25Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27He answered, “You shall 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 your neighbor as yourself.” 28And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” 29But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
Grace to you and peace from God, our Father, and our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
In a couple weeks, our Vacation Bible School people will be exploring today’s parable of the Good Samaritan, and they’ll have four days to explore this question of “Who Is My Neighbor?” Four days, and I’ve got about ten minutes!
I was not aware of the VBS theme when I titled this message, but I’m not really afraid of too much duplication. I don’t believe I’ll be revealing spoilers like some do when movies hit the big screen. I can be fairly confident of this because I plan to do something Jesus did in this story. (Also, I was able to scan the VBS leader guide to see an outline of what might happen.) You see, when Jesus was asked by the lawyer, “Who Is My Neighbor?” his answer was in a story that turned things around backwards. His final question to the lawyer who had approached him was not, “So, who is your neighbor?” it was, “Which … was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
Let us remember here, that the lawyer approached Jesus in the first place intending to test him. Usually, when a lawyer makes this kind of approach, it is with the intent of causing the person to make a mistake, to inspire failure. However, when Jesus answers, he turns things around, getting the lawyer to answer his own question. Then he affirms it, and all should be good.
That’s when the lawyer figures he needs to justify himself.
What does that mean? That’s when we try to explain what we have done in ways that make it seem as if we’ve done the right thing. When the lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?”, he’s really asking, “Whom must I love as myself?”
This is a really hard question, even today. It’s a hard question because there are some people we really don’t want to love. And there are people who really have no idea what it means to love.
In the answer portion of an advice column a few days ago, it was suggested that we ask, “Do you treat other people as if they are less important than yourself?” The question had to do with an immature houseguest who would invite himself for a week and expect to be served like a hotel tenant and taken out for all the meals. “Do you treat other people as if they are less important than yourself?”
The answer of the priest and the Levite in our story would most certainly be, “Yes.” The answer for the lawyer would probably be the same. They were taught that they were to consider themselves as the top tier of society. They actually had cleanliness rules that wouldn’t allow them to touch bleeding men at the side of the road. They had the law on their side to avoid him.
And who was neighbor to the man injured by the robbers? It was someone with nothing to lose, a man who was already unclean by definition, a Samaritan.
We have spent our entire lives hearing about the Good Samaritan, so we might be forgiven for having the idea that all Samaritans are good by definition. However, that would not have been the understanding of the people listening as Jesus spoke. To help us to understand, I’d like you to imagine what stranger you would most hate to have touching you. (Now, I’m not talking about known abusers, I’m talking about someone about whom you know virtually nothing.) From whom would you refuse to receive assistance (if you could)?
Would you refuse to be served by a woman? By someone from another country? By someone who is trans, or queer, or bi? By someone with visible tattoos? By someone with facial piercings? By someone who is poor? Or maybe you’d cringe from being served by one who is rich, or haughty, or proud, or strong. Maybe one who is blind or deaf would cause you to refuse. Too young, too old, too pale, or too dark. Too tall, or too short. The eyes too close together or the head too large or too small. What would make us turn away from assistance offered? Whom would we refuse as neighbor?
Our lawyer from today’s story would probably have considered himself to be neighbor primarily to people like the priest and the Levite, as they would have been pretty much at the same social level. The lawyer himself likely would have walked on by at the far side of the road from the man of his own country who had been robbed and left to die, possibly with a small bit of pity as he mourned the bad luck of his countryman. It would have been easier for the lawyer to express kindness and care for those he considered equal to himself—within reason, of course. Probably not if that person was dying.
Here, though, he’d asked a question to try to make his status an excuse. If the only ones who are my neighbors are those who are just like me, well, it’s easier to love them. We can ignore everyone else, right?
I think one of the most difficult things about this whole parable is the part we don’t even notice. Most often, I believe we focus so much how we find inspiration to serve those who are poorer, sicker, or whom we see as somehow “less than” ourselves, when Jesus is really saying something much different. He’s telling us that those people are better at it than we are.
Those people we judge to be less than ourselves are better at caring for those in need than we are. The Samaritan was better than the priest, better than the Levite, better than the lawyer.
The point of Jesus’ story is that likely, the person we most despise is better at expressing God’s love than we are.
So. What do we do with that? Is it enough that our eyes are opened to see as neighbor those we’d rather overlook, whether they be below us, above us, or in a different political party?
Well, that’s a start! We’re as guilty as the lawyer, smug in our own goodness! But, we are also forgiven. We gather together to be inspired, yes, but also to hear that God loves us, that God forgives us in our failures, that we may share in new life, both here and after death. We come, so that we may go, refreshed, to share God’s love in a hungry world.
In Jesus’ name. Amen