible is telling you he’s a student of religious law; an expert in the Torah.
This lawyer comes to Jesus with a question. But here’s the catch: it’s a question he surely already knows the answer to. The question is
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus turns back to him, and says something like “Well, you’re the lawyer, you tell me.”
Immediately, the very proud and booksmart lawyer rolls out the exact chapter and verse. The complete codicil:
“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.”
This, of course, is the GreatShema. The great law. The greatest commandment. And if the story of the Good Samaritan has become one of our culture’s best-loved moral teachings, the Great Commandment surely is even more important still. It stands as not only the greatest commandment in the Jewish tradition, but also the Christian tradition too:
Love your neighbor.
As Jesus points out in another place,every other law, every other precept, every other moral teaching of the Bible, flows out of this first great commandment. Get this one right, and you get everything right. Get this one wrong, and it really doesn’t matter how many other rules you keep sacred.
See, the lawyer’s question was a softball pitch, and he slams his own question out of the park. (actually, have youseen those college women pitch lately? Whew! They bring the heat..)
As an aside, there is no greater satisfaction than knowing you’ve gotten this kind of question right, yes? And yet, the terrible and wonderful thing –especially about law– is that just because youknow the law, just because you are right about the law, doesn’t always mean you are…well.. “right.”
Dennise and I were talking about this recently, about how in the modern field of jurisprudence, often biggest courtroom conflagrations come from two sides of a conflict who are absolutely convinced they are right.
In fact, she reminded me of an expression lawyers tell each other. She reminded me that the expression I’m about to cite is not a blessing, but instead considered a curse. (It was actually first an old Yiddish curse. I looked it up.) It goes like this:
“May you be in a lawsuit in which you are in the right.”
There is often no more difficult position.
So this lawyer –who knows he’s right— tries to surprise Jesus with another question. He asks Jesus,
Interestingly, Jesus does not allow the lawyer another chance at an answer. You might imagine he would. After all, the lawyer is “one for one.” If he knew the great commandment, surely he knows where to turn in the code for the law on neighbors. He could look it up in the index. (“Neighbor; Who is my? Par. 142, Section 6).
But Jesus doesn’t give him the chance. Instead, to answer this question Jesus tells a story. It’s about a man who is traveling alone, down a road everybody knows was a dangerous road. Everybody hearing Jesus’ story that day would know this is a road that was always full of bandits.
Sure enough, Jesus says, bandits descend on the guy and they take all his money, and they leave him for dead. (And so, in the minds of many, maybe he even deserves the misfortune that befalls him…)
Soon after, a priest comes by. But he’s apparently on the way to something really important. So he passes by on the other side. Then, a Levite, another deeply religious person, passes by too.
(Notice, please, the clear critique that this parable offers of the “professionally religious.” You know, ministers, rabbis, imams, priests. The parable is not too kind to these folks, more than insinuating that they are too busy with their lofty and heavenly pursuits to be bothered by real human suffering. I wish I could say things have changed since Jesus’ day….)
At last, a Samaritan stops. He helps the guy. He helps the guy, and the guy ends up OK.
End of story, right? The “moral,” we assume, is that we should stop to help somebody by the side of the road, right? This surelyis one of the broad cultural meanings we take from this story. We even have so-called “Good Samaritan laws” designed to encourage such behavior. In the broad culture, we seem to believe this story is about stopping to render aid.
But, in fact, there is a whole additional layer of meaning. That layer gets added when Jesus tells us exactly who this good-deed-doer is. Jesus says the man who stops to render aid is aSamaritan.
Now at this, everyone hearing Jesus tell the story that day would have collectively gasped. Because, you see, the word “Samaritan” was about the last word they would have expected Jesus to say.
The Samaritans and the Jews were sort of cultural and historical half cousins. And there are often no greater enemies than this. To the many Jews, Samaritans were half-breeds. They were remnants of the folks who didnot get taken into slavery by Assyria, way back in the 8th Century. The descendants of the folks who were enslaved eventually return to Israel, and come to believe that they to be the true Jewish people. The folks who got left behind become Samaritans. Some of them intermarry with other races. They worship at a different shrines. And they certainly hadn’t suffered like the Jews in exile had been forced to suffer.
So, when the Jews return, generations later, they find Samaritans still living in the Holy Land. And as the centuries pass, these groups grow to despise each other.
In fact, did you how catch at the end of the story the lawyer cannot even bring himself to mention the Samaritan’s identity?! Jesus has clearly identified three characters. They have helpful modifiers to distinguish them: Priest, Levite, Samaritan.
But when Jesus asks the guy at the end of the story: “Who is the neighbor?” the lawyer weakly croaks, “the one who showed mercy.”
He can’t bring himself to give the Samaritan the dignity of being the “good” in this story!!
What Jesus seems to be saying is that who yourneighbor is apparently depends upon who you are. You and your neighbor are not just any old two people. You and your neighbor are apparently two people who do not get along. Being a neighbor apparently means being a friend to your enemy, and allowing your enemy to assist you in your time of need.
The power of the story comes from realizing that Jesus says your enemy is also your neighbor too.
Imagine the various ways Jesus might tell this story today…
A Hasidic Jew was laying by the side of the road, and a Palestinian stops to help…
A son of the Confederacy was laying by the side of the road, and a Hip-Hop Rapper stops to help…
An American was laying by the side of the road, and a member of Al Quaida stops to help…
A fan of the 700 Club was laying by the side of the road, and a gay man stops to help…
A border-patrolling Minute Man was laying by the side of the road, and an undocumented immigrant stops to help…
After I preached this sermon, I got word that one of our church kids, Ethan, had added his own example to this list:
“A McDonald’s worker is laying by the side of the road, and a cow stops by to help…”
By jove, I think he’s got it!
You might be tempted to say,“OK, Eric, but these examples are so terribly extreme. Those folks would never get along!!!”
And they are no more extreme than “Jew” and “Samaritan.” And that seems the point.
You see, the reality of this part of the Great Commandment –to love the neighbor– is much more challenging than simply reciting a legal code. Who your neighbor is depends upon who you are. And loving your neighbor ultimately means not just loving the “generically hurt and wounded people” of the world. In fact, you might argue it has very little to do with stopping to help that old lady with her flat tire. Your neighbor may be the person who doesn’t take care of him/herself, and ends up in the ditch by the side of the road. Yes, even those who deserve what they get, apparently their your neighbor too.
It means loving the people in the world you hate, and who hate you. Loving our neighbor means finding a sense of compassion and mercy, even for those who we feel deserve no compassion and mercy.
That’s not a rote law we can recite on cue.
But it is a powerful way of being that challenges even the best of us every day we live.