This story of the Good Samaritan is very, very familiar. It has made its way into our culture in many ways. Good Samaritan laws can be found in various places – laws that protect those who are striving to respond to accidents from prosecution if there are unintended consequences.
It is a challenge to hear this story and let it speak to us in new ways. First, we have to remember that it is a parable – a story told to paint a picture about God, God’s realm, and God’s values.
The Rev. Dr. Kenneth Bailey explored the context of the parables, particularly in Luke. The context is not only the written word, but the times, the religious assumptions and the cultural practices of the day. He has suggested that we lose much of the impact of these stories when easily lift them out of their original context and don’t consider the ways they would have been heard.
One of Bailey's first suggestions for hearing and interpreting this parable is to make sure that we place it within the dialogue. The parable builds on the conversation Jesus was having with the lawyer. “Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.” Our 21st century ears hear lawyer and think of the lawyers of our day. But that’s not what a lawyer was in Jesus’ day. A lawyer was someone who knew God’s law. A lawyer was a specialist when it came to the faith. This lawyer, in time honored tradition, stood up to ask a question of Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” There is already tension in this story. The lawyer stood up, a sign of respect offered a teacher, yet his intent was to test Jesus.
He was testing Jesus. We might guess, therefore, that he had an answer or answers in mind. One of the assumptions of this lawyer’s faith was that those who were pious would inherit life – an eternal inheritance. What he might have expected to get from Jesus was a list of the things that should be on the list of behaviors for pious living. Some have suggested that the lawyers were “uneasy about Jesus’ attitude toward the law.” (Ibn al-Tayyib) Perhaps he was looking for proof that Jesus recognized that keeping the law was central to inheriting God’s promised fullness of life.
Jesus turned the question back to the lawyer. “What is written in the law? How do you read?” The lawyer showed a good understanding. He combined the commandment to love God found in Deuteronomy with the commandment to love one’s neighbor. He then challenged Jesus. “And who is my neighbor?”
That’s the question that generates the parable. “Who is my neighbor?” In Leviticus, which provided the commandment to love one’s neighbor, the neighbor was defined as one’s brother and the “sons of your own people.” As time passed, the concept was expanded to include all of the Jews. Those outside, however, were not included in any way. It had even been suggested that “heretics, informers, and renegades should be pushed into the ditch and not pulled out.” (Midrash on Ruth).
The lawyer was asking a scholarly question: How would Jesus define neighbor? Jesus’ answer is unexpected. First, he didn’t give a list that would carefully and narrowly define who the lawyer’s neighbors would be – so that he could reassure himself that he was living within the law. No. Jesus told a parable – a parable that shattered the narrow definitions that would allow the lawyer (and all his hearers) to live comfortably with a sense of righteousness.
Bailey, in his study of this parable (a study that commands much more exploration than this time would allow me), notes its careful construction. It begins with with three scenes of those who “come, do, and go.” The robbers come to the man, strip, beat and leave him. Then the priest comes, sees, and passes by. The Levite comes to the place, sees, and passes by. Bailey noted that the man had been stripped and left half dead, which was a way of saying he was near death – so, we must assume, unconscious, unable to speak. This matters in the story because we might then begin to understand the actions of the priest and the Levite. If he had been stripped and was unable to speak, it would have been impossible to know if this man was Jewish – a member of the clan – a neighbor according to tradition. The original hearers of the story would have known that the priest was likely returning from service in the temple. He could not tell if this was a good man. He could not even tell if the man was alive. By law, he was forbidden to get closer than four cubits to a dead man. Bailey says, “The priest was the victim of a rule book ethical/theological system. Life for him was a codified system of ‘do’s and don’ts.’” He goes on to suggest that, “This mentality persists in many forms in our day and continues to claim to offer the security of having quick answers to all of life’s problems and questions. The answers assure the devotee that [the person] is in the right and seem adequate until we face an unconscious man on the side of the road.”
I think about those times that the church has been called upon to minister to the strangers that are in need. When one of my sisters was in an accident, far from home, I called a local Presbyterian Church to ask for a response while she and her boyfriend were waiting for family to arrive. “We only help our own!” I was told. Years later, a family passing through town one winter evening asked for help. I contacted the minister on call. He asked me, “Are they Christians? We won’t help anyone who is not a Christian.”
