Our congregation has started out the new year with a series about the parables in the book of Luke. This is right up my alley, and last Sunday we tackled the parable of the Good Samaritan. Since we’re supposed to sit quietly and not ask questions, I have a lot of pent up ideas. Fortunately, I have a website.
For those of you who don’t trust me, you can find the full text in Luke 10:25-37, but I’m going to rehash it here. An expert in the law asked Jesus “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” This may be the earliest recorded instance of someone asking this question of a Rabbi, but it became very popular as Jewish eschatology advanced in the following centuries. Jesus, being a proper Rabbi, returned the question to the expert, treating the expert as his student. The man was not deterred and answered “Love the Lord with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus praised the scholar, but the scholar was only coming to his real point. “And who is my neighbor?” he asked Jesus.
This question might seem strange to us, but to the culture of Jesus’s time it was a big deal. They were trying to maintain their cultural identity and their unique relationship with God. To do that, you needed to associate only with like-minded people, and Jesus seemed to have a problem with that. He wasn’t sticking to the devout Jews only, but had picked up a following of sinners and tax-collectors, and there was some concern that he might even have dealings with less savory characters like Samaritans or Gentiles.
So Jesus tells a story. “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho (probably to avoid going through Samaria), when he was attacked and robbed. His body was left broken and barely clinging to life along the road when a priest, on his way to the temple, passed by. He saw this man and his plight, and quickly crossed to the other side of the road and continued to Jerusalem. Soon, a Levite, also heading for his duties at the temple, came along. He likewise saw the suffering man and crossed the road to avoid him. Finally, a despised Samaritan came up the road. He saw the beaten man and had compassion. He tended the man’s wounds and carried him to safety. “Who was a neighbor here?” asked Jesus.
The expert in the law could only reply “The one who had mercy on him.”
In the sermon last Sunday we heard about the importance of caring for those in need. We even heard about the need to avoid racism and xenophobia, important messages at times such as these. Yet I cannot believe that was the point of the story Jesus told. I just think the real meaning is something we have a little trouble talking about in Christian circles.
The story is not, as we might hope, about a Jew reaching out to help a struggling outsider. This is a story about the Kingdom of God and how to live out God’s will, and like most of Jesus’s parables the problem is religion. All Jews knew they should love their neighbor, and this man who was beaten and left for dead was certainly a neighbor in need. The problem was that there were other laws that superseded helping someone in need. In particular, people doing holy jobs, such as this priest and Levite, needed to maintain their purity to do their jobs. Touching a potentially dead body or getting contaminated by blood would rendered them unfit for service. In order to maintain the temple this suffering man had to be left to die. It was only the Samaritan, with no theological statement to make, who could actually get down and help the wounded.
The message to the expert in the law, and to us, is to stop worrying about keeping up our holiness and get down into the trenches with those who are in need. Jesus was not opposing God by reaching out to the unclean of his society. He was doing his will.
I think the relevance of this message is hard to deny. How would the world be better if we could reach out to the divorced person, the unwed mother, the homosexual, and the drug addict without fearing what our peers may think? What would they think if we cared more about binding up wounds than maintaining our purity? As Jesus told the expert, “Go and do likewise.”