Deuteronomy 30:9-14    Psalm 25:1-9          Colossians 1: 1-14                             Luke 10:25-37

Today we have one of the famous passages in the Bible, one that we could almost recite by heart.  The parable of the Good Samaritan.  It’s a well-known story, and I bet you’ve heard any number of sermons on it, inviting you to compare yourself to the cast of characters.   Do you generally believe yourself to be more like the priest or Levite, or like the Samaritan?  Those are good questions.  But before we get to that let’s back up and look at the whole story again. 

First of all, there was a reason that Jesus told this particular story, wasn’t there?  He was  teaching one day when a lawyer stood up to ask a question.  In the age when Jesus was walking the earth, the word translated in our lectionary as ‘lawyer’ didn’t mean an attorney to represent you in legal matters, the way we would understand it today.  This kind of lawyer was a scholar who was an expert on the Torah, who devoted much of his life to reading, studying, interpreting, and teaching the Jewish laws.  The law was his passion.  So the lawyer/scholar had been listening to Jesus and considering his comments, and he decided it was time to take a sounding, basically, to figure out how Jesus’s teachings correspond with the Laws that the Jewish people were accustomed to.   “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus responded in great-teacher fashion by inviting him to answer his own question, and like any good student (and teacher’s pet!), the lawyer dutifully churned out the expected response.  Jesus praised his answer, and had the lawyer stopped there, it might have been another encounter with Jesus that failed to get recorded because it didn’t strike a particular chord with any hearers.

Of course, the lawyer didn’t stop there.  “Wanting to justify himself, the lawyer asked ‘And who is my neighbor?’ “ 

Now we’re in the part of the story that you probably remembered when I started to read the Gospel.  A man, presumably a Jewish man, was traveling alone to Jerusalem when he was mugged and beaten half to death.   A priest came down the road and saw the victim, but kept going.  So did a Levite. 

Priests and Levites were both born to a higher status in the caste system than the majority of Hebrew people; these guys did not apply to become priests or study at seminary or seek ordination, but instead were simply born into the right families.  Being a member of the priests or Levites came with extra rights AND responsibilities.   They were expected to be the most holy of the Jewish people by observing the Torah to the utmost, and might have therefore been expected to help another Jewish man.  After all, the command we just heard was ‘love the Lord with all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.’   A priest or a Levite is an authority figure, and a leader of his people who should look after his flock.

I suppose the kindest interpretation you could put on their seeming indifference would be a concern for being ritually unclean if they touched a dead body, if they tried to help too late or their help wasn’t successful.  For some reason, fear or purity or stinginess or whatever, they kept right on going and left the crime victim to his fate on the roadside.  A priest and a Levite, both steeped in the Law. 

The next person who came down the road wasn’t holy.  In fact, he wasn’t even clean.  He was an evildoer by the standards of Jesus’s audience.  Samaritans, people from Samaria, were descendants of the twelve tribes of Judah, but at some time during the split of Israel into Northern and Southern kingdoms they diverged into a different set of religious beliefs and customs.  They believed that when the Jewish people were captive in Babylon their religion was corrupted by that captivity, and that the Samaritan religion was the One True Religion. 

So the Samaritans would have believed that the Jews were wrongheaded, and good Jews of Jesus’s day would consider the Samaritan unclean, heretical, and apostate.  To try to get the sense of abhorrence that the audience present that day would have felt at the thought of a Samaritan interjected into this parable, you might substitute the word “jihadi”.   A person whose religious beliefs cause them to think and do all the wrong things, a person who is dangerous to be around and should be avoided at all costs.  A person who clearly knows nothing about God.

Yet that is exactly who stopped to help.  He picked up the victim, treated his injuries, took him to safety, and paid for the victim to eat and drink and be cared for, for a few days till he was recovered enough to be on his way.

A person, who by very definition could know absolutely nothing of God, did this kindness.  It would have been as staggering as a tale of being rescued by Osama bin Laden or Muammar Gaddafi.   An evil man (or at least a man whom we consider evil) who still performed an act of courage and mercy.  I believe this is how Jesus’s students would have heard this story – as outrageous and unlikely as that.

Then Jesus brought the lesson home.  “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”   And the lawyer replied “The one who showed him mercy.”

I bet, by that time, you could hear a pin drop.  

And then Jesus’s final instruction: “Go and do likewise.”

It is just possible that we have been prone to look at this parable from the wrong end.  I say that, not because it’s a bad thing to compare ourselves to the priest or the Samaritan, but because I suspect that our real skins in the story are found in the character of the lawyer.   We too want to justify ourselves.  We would like to know exactly whom we have to be kind to, whom we have to be tolerant of, how much mercy is required of us as individuals and where the line is drawn that demarks somebody else’s job. 

The lawyer is trying for a legal definition of neighbor – one that eliminates all the bad people, and the uncouth people, and the inconvenient people, and most of all the expensive, needy people.  Perhaps he thought that would make it easier; it would set limits on the number of potential candidates for neighborliness, and he would then be free to ignore anybody who didn’t qualify.  In reality, it’s a cheap disguise for xenophobia, don’t you think?   Tribalism 101A, remedial.  It’s the implied belief that neighbors look like us, think like us, believe like us, and behave like us. 

That was the confounding part of the parable.  A stranger, an outsider, who not only was accounted a neighbor but did the neighboring on his own, without a holiness code to obligate or guide him. 

Jesus’s audience wouldn’t have been sure what to make of that.  Whenever I am trapped into watching the nightly news, I’m pretty sure we don’t either.

Without coming down on any political side, let me say this.  Pray for the people who are refugees and immigrants, especially if you don’t agree with letting them stay.  Pray for those who want the refugees and immigrants stopped or deported, and pray hardest if you think that is cruel or wrong.  Pray for Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and atheists.   I’m not talking about prayers that God will smite them, but that in God’s good time all of us will figure out the next right thing to do, and that we can manage to do it together.  Give generously to good institutional causes, but give a dollar or two to the homeless guy too, or the woman who has run out of food in the house before she got to the end of the month.  Do a good turn daily, as the Scouts would have it, and don’t be too choosy about who you dole your kindness out to.  Be a Samaritan to those you consider to be an outsider, and in return, learn to accept mercy and friendship from the Samaritans you meet on the road. 

Remember, the command was “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.”  If you won’t do the second part of the command, you can’t do the first.

And THAT is the point of the story.

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