25 An expert in the Law of Moses stood up and asked Jesus a question to see what he would say. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to have eternal life?”
26 Jesus answered, “What is written in the Scriptures? How do you understand them?”
27 The man replied, “The Scriptures say, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind.’ They also say, ‘Love your neighbors as much as you love yourself.’”
28 Jesus said, “You have given the right answer. If you do this, you will have eternal life.”
29 But the man wanted to show that he knew what he was talking about. So he asked Jesus, “Who are my neighbors?”
30 Jesus replied:
As a man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, robbers attacked him and grabbed everything he had. They beat him up and ran off, leaving him half dead.
31 A priest happened to be going down the same road. But when he saw the man, he walked by on the other side. 32 Later a temple helper came to the same place. But when he saw the man who had been beaten up, he also went by on the other side.
33 A man from Samaria then came traveling along that road. When he saw the man, he felt sorry for him 34 and went over to him. He treated his wounds with olive oil and wine and bandaged them. Then he put him on his own donkey and took him to an inn, where he took care of him. 35 The next morning he gave the innkeeper two silver coins and said, “Please take care of the man. If you spend more than this on him, I will pay you when I return.”
36 Then Jesus asked, “Which one of these three people was a real neighbor to the man who was beaten up by robbers?”
37 The teacher answered, “The one who showed pity.”
Jesus said, “Go and do the same!”
I’ve come to the conclusion that some of the Bible stories I heard as a child had a hidden agenda that was designed to make Jewish people look bad.
This is the dark side of Christianity.
You may have heard the saying “Blowing out someone else’s candle does not make yours shine brighter.” But how often in the history of humanity have people justified the oppression of others by finding ways to make them look dumb or ugly or evil, in order to make themselves look better?
This story of a Samaritan coming out as the good guy is an example. I’ve always heard this story as condemning the two Jewish men who chose not to help the victim. It may seem a stretch to you, but I think it was one of my first lessons in seeing Jews as being “wrong.” Other lessons followed, which I want to pursue at some point, but the biggest lesson was taught on Good Friday: the Jews killed Jesus. This lesson has a long history in the church, and even though it has been theologically debated and refuted, we hear those words during every Passion week, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” and we know from Scripture that these were not Roman soldiers yelling “Crucify him!”
Three of the four gospel writers implicate the Jewish people
Luke: the chief priests, the leaders, and the people
Mark: the chief priests stirred up the crowd
John: When the chief priests and the [Jewish] police saw him
Martin Luther, 16th Century reformer, is well-known for his anti-Semitic writings. Yet, Luther gave us the the key to loving all our neighbors: we are freed from sin to love our neighbor. Luther established that it was not the Jews who killed Jesus, but that my own sins killed Jesus. I am responsible for Jesus dying like a despicable thief on an instrument of murder and torture. Or from a historical perspective, Jesus was killed because of an unjust political system. He caused discontent among the crowds, attracted the attention of the authorities, became a problem to the carefully enforced peace of the state, and had to be removed.
Like Luther, we tend to pick and choose who qualifies as a neighbor.
The lawyer in today’s scripture, in true lawyerly argumentative style, wasn’t satisfied with a simple answer. He, too, wanted a strict definition of who deserved to be treated as a neighbor.
Jesus answered him with a story, a parable. This parable is so well-known that there are laws named after it. Iowa’s Good Samaritan Law encourages those who witness a drug overdose to stay and call 911, rather than running out of fear of prosecution.
It seems like a simple story: two bad guys and one good guy. But that was not the formula Jesus used.
Jesus was actually using a story telling device common to Jewish literature. He follows the “rule of three” of good storytelling, Since there are three traditional divisions among Jews (priests, Levites, and all Israel) one can expect that the third person would be an ordinary Israelite.
Jesus told this parable for shock value. The shock was not that a Samaritan was a good guy—and it was not the first shock. The first shock was that the priest passed by. The second shock was that the temple helper passed by. Jesus’s listeners would have expected both of them to stop and help the man. Just as you would expect your pastor to stop to help someone who was hurt, so did the Jewish audience expect the two men, because of their status as temple authorities, to stop. So the shock is that these two men passed by. (Nor, contrary to one popular view do the priest and the Levite pass the injured man because of ritual purity concerns.)