Bailey suggests that the Levite would have known that a priest was ahead of him, for he, too, would have been going home after temple duties.. He didn’t have as many rules to follow. But he, like the priest, would have feared defilement. And, perhaps, he was afraid that if he stopped, his action would have been seen as a critique of the priest’s inaction.
The Samaritan came. The hearers of this parable, the first hearers, would have expected a Jewish layman to be the next character in this story. But Jesus told them that a Samaritan came. “Samaritans were publicly cursed in the synagogues; and a petition was daily offered that the Samaritans might not be partakers of eternal life.” (Oesterly, 162) The Samaritan’s actions are filled with God imagery. He binds up the wounds. He pours oil on them. He restores health. He then provided refuge for the injured man, taking the expense upon himself.
This was no easy thing to do. It would have been assumed, when he arrived at the inn, that he was responsible for the man’s injuries. If the man were Jewish, as we are led to believe, his family and the victim himself, might have been angry at the intervention – even when it meant that his life had been saved. Such was the hatred of Samaritans.
Through the centuries, interpreters have said that Jesus is the Good Samaritan. Bailey says, “He appears suddenly and unexpectedly from the outside and acts to save.” Even though he was Jewish (through and through), he was feared and, ultimately hated, not unlike the Samaritans.
Jesus was not willing to answer the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” He would not give a list that allowed the lawyer to know who belonged and who didn’t belong. T. W. Manson observed, “The question is unanswerable, and ought not to be asked. For love does not begin by defining its objects: it discovers them.” So, instead of answering the question, Jesus challenged him to know what the real question was, “To whom must you become a neighbor?” The lawyer is challenged to understand that he must “become a neighbor to anyone in need. To fulfill the law he had to reach out in costly compassion to all people, even his enemies.” (Bailey).
Bailey notes that the parable has two kinds of sinners, those who hurt the man with violence, the robbers, and those who hurt him by neglect, the priest and the Levite. All three failed to do good.
To whom must we become neighbors? That question still challenges us as the church. It is so easy, so tempting, to define narrowly who it is God calls us to serve and who it is we can and should count as our enemies. The world around us is very willing to tell us who may be trusted and who should be feared. We draw our circles and carefully screen who it is that we allow in and who we keep out, convinced that doing so will ensure our safety.
It doesn’t work. We see that reality daily. The divisions cause anger and hatred and fear to fester. The “other” looms large as an enemy that must be destroyed. We wake to news that makes us mourn and can encourage us to retreat, to seek our own protection and purity. We strive to keep our “clans” safe – however it is we define them. An article in the paper this past week spoke of the high death toll in Bagdad and the question posed by those suffering. “Where is the outrage?” they wanted to know. “Why is there mourning when the terrorists strike Paris, or Brussels, or Orlando, or San Bernardino, but not when they strike here?” Have we labeled them unimportant, unworthy of our concern, notice or care?
We see, as well, the consequences in our own society of living comfortably and easily with the divisions, with the clans, that prevent us from living into God’s call to be neighbors to all. There was a beautiful quote from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King posted on Facebook this week. ‘Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding a deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only love can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
We have the horrid stories making the news. Yet, there are powerful stories of people living out love in concrete ways in the midst of our own darkness. After the shooting in church in Atlanta, those affected chose to respond in ways that sought healing, not a perpetuation of violence. I think of the shooting at the Amish schoolhouse and the powerful witness of the community that reached out to the shooter’s widow. People responded to the Pulse nightclub shootings by affirming love’s power to drive out the darkness.
I loved Jon Stewart’s reflections on the shooting of the Dallas Officers. He said, “You can truly grieve for every officer who’s been lost in the line of duty in this country, and still be troubled by cases of police overreach. These two ideas are not mutually exclusive. You can have great regard for law enforcement and still want them to be held to high standards.” Many protestors, those who had assembled to hold officers to high standards, quickly became those who stood by in silent tribute to those who were injured and slain. They recognized that violence was not the answer to violence.
There is no law against love. There is nothing to prevent us from seeking the well-being of our neighbors. And, we are not asked to narrowly define who those neighbors are. They are, in our own community, those who look like us – and those who don’t. They are those who worship as we do, and those who worship differently or not at all. Our neighbors cannot be defined by race, class, sexual orientation, political affiliation, even by nationality. For God so loved the world, we proclaim, that God sent God’s only son…not to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.