Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” The full readings for this service can be found here.
In the name of our God, the One who creates, redeems and sustains us.
A long time ago, in medieval Europe, they used to have what they called mystery plays. These dramas were often accompanied by a procession or a parade, and would depict scenes or stories from the Bible, particularly from the Gospels. Now, I do something like that in my neighborhood. Anyone who knows me knows that I have two dogs, and they’re not very good dogs at all. In fact, they are terrible dogs. I take them for a long walk at least twice a day, but they are ill-behaved and are committed to that bad behavior. And every now and then, we run across an animal that’s been hit by a car or killed somehow—a squirrel or a cat or a bird.
And my dogs always insist that we stop. They insist that we investigate and consider these incidents very carefully. Now, I’m not sure that they want to bandage up the creature’s wounds, or to carry the poor animal to an innkeeper and pay for its lodging. But I’m always trying to get them to keep walking, to move along, because there’s nothing to see here. I don’t know if that makes me the priest or the Levite in the story, and I’m not sure I like where this analogy is going so let’s get back to the Gospel.
So, Luke begins this fabulous story with a lawyer, a lawyer who wants to test Jesus. And this lawyer asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” I want us to look at the assumption in this question. The assumption is that eternal life is somehow linked to something we do. And I think Jesus’ response will unsettle that assumption. Initially, Jesus answers with a question, and then he answers with a story. Neither directly answers this lawyer’s question, by which I mean Jesus’ response calls us into a discussion that goes beyond a simple answer. It calls us to walk with our rabbi, rather than simply solving a puzzle.
So, this lawyer asks Jesus to give him the secret to eternal life, and I love Jesus’ response. He asks him two very important questions: what is written in scripture; and what do you read there? In other words, Jesus asks him: (1) what is the text; and (2) how do you interpret it? Sometimes, I hear people say that they just want the plain meaning of scripture without any interpretation. We have a theological term for that idea: we call it “poppycock.” Every reading of Scripture requires our interpretation, requires that we bring our understanding filtered through our lives to the work. Our Bible is less like an encyclopedia and more like a chess partner against whom we struggle and sharpen our wits and moral sensibilities. Or, as Bishop Hibbs used to say, biblical fundamentalism is fundamentally unbiblical. Jesus recognizes that principle in his questions to the lawyer.
The lawyer has an answer at the ready; he knows his scriptures. He tells Jesus, “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.” The lawyer answers with a passage from Deuteronomy which is sometimes called the Shema, and a passage from Leviticus. Jesus replies, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” In other words, you already knew the answer. If you want to know what to do, do those things. And anybody would be happy with that answer. Anybody, that is, except a lawyer. So, now he wants to drill down, “But who is my neighbor?”
And Jesus answers this question with a story, a story about a man who was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. Now, we know that Jericho is the place where God knocks down walls, and Jesus is going to knock a few down himself with this story. We may have lost a bit of the geography here: the story takes place on the long, downhill road between Jerusalem and Jericho, a road also known at the time as the “Bloody Pass” or “The Way of Blood.” The road meanders and the topography provides the perfect environment for an ambush: a paradise for bandits and robbers.
So, I don’t think Jesus’ audience would have been surprised at all about the man being beaten, robbed, and left for dead on that road. Nor would Jesus’ audience have been particularly surprised to hear Jesus tell them that the priest and the Levite both passed the man by, in fact, they walked by “on the other side” of the road. (The laws of ritual purification at the time might actually have recommended this practice to devout Jews.) We aren’t surprised by Jesus’ casting the priests and Levites in the role of the villains: both Jesus and John the Baptist had been doing that for a while.
However, the notion that the Samaritan showed the quality of mercy, the notion of the Samaritan as the hero of the story, would have astonished and befuddled Jesus’ first-century audience. The Samaritans and the Jews had despised each other for hundreds of years at the time Jesus told this story. The Samaritans had desecrated the Temple with human bones. The Jews reciprocated. According to the Mishna (the first major work of Rabbinic Judaism), “He that eats the bread of the Samaritans is like to one that eats the flesh of swine” (Mishna Shebiith 8:10). So, hearing about a “good Samaritan” would have bewildered Jesus’ audience. It would be the equivalent of a modern parable about the “good Klansman” or a “good member of the Sinaloa cartel,” or the “good fascist.”
The parable reports that the Samaritan came near to the man and was “moved with pity.” The Greek word here implies being moved to compassion at the deepest part of who we are. Thus, most of us assume the good Samaritan in the parable is like Jesus, or God, who loves inclusively with a kind of promiscuous empathy for everyone. But suppose for a moment that it’s actually God in the ditch, and the question is what are we going to do about it? And while the question the lawyer originally asked was about what we have to do for eternal life, suppose the real issue isn’t so much about what we do as it is about the kind of people we’re going to be. Are we going to be the kind of people who notice the suffering in the world around us and are moved by it, or are we going to walk on the other side of the road? I’m wondering who I didn’t notice? Who did I walk to the other side to avoid? Lord, spit on our eyes so that we can see.
In just a little while, we’re going to come up to this altar, and the priest will put a bit of bread into our mouths. And the Church spent a lot of time, and energy, and struggle, trying to figure out how the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus. And I have to tell you, I’m not really that interested in that question. But I am profoundly interested in the question of how you and I become the body of Christ in the world, and I think this parable holds a good part of the key.
This world is so polarized today. We want to fight about guns, about abortion, about race, about money, and about who’s got the moral high ground. Like the Jews and the Samaritans, we have been carrying these grudges along for so very long. And it may turn out that we really are in for the fight of our lives. Suppose, just for a moment, that learning to love our neighbors, learning to care for God’s children recklessly, really is the fight for our lives. It’s a great irony: the fight of our lives is learning how to love. As Bishop Monterroso recently observed, there are thousands and thousands of ways for us love our neighbor. There is only one way to love God; and that’s to love our neighbor. Amen.
James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2022