But then, of course, comes the shock that we have learned to embrace: a Samaritan stops by. Not an ordinary Jewish person, who then becomes a hero. No. An enemy. A creep. An outcast. The last person you’d expect to help an injured Jewish person. But the shock for Jesus’s listeners was double: according to the “rule of three,” the third man should have been Jewish, an ordinary Jewish person who would become a hero. So, two shocks: NOT a Jewish person AND a Samaritan person.
Some of my colleagues were asking whom we would portray as the Samaritan if we were to cast this in a modern setting. Here are some of their responses:
- a Muslim woman in a hijab who stops to help after a pastor and youth pastor “pass by on the other side.”
- If you’re talking to a BLM or ANTIFA crowd, Trump.
- a Cubs fan gets beat up, and a Bears fan and a Bulls fan pass by, but a Cardinals fan is the one who helps
But I have a better example—-from Texas—just this past week or so.
For the passers-by, let’s use Ted Cruz and a mayor from a small Texas town:
One unsympathetic mayor took to Facebook to demand that “lazy” people get electricity and water on their own. Tim Boyd, the mayor of Colorado City, Texas, removed his post and resigned after writing that he was “sick and tired of people looking for a damn handout!”
For the hero, for the “Good Samaritan” of Texas, let’s use a furniture store owner: Houston furniture store owner Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale
Anyone is welcome to use the beds and sofas in his showrooms, take in a movie or basketball game on his big screen televisions and sit down to a hot meal.
Mattress Mack is the perfect example in our time, not because he opened his doors, but because he has as many detractors as fans. I only know that because of Facebook comments. In other words, he’s not perfect. However, he is a nice contrast to the mayor of Colorado City and to Ted Cruz, who have been elected to not only represent people, but to provide for the people whom they represent. They have chosen to walk on by.
Sometimes it’s helpful to see ourselves as one of the characters in a parable. Who am I? Who are you? We have five parts to play. The injured man, the priest, the temple worker, the Samaritan and the innkeeper.
OR am I the young lawyer, trying to obey the law and protect myself at the same time?
Dr. Arland Hultgren has written a book of commentaries on the Parables of Jesus. The real heart of this parable is not what kind of story-telling device Jesus used, but about answering the question, “Who is my neighbor?”
The earlier question was, “Who is my neighbor? Here the question is, Which person proves to be neighbor? If the issue is about love of neighbor, the question one should be asking is that of how one is to express that love, not to whom it should be expressed. “One cannot define ones’ neighbor; one can only be a neighbor.
Is Jesus saying that we cannot choose our neighbors? Is Jesus saying that the definition of “neighbor” is “everybody?”
The parable teaches that one cannot justify oneself by drawing distinctions between persons, deciding who is and who is not one’s neighbor, and using the law to do that. The question for a disciple of Jesus is not, “Who is my neighbor?” but rather, am I neighbor to the person in need?”
Hultgren shows that how we define neighbor can be less than loving:
The one who asks, “Who is my neighbor?” thinks of others in the world as classified commodities. One can build fences to determine who is in the circle of those to be cared for, and who is not. Then we and all others can “take care of our own,” thinking that our help should be directed to those we are related to by ties of family or friendship—things based on law, rights, bloodlines, culture, or tradition.
Have I built fences to keep out neighbors? We certainly do that as communities. We have zoning laws, we have “homeowners associations,” we have gerrymandering—we have so many ways to include and exclude. Are you wearing a mask? No? Go home. Do you have a passport? No? Go home. You can argue for the necessity of these laws, but they all are based on excluding some, relegating some to non-neighbor status. Some are for the common good; some are for the privileged.
Perhaps the Kingdom of God is too idealistic, too impossible, to ignorant of how people act.
Jesus is trying to show us the life God has intended for us, a life of authentic love. We are not bound by laws when it comes to being a neighbor. Our neighbor is simply the one who needs something. If we can supply that need, then we are obligated, not by law, but by love. Amen.