25 A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?”
26 Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”
27 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.”
28 Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”
29 But the legal expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 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. 31 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. 32 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. 33 A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. 34 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. 35 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.’ 36 What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?”
37 Then the legal expert said, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (CEB)
When a parable becomes a cliché it’s easy to gloss over the meaning because we think we already know it. We tend to take it out of its historical context and turn it into a morality lesson. Most of us know stories of how a “Good Samaritan” came to our or another person’s aid. If Jesus only meant that we should help people when they’re in trouble, I doubt he would have wasted words by telling a parable, especially in the way he told it. It’s supposed to shock us, not make us feel good about ourselves. But, familiarity breeds contempt, so we tend to reduce this parable so that it points to us as the hero of the story every time we do a random nice thing.
At the heart of this parable is the relationship between the law and the gospel. For some of us, and for the majority of Jesus’ contemporaries, the law is the gospel. When we think this way—that the law is the gospel—we view our personal obedience to the law as our behavioral proof of faith in God. We can tick the check boxes on the law’s list of demands: I did this one, I did this one, thank goodness I didn’t do this one, check, check, check. With our list of boxes checked, we can declare ourselves righteous.
But, when we understand the law as gospel, we end up making our personal understanding of the law equal to God’s Divine revelation humanity in order to justify ourselves. The law effectively becomes the means by which we arrive at God’s ends.
For Jesus, the gospel is law, which is different from the law as gospel. We’ll get into this more in a bit, but first, let’s look at the scene Luke gives us. We’re told that a scribe or legal expert stood up to test Jesus. Now, when we read this, we usually read antagonism into the scribe’s action. But this was people often did when they got together. They would pose questions to each other to see how the person being questioned would answer. And it wasn’t necessarily antagonistic. Sometimes, it was entertaining.
Another point to note is that, as this scene unfolds, Jesus is already on his way to Jerusalem. His journey there begins this way: “As the time approached when Jesus was to be taken up into heaven, he determined to go to Jerusalem. He sent messengers on ahead of him. Along the way, they entered a Samaritan village to prepare for his arrival, but the Samaritan villagers refused to welcome him because he was determined to go to Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to consume them?’ But Jesus turned and spoke sternly to them, and they went on to another village” (Luke 9:51-56 CEB). A scribe asks Jesus what he must do to have life while Jesus is on his way to death.
That little piece of Luke 9 also highlights the strained relations between Jews and Samaritans. The disciples wanted to call fire down from heaven to consume a Samaritan village that didn’t welcome Jesus. Clearly, the disciples still didn’t get this whole gospel thing Jesus was teaching. So, keep that in mind as we get to the parable itself.
Instead of answering when the legal expert asks his question, Jesus asks him how he would interpret what the law says. So, the legal expert responded with two texts of the Hebrew Scriptures that were widely seen in ancient Judaism as the hooks on which the whole law hung. One part, Deuteronomy 6:5, focused on devotion to God with one’s whole being. The other part, Leviticus 19:18, focused on the love of one’s neighbor. The two go hand in hand. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus continually connects devotion to God with actions representative of God’s love and mercy for humankind.
It’s a good answer. It’s the right answer. It’s what the law requires: love God and love your neighbors. And Jesus says as much.
But the legal expert couldn’t leave well enough alone. He needed to justify the way he had heretofore applied his personal understanding of the law in his life. He wanted to prove that the way he lived out his interpretation of the law’s demands was, indeed, righteousness. So, he asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29b CEB).
Jesus sets the parable up by saying, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death” (Luke 10:30 CEB). The first two people to encounter the man on the roadside passed him by. Now, through the years, I’ve heard people try to give reasons for why the priest and the Levite—the clergy of Judaism—crossed over to the other side. The prevailing theory is that the priest and Levite would have been concerned with maintaining their ritual purity and encountering a dead body would have defiled them.
But, the hole in that theory is that the priest and Levite were both going “down” the same road. Anyone going “down” that road would have been traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. If you were going the other way, you’d be going “up” the road. The elevation of Jerusalem’s old city is 2500 feet above sea level. The elevation of Jericho is about 846 feet below sea level. So, you were either going up to Jerusalem or down to Jericho. Or, as Jesus put it, “down from Jerusalem.” If the priest and the Levite were on their way to Jericho, then there wouldn’t be much concern for maintaining ritual purity because they weren’t heading up to the temple.
