The parable of the Good Samaritan is one that probably all of you could stand up and tell by heart. It reads very much like a fable in which we are to take away the moral that if we see someone in need, we are to help that person. It’s so familiar in fact that I wasn’t looking forward to preaching on it.
Nevertheless, the story itself is well worth retelling and remembering, and as I began my studies this week I got stuck on two things at the very beginning of the passage. The first is the motive for the lawyer’s question: What must I do to inherit eternal life? He asks it to test Jesus.
Jesus in his typical style answers a question with a question: What is written in the law? What do you read there? This of course allows the lawyer to demonstrate his intelligence and his pedigree. He quotes from Deuteronomy (6:5) and Leviticus (19:18) thus proving that he knows the Scriptures and that he is an observant Jew. The verses he quotes are what Jesus later proclaims to be the Two Great Commandments—love God with all your might and love your neighbor as yourself.
The other thing I got stuck on was that even though the lawyer answered correctly and Jesus affirmed his answer, he didn’t let it go. Instead, it says that he wanted to justify himself so he pursued the matter and asked: Who is my neighbor?
Now let’s face it, the lawyer would not have asked such a question if he didn’t think he knew the answer. He might have been confident in asking such a question because he was the kind of man that in observing the Law, he was already taking care of those in his neighborhood and tribe.
It’s a natural instinct and something that comes pretty easily to most of us—taking care of our own. We automatically take care of our family and loved ones, and are open to seeing, understanding, and wanting to help those within our own spheres. But that’s when Jesus bursts the lawyer’s bubble.
He proceeds to tell a story in which an unaligned man (meaning that Jesus doesn’t say whether he’s a Jew, or Gentile, or Samaritan) is robbed, attacked, and left for dead. Of the three people that come upon this man in dire need of help, the two people the lawyer would have thought sure bets to help him, pass on by. It’s a Samaritan, someone considered unclean and a heretic by orthodox Jews, that not only stops, but tends to his wounds, takes him somewhere safe, and pays for the man’s care.
For the lawyer this story would have been wrong on so many levels. In his world, it is the religious and righteous that do the right thing, it’s not a foreigner and stranger. Unfortunately for him, Jesus isn’t asking whether his neighbor is a priest, Levite, or Samaritan. He is asking him which one was a neighbor to the injured man.
The boundaries of who is worth caring for is about to get expanded way beyond his comfort zone. But first notice something else. The lawyer wants to know who his neighbor is—who is the one that he is to love as himself? Jesus doesn’t answer his question. Instead he redefines neighbor as the one that acts out compassion and care.
In the first, the neighbor is the one in need of care, in the second the neighbor is the benefactor. Now I don’t think that Jesus is saying that to be a neighbor you have to always be the one who comes to the aid of another. That would be more of a super hero than a neighbor, not mention the codependent qualities involved in such a scenario!
What Jesus is challenging here is the tendency to see and respond only to those who are most like us; the people we are most comfortable with and we have an innate understanding about.
I also honestly think that he’s trying to highlight the essence of mutuality in being neighbors. Sometimes you are the one who needs help and sometimes you are the one who gives help. There’s a fluidity to the relationship that involves mutual seeing and responding.
He’s saying all human beings are worthy of compassion and care because all people are created in God’s image. Jesus died for the sins of the world, which means that all people have inherent worth and dignity. There’s a reason that we promise in the Baptismal Covenant to not only seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves but also to strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being.
We live in a world of diversity—different races, cultures, religions, and nationalities. But even so we can’t take for granted that those who look like us think the way we do or share the same values. Nor can we assume that those who don’t look like us don’t share them. We could fill a wall with all the ways we are different from one another.
Except for one thing.
We all need healing. Maybe it’s something that’s been done to us. Maybe it’s something that we’ve done that we can’t forgive ourselves for. Maybe it’s something that we are always battling against or
maybe it’s some limitation that we wish we could just get over. Remember when we talked about the idea of being in control as an illusion? Well, so is being invulnerable.
Look, I’d like to see myself as the Good Samaritan in the story, and sometimes by God’s grace I am, but most of the time I’m more like the lawyer who wants to think he’s doing it right. He’s the one that sees himself as justified and is devoid of any need. Actually though, the truth is that most of the time I’m really more like the man on the road. I’m the one in need of being seen, the one who needs someone to dress my wounds and count the cost of loving me.
I share this because I think that many of us have made an art form of being invulnerable, or at least appearing that way. Our goal is to need as little as possible from those around us and certainly we must never ask for help. We fear being seen as weak or feeling like a burden. We don’t want to be in anyone’s debt. It’s all we can do to receive a compliment let alone allow someone to see and know our deepest needs.
Jesus asked the lawyer which of the three men was the neighbor to the man on the road. The lawyer answered: the one who showed mercy. Jesus told him to go and do likewise.
We can’t go and do likewise if we’ve never let ourselves be the man on the road, regardless of the fact that we all have at some point been the man on the road. If being a neighbor transcends our boundaries and comfort zones and implies a mutuality, then we must prepare ourselves to not only give help and care but also to receive it.
It is our shared need that binds us together and we all need to experience forgiveness, grace, belonging, and love. If we’ve never been at the receiving end of such life changing gifts, then how can we hope to give them away to others?
In closing, I want to encourage us to expand the borders of our care: to train ourselves to look for Christ in all persons; to view everyone as inherently worthy of dignity, mercy, and acceptance; to remember that sometimes we will be the Samaritan but much of the time we will be the man on the road; and finally, to find the courage to be truthful about our vulnerability so that we may receive the compassion and care we deserve, which will in turn equip and strengthen us to help others—for God’s glory and our good.