“I understand that I am to love the Lord with all my heart, and that I’m to love my neighbor as myself, but who is my neighbor?” The lawyer’s question to Jesus from Luke 10 provides the backdrop for the Parable of the Good Samaritan. What does this question tell us about our desire to put parameters around the immeasurable task of loving others? In reading the parable this week, Faith in Real Life sought to consider the story from all perspectives. When have we, in our own lives, “crossed to the other side” instead of helping someone in need? When have we been hurt because those we thought would stop to help us didn’t? When have we stopped to lend aid only to realize that, in doing so, we revealed our own need for help? Vernon considers this and more in this week’s blog.
25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.“Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 He 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.” 28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus 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. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. 34 He 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. 35 The 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.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
When we look at this story through the eyes of Jesus, it says there are no categories that restrict loving. The circle of who we love is infinite. It is a daunting truth.
Most of us know that the one man who offered help was the most unlikely. The priest and the Levite, by their very religious standing, would be expected to provide aid. But each of them had their reasons to walk on by. The Samaritan is the exception. The Samaritans were so disdained, that it was common for Jews to take the long way around to avoid even walking on Samaritan land. In today’s world the Samaritan’s aid would be roughly comparable to a Nazi stopping to help a suffering Jew—or a KKK member helping a wounded black man. Such a thing is barely conceivable. The story would be shocking to the first century listener. The certainties of the social order were upended and in order for us to enter the story, the certainties of our social order must also be disturbed. It is a dramatic way to demonstrate that love transcends human thinking and expectation. It is extraordinary.
But let’s back up. It is also important to see the ordinariness of the story. Enter this story as the lawyer. He is often presented as self interested and adversarial— testing Jesus. ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life? Then, ‘wanting to justify himself, he asks ‘Who is my neighbor?’ In that frame, Jesus’ replies are at least a challenge, if not an outright rebuke. The lawyer’s questions suggest he has much more in common with the priest and the Levite than the Samaritan. The whole story confronts those who talk a good game but don’t play it. But I’m not all sure that is fair. In the context of a first century synagogue, this dialogue would be part of ordinary discourse. Sharp questions were often asked in the synagogue to define and refine meaning.
Immediately before this passage, Jesus is offering thanksgiving for the work of the Holy Spirit “…no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. 23 Then turning to the disciples, Jesus said to them privately, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! 24 For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.”
It is at this point, the lawyer interrupts with his question I imagine him just outside the circle of the disciples, listening to Jesus make his claims. If this guy, Jesus, knows the ‘meaning of life’, the lawyer wants to know how he can be included. So he interrupts the dialogue between Jesus and the disciples, “‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?” It is the same question the rich man asks and it is the same question every one of us should ask. What will give my life meaning and purpose? Where should I dedicate my energy? How can my nanosecond of time on earth matter? How can I be part of the eternal?
Jesus does not question the question. It is a good question. He takes the lawyer seriously and counters with a question (a time honored form of Rabbinic instruction), ““What is written in the law? What do you read there?” The lawyer is a well educated man and he answers correctly with the great commandment—love God and love neighbor as yourself. This core teaching was well known. Jesus did not originate it. This truth was available to anyone who studied the Torah. Jesus commends him for his knowledge and tells the lawyer: “do this, and you will live.”
But that answer doesn’t really help the lawyer any more than it would help you or me. We all know we are God’s children. We all know we should love one another. Those are the bumper stickers of our faith. But, It turns out that in real life, we often ‘know the right answer’ or we know ‘what we should do’—but the actual doing is another matter.. Most of us feel some responsibility to to give to the poor and to help others. But how much is enough?
The lawyer’s follow up question is also a good question. Loving God and loving neighbor as ourselves is just too big. Nobody can do that. When asked in FIRL, every single one of us has walked by a sleeping or unconscious person. We routinely do not check on the welfare of the stranger. And in real life we often have trouble following up on friends.
The amount of need that surrounds us vastly outstrips our ability to respond. The lawyer was looking for some parameters to make the task more doable. If he can get a definition of ‘neighbor’, he can find limits to what is expected of him. We do the same thing when we blame the stranger rather than face our own limitations—he’ll just feed his addiction; she’s the same person who asks for money every day; It’s not safe; it never stops….etc. All of those statements may be true. But none of them change the fact that whoever is asking is our neighbor. Jesus does not allow for exceptions.
The realization that the stranger is also my neighbor would mean we have to face our limitations, inadequacies and our unwillingness every day. But what is wrong with that? That is who we really are— a broken, sinful, ‘inadequate to the task’ people. In real life, our good intentions and our desire for obedience will expose us every time. We can not do what is expected. We feel badly because we fear that if we are truly known, we will not be loved. But that is simply a reflection of how we think. It is not Christian.
Even in this story, the Levite and the priest are not condemned. They are described. They had their ‘good’ reasons for walking by—just as we do. It is not up to us to judge either them or ourselves. Jesus told the lawyer: “Do this and you will live.” This story is about setting a signpost for loving compassion. It is not about creating a measuring stick to condemn. It is hard to believe God can love us when we are so unwilling and so incompetent. But rationalizing our failures will lead to the self righteousness we condemn the Levite and the priest for. Eternal life is trusting God’s care for us and being willing to believe that every act of loving we can muster—no matter how small or infrequent—is on the road to eternal life.
Finally, it is helpful to view the story from the point of view of the wounded man. Instead of the story of the Good Samaritan, it becomes the story of the Wounded and Helpless Man. This is not a place we want to be, but any of us who have sought to be a Good Samaritan learn in a heartbeat about our limitations. All of us can readily admit that we do not have the compassion of Jesus—not even close. But to have our limitations exposed in in real life is embarrassing. We ‘should’ be able to do better. Yet we can not. Everyone in the group could describe times when their best intentions were not sufficient. When we realize we can’t do what we think we should do, we realize that we are the wounded man. The should’s and ought’s of our lives assault us. We are in pain and can not go forward. Instead of being able to offer care, we discover we need care.
For the wounded man in our story, that care comes in an unexpected form and defies ordinary thinking. When we are met in our journey, as we are, and where we are, healing can happen. In this story and in real life, God’s love and compassion comes from the most unlikely of places. When we can not live up to the expectations of our faith, we are grateful to whoever is willing to meet us in that place. Our helplessness is the doorway to grace. When we give up our categories about who and what ‘should’ happen, there is room for God.
One last dimension from the point of view of the wounded man, One member pointed out it was bad enough she could not be the Good Samaritan she wished she could be— but she would be further hurt by watching people she would have thought would care for her, walk on by. But that happens in real life all of the time. Our church life all too often leads to guilt instead of grace. In our ordinary lives every one of us has been disappointed if not betrayed by people we thought would help us. Those are the feelings of real life. And those are the feelings Jesus shared on the cross. The idea that there is new life in the midst of that despair, is our greatest faith claim.
The Good Samaritan points to the wideness of God’s love and the narrowness of our abilities. We are called to show compassion outside of ourselves and called to trust that compassion will come to us. It is important that we see both.
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work. But neither are you free to abandon it. (Quoted from the Talmud.) Let it be so.