On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
He answered, “‘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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side.So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him.The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (NIV)
Grace to you and peace from God our creator, from Jesus Christ, our redeemer and friend, and from the Holy Spirit, our sustainer and guide.
You know this story very well. This is one of the most popular stories Jesus ever told. Along with the story of the prodigal son, it is told and re-told in many ways. It has often been chosen as the passage for opening devotions or Bible studies at church meetings and conferences. I bet I have been part of discussions about this parable several dozen times over the course of my career. This one, especially, with its hero being the outsider, the Samaritan, the one looked down on by the polite society of Jesus’ day, has easily been adapted for the hero to be the outsider of our day.
When I was in seminary, at the very beginning of the AIDS crisis, and people who were HIV+ or who had AIDS were being judged harshly and ostracized by Christian leaders, one of my fellow students preached on this passage for Wednesday chapel. This parable was told as a man who had AIDS was the only one who stopped to help. After 9-11 It was a Muslim who was the one to render aid. Somewhere along the way, I have heard this parable told as if it was an undocumented migrant that stopped and showed mercy.
In those same studies, the priest and the Levite were sometimes changed into other characters as well… a pastor, a council president, a choir director, a Lutheran Social Services board member. It is always someone who one would have thought to be a compassionate. responsible, godly person, but who turned out to be a preoccupied, self-centered person like the rest of us. The priest and the Levite characters passed by the man in need. Jesus didn’t tell us why. They had their reasons for passing by on the other side. There are always reasons. But since Jesus didn’t tell us why, we have to fill in the reasons from our own experience and assumptions. At the time, the reasons seem all important to us. And then we realize with a jolt, the reasons why they passed by on the other side don’t matter much. No, the reasons don’t matter even one little bit.
And that is just the thing. In this story, we know it could easily be us who is the one half dead in the ditch. Life has battered us around enough to know what it feels like to be beat up by life and wonder if you will ever recover. We also, when we are honest with ourselves, know it could easily be us that passes by on the other side. We would like to think it would be us who would stop to help if we saw someone in need, but would we?
Maybe it is just me, but I am convicted by this story time and again. I remember the time a couple years ago I was heading back to church in Santee after the pastor’s meeting that is always held here and I decided to take care of an errand on the way back. As I pulled into the parking lot I noticed a man who looked agitated walking back and forth along the street. I remember wondering if he needed help. “Of course he needs help,” I thought to myself. “But he needs more help than what I can give him.” I figured he needed a whole host of mental health and social services. I went inside the store and took care of my errand. When I came out I saw him sitting on a bench near the store with his head in his hands, his elbows on his knees. I had compassion for him, and a pang of guilt, but I had my purchases in my hands, and it had taken longer than I had intended it to so I was on the late side, so I went to my car and went on to church. This parable was in my mind right away.
This man still weighs heavy on my heart. I hope someone stopped to check on him. I have thought of him often, and prayed for him a lot since then. I have no idea where he is, but God does. So I continue to pray for him. But I also pray for myself. I pray that I will do better at being a good Christ follower. I pray that I will do better at recognizing that I may not be able to do everything, but at least I can do something.
And that is really why Jesus told this parable in the first place. Let me read the setting for this story once again, because sometimes it gets lost because we focus only on the WHAT of story itself, but this is about the WHY of the story…
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” He answered, “‘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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” (Luke 10:25-28, NIV)
The fellow that stood up to press Jesus on this point already knew the answer to his question. He didn’t need to ask Jesus. HE ALREADY KNEW!
So why did he ask Jesus a question he already knew the answer to? Luke tells us, listen to this:
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29, NIV)
He wanted to justify himself.
He wanted to look good. So Jesus told this story. (Spoiler alert: Jesus didn’t make him look good.)
Now, Jesus was a little tricky. He could have had one of the two guys that passed by be a religious law expert like the man asking the question, BUT HE DIDN’T. He made the story be about the man’s competitors… no, his colleagues. The religious law expert would have known priests and Levites, but they weren’t his people. They might have often been in conflict about how to interpret the law. Each would have wanted his own perspective to prevail, but really, they were all in the same business. They were all on the same team. It is as if the man asking the question were a Baptist and Jesus told the story about a Presbyterian and a Roman Catholic who pass by and an unchurched man who stops. At first the questioner might be lulled into thinking the story isn’t actually about him… but then it hits him like a ton of bricks. This is about me. (It had been about him all along, so in this way, Jesus DID give him what he was after! But that wasn’t really what he was after.) Then, maybe just as quickly, he has another revelation. These ALL are me. THESE ARE ME!
I AM the guys who pass by.
But I am also the guy half dead in the ditch.
And I am also the guy who stopped to help.
And I am sometimes the innkeeper who gets to observe the saint who generously helps his neighbor.
AND I am quite sure I have also at some time been the thief who has beat up some unsuspecting traveler.
The thing is, each one of them is me. And each one of them is you.
And each one of them is our neighbor.
So I believe Jesus is calling us to have compassion for EACH AND EVERY ONE OF THEM. Yes, the Samaritan was their neighbor, even though the religious law expert wouldn’t have seen it that way. He could only see the Samaritan as the icky other. So too, whoever is “the icky other” in our day, that one is our neighbor, whoever else we might put in that character’s place. But so too, all of the rest of them are our neighbors. There is no one who is NOT our neighbor. We are all on the same team, so to speak.
There is grace for all of the characters in this story.
There is grace for all of the characters in YOUR story. There is grace for you.
So I ask you, within the context of God’s grace by which we live, who is your neighbor? How might you be a good neighbor to them? What might you do to convey God’s love to your neighbor?
In this time of silence, I invite you to sit with your neighbor.
Holy God, come into our hearts and increase our faith. Inspire us in serving your people and being the church for the good of the world. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Blessings to you,
Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.