The priest and the Levite are not allegorical representations of the failure of the law or what was wrong with Judaism. They only represent two people who didn’t demonstrate mercy. We don’t know why they didn’t. Their inner moral reasoning isn’t provided, and neither is the Samaritan’s, for that matter. All we know is that two people who presumably share the religious and cultural identity of the man who was beaten and left for dead did not express concern. Whatever their reasons for passing by, nothing can excuse their refusal to show mercy. In fact, the presence of these two characters in the story acting as they did—refusing to show mercy—would have shocked those who listened to Jesus words.
Yet, it’s not an indictment against Israel, Judaism, the clergy, or any such nonsense. Two people who were expected to show mercy didn’t. Their crossing to the other side of the road would have been heard by Jesus’ listeners as shocking. I know we like to see ourselves as the Samaritan in the story, but if we’re honest in our own self-reflection, we probably have more in common with the priest and the Levite than we’d like to admit. Other people’s problems are always inconvenient.
As for the Samaritan, I’m sure the man who got beaten up was just as much of an inconvenience for him as for the priest and the Levite. Certainly, the Samaritan’s introduction into the story—and especially his acts of mercy—jolted the audience. His disciples were probably scratching their heads. After all, he just passed through a Samaritan village full of people who refused to welcome him, who refused to extend the least bit of hospitality, let alone mercy.
The Samaritan is not like the presumably Jewish man who fell victim to the robbers. Yet, it’s the Samaritan who approached the man. It’s the Samaritan who bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. It’s the Samaritan who put the man on his own donkey and took him to an inn. It’s the Samaritan who arranged for the wounded man’s continued care after he left. It’s the Samaritan who promised to return and pay for the cost of the man’s care if anything else were owed. It’s the Samaritan who treats the man not as an enemy but as one dear to him, which is shown by the spectrum of care he provides to the injured man. The Samaritan’s demonstration of mercy shows us how far love ought to go. Authentic love doesn’t discriminate. Authentic love creates neighborly relationships because, by love’s very nature, it meets the needs of others.
In this parable, though, the Samaritan doesn’t necessarily represent us. We don’t get to read ourselves into the story as the triumphal hero who did what was right. Rather, we should read ourselves into the story as the one who was beaten up and left for dead. The Samaritan, in fact, represents the person or group of people whom we would not want to help us. Maybe, we would rather die than have this person help us.
Who might that be for you? Think about it. Might it be a Muslim? A refugee from Central America? A drug addict? A homeless person who hasn’t bathed in three weeks? Who would that be for you? Amy-Jill Levine, who wrote the book, The Misunderstood Jew said that, as a Jewish woman, for her the Samaritan is a member of Hamas who showed mercy. In a lecture to a group of people who had witnessed September 11 first-hand, she suggested the the Samaritan was a member of Al Qaeda who showed mercy.
The point of Jesus’ parable is to remind us in our self-righteous certainty of our sincerely-held definitions of good people and bad people that mercy can come from unexpected places; that neighbors can be found in unexpected places. The legal expert wanted to narrow the scope of who he might have to count as his neighbor, but Jesus blew the definition so wide open that we don’t get to exclude anyone.
There’s probably a bit of the legal expert in all of us. Some of us find the law-as-gospel mindset comforting. When the law is gospel, we know where we’re going. We seek refuge in rules. We glorify boundaries. We enumerate norms, and we codify discipleship. We ask about definitions and try to set limits. We want to know, precisely, who I must love as myself.
When the law is gospel, I am the actor, and my actions need to be justified by my personal understanding of the law and obedience to the law as humanly defined. To ask questions that seek answers that limit or define is to view the law as gospel. It’s an attempt at maintaining control over the wildly uncontrollable love and mercy of God. It’s to continue the presumption that being a disciple of Jesus Christ is primarily knowing the difference between good and evil instead of knowing only God and God’s mercy and showing God’s mercy to our neighbors.
You see, it’s not necessarily the law that fails to meet the standards of the gospel but, rather, it’s our human failure at interpreting it. If the legal expert had read a little farther, he would have found the place that says, “When immigrants live in your land with you, you must not cheat them. Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34 CEB).
Neighbors are people we don’t know. Neighbors are even the people we hate. Neighbors are people we fear. Who is my neighbor?
When the legal expert realized that he was the one being tested, not Jesus, he managed to say that the one who showed mercy was a neighbor to the man left for dead. It, too, is a good answer. It’s the right answer. Because, it’s not a person’s similarities to us that make them our neighbor. Those who show mercy are neighbors. And those who show mercy are the ones who fulfil both the law and the gospel. Jesus tells us to go and demonstrate mercy to the world. Are we willing to let love move so deeply in us that we dare to demonstrate mercy to people we hate and, therefore, become neighbors to those we’d rather die than love—or allow to love us?
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
Rev. Christopher Millay