Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost.
A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?”
Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”
He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”
But the legal expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus replied, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. Now it just so happened that a priest was also going down the same road. When he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. Likewise, a Levite came by that spot, saw the injured man, and crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.’ What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?”
Then the legal expert said, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
Very few things drive me battier than not having my direct questions answered.
It happens all the time, of course.
You ask, “how much does it cost?” and they say “we have the lowest prices anywhere!” Which does not answer the question.
You ask, “what time will you get here?” and they say “wow, it’s been a crazy day, you wouldn’t believe what happened.” Which does not answer the question.
You ask, “are masks required?” and they say “our local caseload is increasing.” Which does not answer the question.
Nothing makes me crazier than getting these non-answer answers, than feeling like I’m being given the runaround. In college I used to make note of how many guest lecturers, when asked a direct question, managed to avoid it altogether in favor of their pre-prepared talking points—and furthermore, how many students, in an attempt not to be rude, quietly thanked them and sat down again even though anybody who was even half-listening knew their question had not been answered in the slightest.
And so it is that I have been sitting with the parable of the Good Samaritan this week. It’s a great story. You know it, I know it, even Brad down the street who hasn’t been to church in his whole life probably knows the basics. The Good Samaritan story reminds us to be helpers. It’s sweet. It’s nice. It inspires good morals.
And… it drives me batty.
If it was just the story, I wouldn’t be so irritated. But Jesus launches into this story because he has been asked a question, a direct question, by a local lawyer. And the story… well, it doesn’t answer the question.
This lawyer—whether innocently or craftily—wants to know what to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus reminds him that he already knows the answer to that one—love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself.
Which leads to a follow-up question—who is my neighbor?
If I have to love my neighbor as myself, especially in order to inherit eternal life, who exactly do I have to love? My next door neighbor? The whole subdivision? The county? My fellow Presbyterians? How many doors down does this love business have to extend?
This is the question on the table. Who is my neighbor?
And the answer to that… never quite comes. Jesus launches into a parable instead.
Here comes the part we’re all familiar with. A priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan come walking down the road. On that road is a man, robbed and beaten and naked and left for dead. The priest and the Levite, our good religious folk, cross to the other side of the road and edge around him. The Samaritan, an outsider, is the one to save his life, bandage his wounds, and pay for his medical care at an inn. The moral? Be like the Samaritan. Stop and help.
Perhaps we are too familiar with this story. Amy Jill Levine, a Jewish scholar of the New Testament, reminds us just how shocking this story would have been to Jesus’ first listeners. There were three kinds of Jewish people in Jesus’ community—the priests, descended from Aaron; the Levites, descended from Levi; and the Israelites, descended from the rest of the twelve brothers. Any time you get a set up with a priest and a Levite, your third category is going to be an Israelite; it just is.
Samaritans, though, are a different kettle of fish. Samaritans split off from the Judean Jews long, long ago. They worship on a holy mountain instead of at the temple in Jerusalem. They hold fast to the Torah but reject everything that comes after, the history and prophets. They consider themselves Jewish too, but the two groups, Judean Jews and Samaritan Jews are enemies. Think of their relations as something akin to the Hatfields and McCoys—bitter enemies in the way that only people who were once really close can be.
The woman at the well, a Samaritan herself, tells Jesus that Jews and Samaritans don’t share things in common—not even a cup of water.
So when Jesus tells this parable—of the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan—eyebrows would have shot up. There may have even been a gasp or two. Surely a Samaritan—those nasty, evil, awful, heretical Samaritans—isn’t the one we’re supposed to emulate.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, that we know this passage—that the whole world knows this character—as the good Samaritan. A single adjective that appears nowhere in Jesus’ own parable. To say this story is about a good Samaritan suggests that he is an outlier, an exception to a rule. Sure, you can find one good Samaritan. There’s bound to be at least one.
But Jesus doesn’t make room for that. This story is simply about a Samaritan. A Samaritan who chooses to love his neighbor, just like the Torah both groups study tells him to. A Samaritan who chooses to love his neighbor, not in the abstract, but in the bloody, filthy, expensive, inconvenient flesh. A Samaritan who chooses to love his neighbor, not because of an ideal, but because it makes him sick to his stomach to walk by.
In his final sermon before his assassination, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr spoke to a group in Memphis, Tennessee. I’m going to quote him at some length here, because his insights still hold up, some fifty-four years later.
“One day a man came to Jesus, and he wanted to raise some questions about some vital matters of life. At points he wanted to trick Jesus, and show him that he knew a little more than Jesus knew and throw him off base….
Now that question could have easily ended up in a philosophical and theological debate. But Jesus immediately pulled that question from mid-air, and placed it on a dangerous curve between Jerusalem and Jericho. …
Now you know, we use our imagination a great deal to try to determine why the priest and the Levite didn’t stop. At times we say they were busy going to a church meeting, an ecclesiastical gathering, and they had to get on down to Jerusalem so they wouldn’t be late for their meeting. At other times we would speculate that there was a religious law that “One who was engaged in religious ceremonials was not to touch a human body twenty-four hours before the ceremony.” And every now and then we begin to wonder whether maybe they were not going down to Jerusalem — or down to Jericho, rather to organize a “Jericho Road Improvement Association.” That’s a possibility. Maybe they felt that it was better to deal with the problem from the causal root, rather than to get bogged down with an individual effect.
But I’m going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It’s possible that those men were afraid. You see, the Jericho road is a dangerous road. I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. And as soon as we got on that road, I said to my wife, “I can see why Jesus used this as the setting for his parable.” It’s a winding, meandering road. It’s really conducive for ambushing. You start out in Jerusalem, which is about 1200 miles — or rather 1200 feet above sea level. And by the time you get down to Jericho, fifteen or twenty minutes later, you’re about 2200 feet below sea level. That’s a dangerous road. In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the “Bloody Pass.” And you know, it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking. And he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt, in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the priest asked — the first question that the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”
Sometimes the question we want to ask has to be changed. Not “what might happen to me if love this neighbor?” but “what might happen to them if I don’t?”
The lawyer asked Jesus “who is my neighbor?” That is a question about who we have to love. Jesus, who came to earth to love everybody, has no time or energy for that question. He wants the lawyer to think differently. Not “who do I have to love?” but “how do I show love?” How do I love the neighbors that I have, in all their messy, inconvenient reality?
That is a very different question, and it’s the one Jesus answers. “Show mercy,” he says. A neighbor is one who shows mercy. Go and do likewise.
Mercy is one of those qualities that, in scripture, is almost always attributed to God. The constant refrain of the Old Testament is that God is merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. For us to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves is to bridge the gap between all three by sharing a bit of the mercy that God has shown to us.
Rev. King called his congregation to a “dangerous unselfishness.” To the kind of love that isn’t concerned with how little it can get away with, but how much it can offer. To the kind of love that isn’t sentimental or abstracted but that hefts a bloodied and bruised body onto a donkey and walks the miles beside it until healing is found.
We are not God. Our efforts at mercy will never be perfect, and the situations we find ourselves in are rarely as cut and dry as the ones we find in parables. Yet there is a reason this story is so famous, so beloved, and so crazy-making: we’re still trying to live out the answer to Jesus’ last question.
Who is a neighbor to the one in need?
Are our lives the answer Jesus has wanted to hear all along?