Text: Luke 10:25-37
Let us pray: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). Every observant Jew in Jesus’ hearing would have been familiar with these words. They come directly from the Torah and were prayed twice daily. To love God with one’s whole being was central to Jewish law. Every other element of the law sprang from this great commandment. So when the lawyer questions Jesus about eternal life, it’s not at all surprising to find he already knew the answer.
Some would argue that the lawyer is trying to trap Jesus. It certainly is not the first time on this long journey to Jerusalem that a religious authority has tried to trip him up. But I’m not altogether certain. I think it’s in the nature of lawyers to want to pin things down, to ask clarifying questions and to try to establish precedents that people can practice. His question may be a test of Jesus’ knowledge or wisdom, but it could be that he really is looking for an answer. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Does that question have any ring of authenticity for you? Have you ever found yourself wondering along with the lawyer? Do you ever worry about the heavenly road and whether or not you’re on it? I know we largely think of ourselves as too sophisticated to put questions in these terms. But if you found yourself in this attorney’s shoes what would you ask Jesus? What would you want to know – about his authenticity, his message, his leadership, the way he was walking, the choices he was making, the reign of God he kept promoting? What must I do to secure my place in this in-breaking, life-transforming, reign of God?
Now in typical fashion of argumentation for the time and territory, Jesus turns the lawyer’s question back on him. He answers the original question with a sharply pointed question of his own. “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” Jesus knows this man is no dummy. This lawyer is well-read, literate in the law, perfectly capable of answering his own question, if he stops to think. Here we get Luke’s version of the Great Commandment, but it does not come from the lips of Jesus. It comes from the one who has just challenged him. Love God with your whole being and love your neighbor just as you love yourself. The law, the way, the truth, the life – all are rooted and grounded in these words about the power of love.
I imagine the lawyer was a little embarrassed at being shown up by Jesus. He engages in a little stuttering before he comes up with a face-saving follow-up question. “And just who is my neighbor?” Surely, he will either get Jesus to engage him on his own terms or he will catch Jesus short in his understanding of neighborliness. But again, Jesus does not follow the lawyer’s lead. He says, “Let me tell you a little story.”
The crowd is enrapt as they watch the volleys back and forth between the two. They settle in to hear one of Jesus’ famous stories, the kind with a surprise ending that will surely put his challenger in his place. I’m sure we could all tell the Parable of the Good Samaritan from memory. Along with the Parable of the Prodigal Son, it is the most familiar of all Jesus’ stories.
Jesus himself will soon walk the steep, rugged road from Jericho to Jerusalem. Even if it is not actually familiar to his hearers, they all know of its dangerous reputation. I can imagine they might begin by wondering what this fool was doing traveling the road alone, unless he was on some urgent business that required his taking off by himself.
Now he lies bloody and beaten in the ditch robbed of all his resources, including his robe and tunic. The listeners are conflicted. They understand why the priest and Levite don’t stop. The risk of being robbed themselves and the risk of ritual impurity were just too great. Truth be told, most of them would not have stopped either. They could think of a dozen reasons not to get involved. But they’d also been around Jesus long enough to begin to understand how important compassion was to the reign of God. They had a nagging feeling that Jesus believed the priest and Levite should have stopped. They knew that, for Jesus, human need trumped rules and standard practice every time.
So what would the catch be, what was the punch line for this parable? A Samaritan wanders onto the scene. Well, surely this is a turn for the worse. Everyone knew that a hated Samaritan could be up to no good. See, we’ve heard this story so many times it’s tamed for us, but the first century Jews, listening to Jesus talk, had been carefully taught to hate Samaritans. The ending, so familiar to us, would have been shocking to them.
That’s right. It’s the Samaritan who shows compassion and extravagant generosity. The lawyer is not the only one dumb-founded. The whole crowd is astonished, speechless. Jesus, looking the lawyer right in the eyes, asks one last question. “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor…?” Stuttering again, the lawyer cannot bring himself to say the word Samaritan…“The one who showed…mercy.” Finally, the answer to that original question about eternal life, about residency in the reign of God: “Go and do likewise.”
If we were to put ourselves into this scene today, how might the story unfold? Who would we find in need and why? Who would be likely to walk by on the other side and who would stop to help? Where would you place yourself – lying in the ditch, hurrying by, taking time to lend assistance? My guess is that each of us has had some experience of all three roles. We’ve been down and out, hurting, in need of help. We’ve been too busy, too frightened, too preoccupied to stop for a neighbor in need. And there have been those moving, miraculous moments when our compassion has kicked in and we’ve stopped to help even when it was not perceived to be in our best interest.
Some would argue that it’s human nature to follow an instinct for self-preservation, to give one’s self over to caring only for one’s self and one’s own. Michael Rogness reminds us that the shrinking world in which we live challenges our understanding of neighbor. He says, “We are all ‘tribal’ by instinct and by habit. We are most comfortable with and usually care most about those like us. But now we live side-by-side with people of many different tribes” (Michael Rogness, Commentary on Luke 10:25-37, workingpreacher.org). Whomever is on our personal “Samaritan” list are the ones for whom we are least likely to have time or energy. No compassion for those folk; too hard to get inside their skin and see with their eyes. It’s important to look after one’s own kind. How subtly does racism, classism, sexism, homo-hatred, ablism creep in to erode our ability to love, to crush our capacity for compassion?
Gerald May argues that this very capacity for compassion, this awakening of the heart to loving and being loved is what distinguishes human beings from other animals (The Awakened Heart). Marcus Borg says that the call to compassion is one of two key marks that distinguish Jesus’ ministry from all others (Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time). Anne Howard says of the parable, “There are two kinds of people in [this] story: those who see life with eyes of fear and the one who sees with eyes of love.” She continues, “Jesus makes it very clear to the lawyer: there is really only one rule to the game: be a neighbor. Be the one who doesn’t count the cost, be the one who doesn’t measure the boundaries, be the one who doesn’t calculate the limits of kindness, be the one who sees” with eyes of love (Anne Howard, “Two Ways to See,” A Word in Time, July 8, 2013, beatitudessociety.org).
Compassion, love for neighbor, may not be part of our animal nature, but it is certainly central to that second nature, that higher self into which we can grow. God has made us a little lower than the divine and crowned us with honor and glory (Psalm 8:5). We are created and called to something beyond our base nature. To give ourselves to God and neighbor is to commit ourselves to a life of love and compassion. “Go and do likewise,” Jesus says. Go and practice compassion. You already know the foundation – love of God and love of neighbor. Go and live out what you see to be true. Amen.