A few years ago, I was on my way to celebrate at the midweek service at the parish church I was then serving. I was running late, probably because I was coming from another commitment at my other job. St. James is on top of Piney Mountain, which is actually something of a hill, and the road that leads to it, like most roads in hilly territory, was curvy and windy.
As I drove up the mountain, I saw out of the corner of my eye as I rounded a curve, that a car had hit a telephone pole. Only after I had continued on, did I process what I had seen. The accident must have just happened. People had come out from a nearby house toward the car. I thought about turning around, a difficult manouver on a windy and hilly road, and just as I was wondering what I should do, I heard the sirens and knew that police and paramedics were on their way. And of course, I thought of the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the priest who walked by the robbery victim.
It’s a familiar parable; one of the most familiar and its main figure, the Good Samaritan, long ago escaped the confines of the story Jesus told and has become something of a cultural icon. Media love to tell heartwarming stories of Good Samaritans who came to the help of strangers in times of need, or cautionary tales of would-be Good Samaritans whose efforts were thwarted or came up against laws or social norms. The parable has come to mean the following: that we should pitch in when we encounter someone in need.
That’s a laudable sentiment, but that’s not what the story means in its original context, or in its original telling. It’s important for understanding the parable to pay attention to the context in which it appears. A young lawyer approaches Jesus, and to test him, asks him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” While similar dialogue appears in Mark and Matthew as well as in Luke, what’s interesting are the differences. Matthew and Mark both place it in the context of the last week in Jesus’ life, when Jesus is teaching in the temple and a series of people, representatives of various groups with in Judaism and the temple leadership, approach him with questions intended to trap him. Luke shifts it to a point much earlier in his gospel, during Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. For all three, however, there’s a sense that this is something of a contest over interpretation of Torah, a debate over which commandment was most important that we know was of contemporary interest.
More fascinating is another change Luke makes. The lawyer asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus replies, “What is written in the law of Moses? What do you read there?” Jesus responds to the lawyer’s question with his own question, “What does the law say?” And the lawyer responds, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Note Jesus’ response, “You have given the right answer. Do this and you shall live.” What Luke alters in this interchange is that he puts the right answer in the mouth of the lawyer. In the other two gospels, Jesus responds with, “Love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself.”
If the story ended here, it would be one of those few occasions in any of the gospels where representatives of the religious establishment agree with Jesus publicly. But the story doesn’t end there. Luke continues, “But the man, wanting to justify himself, asked, “And who is my neighbor?” Even now, however, we might read this as a debate over the interpretation of the law: 1st question, what’s the most important commandment? 2nd question, what does the commandment mean? Define the terms.
Only now does Jesus tell the story, and if you think carefully about it, it doesn’t really answer the lawyer’s question. Even Jesus’ question to the lawyer at the end, seems somewhat off-topic, “Which of these three was neighbor to the man who fell among robbers?” Off-topic, because it requires an imaginative leap. The lawyer was hoping that Jesus would define the limits of the category “neighbor.” Instead, Jesus’ story exploded those limits and the category.
You know that Samaritans were reviled by first-century Jews and that the feeling was at least somewhat reciprocated. There was a set of complicated reasons for this, partly religious, partly ethnic. Samaritans regarded only Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, as authoritative, the Word of God. They had a built a temple on Mt. Gerazim, outside of Jerusalem, in competition with the Temple in Jerusalem. They were suspected to be the result of intermarriage between Jews and non-Jewish populations. Jews regarded them as impure and unclean, as heretics. Interaction with them made Jews ritually impure.
But the story is not about a Samaritan falling into a ditch and being helped by a good Jew. The story is about a man (whose religious and ethnic identity is not specified) who is robbed, beaten, and thrown in a ditch. He lies there suffering while two representatives of the Jewish religious establishment pass by. He lies there suffering. Does he even hear them as they walk by? Has he abandoned hope? Can he cry for help, even moan in pain? He lies there and a Samaritan comes to his aid, binds his wounds, takes him to an inn, and pays for his care. We can be certain that he welcomed the Samaritan’s actions; we can’t be certain how he would have perceived the Samaritan had they encountered each other in different circumstances.
The lawyer, too, gets the point of the story. Who was neighbor to the man who fell among thieves? The one who showed mercy. The priest and levite walked by. They saw the man and did nothing. The Samaritan came by and he sees, too. But he also takes action. He is moved with pity, a phrase that’s used only two other times in the Gospel of Luke, once of Jesus when he meets the woman grieving the death of her son, and once in the parable of the Prodigal Son, to describe the father’s response on seeing his son return.
Sometimes current events overtake us and overwhelm us. Sometimes, it seems the gospel we read on Sunday morning is providentially appropriate for things that are taking place in our lives or in the world. I woke up this morning to learn that George Zimmerman had been found not guilty in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. It’s a case and a trial that has roused passion and fierce disagreement in our society. Wherever you stand on the various issues raised by the incident, I think we can agree that Trayvon Martin’s death was a tragedy.
The lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus’ response forced him to completely rethink the very notion of neighbor, to include those who were not by any stretch of the imagination, his neighbor. We, too, are challenged by this parable to think about neighbor differently.
Who is our neighbor? It is not just those who live in our neighborhoods, people of similar economic and social class. It is not just people who look like us and share our values. Jesus challenges us to see everyone as our neighbor. That’s a task of re-imagination that is possible with God’s grace.
We do it all the time. Our gaze is averted from the homeless people who walk our streets. When we see a black teenager in a hoodie walking down the sidewalk towards us, we might look away, or walk a little more quickly, or make a wide berth. We don’t see a neighbor. We see a problem or a threat. The same is too often true if we encounter a Muslim or a Sikh.
The story of the Good Samaritan is not about helping those in need. It is about breaking down the barriers that divide us. It’s about us seeing Christ in the reviled Samaritan who like Christ, was moved with pity when he saw someone in need. It’s about us seeing Christ in the man who like Christ was stripped, and beaten, and left for dead. It’s about us seeing like Christ, seeing our neighbor in the homeless man who sits on the bench in front of Grace, seeing our neighbor in the young man in the hoodie who is walking down the street. It’s about seeing like Christ, being moved with pity like Christ, and acting like Christ. May we, with the grace of God, have the eyes of Christ, the hearts of Christ, and the hands of Christ.