Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Our gospel reading for this week contains the story of the Good Samaritan. The story is so well-known that the phrase Good Samaritan has made its way into everyday English usage. We use it to refer to someone who unexpectedly and out of the blue does a generous or even heroic act for someone in trouble. Unfortunately, the past month has given us far too many opportunities to point out good Samaritans.
The phrase made its way into our everyday discourse from our Gospel reading for this Sunday. Our familiarity with this story and our conventional use of the term Good Samaritan might lead us to miss some of the more interesting details of this story from Luke’s gospel.
The story emerges out of a verbal conflict between Jesus and a lawyer. Luke tells us that the lawyer wants to test Jesus. This lawyer asks Jesus what he needs to do to inherit eternal life. This is the exact same question that a rich ruler asks Jesus in Luke 18. In the case of the rich ruler, it seems like he really wants to know Jesus’ answer, even if he is not able to do what Jesus asks, which is to sell what he has, give it to the poor, and to follow Jesus.
Here it is less clear that the lawyer has a personal interest in Jesus answer. He already knows the answer. This becomes clear when Jesus turns the question back on him and he properly identifies the heart of the OT law: Single minded, whole hearted love of God and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus agrees with him and tells him, “Do this and you will live.” Test passed, end of discussion.
We then learn that the lawyer wants to justify himself. I assume he wants to provide some sort of justification for wasting Jesus’ time with a question to which he already knew the answer. He now asks a much more subtle question: “Who is my neighbor?” Who is this person I am supposed to love just as I love myself? If inheriting eternal life depends in part on loving one’s neighbor as oneself, it seems like it would be important to be clear about the identity of this neighbor.
In response, Jesus tells the story we know so well. Jesus offers us no explanation for the response of the Priest or the Levite. He notes that they saw this man who was the victim of a particularly vicious robbery and they passed by on the other side of the road. One possibility is that Priests and Levites might have wanted to avoid contact with a dead body. Such contact would have rendered them ritually impure. They would have had to undergo rites of purification before continuing their work in the Temple. From their side of the street the guy already looked dead. If he was dead, then there was nothing they could do for him and getting involved would complicate their lives needlessly. That, however, is simply informed speculation on my part. Apparently the reasons for their behavior are not relevant to understand the story.
The hero of the story is the Samaritan. As John’s gospel politely puts it when Jesus has a conversation with a Samaritan woman, “Jews and Samaritans have no dealings with each other.” Jews and Samaritans each laid claim to being the true people of God. Under such circumstances, the mere existence of one group challenges the claims of the other. As is often the case with two groups who disagree over the nature and importance of each other’s identity there was a lot of bad feeling between Jews and Samaritans. All of the references we have to Samaritans in literature from this period reflect the high level of hostility and distain that other Jews had for them. These people are universally disliked by the main body of Judaism. When Jesus the Jew tells a story to a Jewish lawyer surrounded by a Jewish audience in which the Samaritan is the hero who helps an injured Jew, people were probably shocked and upset.
Without dwelling on the shocking nature of the story, Jesus gets right to the point. Jesus asks, “Which of these three was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by robbers?” Rather than use the term Samaritan, the lawyer answers, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus replies, “You go and do likewise.” There are at least two ways to take Jesus’ response. Both of them are instructive for us.
Maybe when Jesus says, “You go and do likewise,” he means for the lawyer to perform similar acts of mercy for those who have been left by the side of the road, half dead. Rather than seeing our neighbors simply as those who are able to afford houses or neighborhoods like ours, our neighbors are those who have been robbed, beaten and shoved into a ditch at the side of the road. If so, then, loving them compels us to put our power, resources and privilege at their disposal. I worship in a congregation where a lot of people have resources and power at their disposal. Whatever else you may want to say about us, a lot of people at my church serve not just individuals that our society has left by the side of the road. They also struggle against the systematic causes of such victimization.
There is nothing wrong with this type of neighbor love. I do think, however, that it needs to be complemented with another sort of neighbor love. It seems to me that when Jesus says, “You go and do likewise,” the context indicates that the lawyer is to recognize that the Samaritan who shows mercy is the neighbor that he is supposed to love. Remember the question the lawyer asked is, “Who is my neighbor?” The answer is, “The one who showed mercy.”
In this light, it would seem that Jesus is inviting this man to be open to receiving help and even gifts from someone he would otherwise detest. In fact, Jesus is not simply advocating openness and receptivity. He is urging the lawyer and us to see that this person is his neighbor and to love that person as himself. For those of us who have significant amounts of power, privilege and resources, this is a daunting lesson.
Jesus is telling us that loving our neighbor as ourselves may require us quite literally to put ourselves at the mercy of those whom we might otherwise fear or despise. In this way loving our neighbors becomes a call to demonstrate the openness, receptivity and vulnerability that is essential for all true forms of love. In this case, the challenge is not primarily what we can do for others, but what we will allow others to do for us and still love them for it. Can we receive forms of mercy from those we might otherwise happily shut out of our lives? Can we do this and love rather than resent them?
(Photo credit: Ana Bondzic)