In Steinbeck’s classic East of Eden, Liza Hamilton serves as the matriarch of faith for her family. She is a pugnacious advocate of biblical morality and reads the Scriptures daily as the guide for her life. Yet there are cracks in her pious veneer. Steinbeck describes her use of the Bible sublimely:
Her total intellectual association was the Bible…In that one book she had her history and her poetry, her knowledge of peoples and things, her ethics, her morals, and her salvation. She never studied the Bible or inspected it; she just read it… And finally she came to a point where she knew it so well that she went right on reading it without listening. (p. 43)
The final line is haunting. When we hear today’s Scripture lesson, it is too easy to read it quickly and then move on because of its wide familiarity within our culture. “O the good Samaritan – I know what that one’s all about.” Yet biblical texts that are familiar to us are often the very ones whose messages have often been muted rather than unleashed. Let us come to the story of the Good Samaritan with fresh eyes and ears that truly see and truly hear.
There is much more to this story than a cutting critique of religious leaders who don’t serve or than a mere model of brotherly love. In this text, Jesus explodes expectations for God’s people and tears down expectations about status in ways that invite his hearers to become part of God’s mission in the world today.
Our text opens with a confrontation between Jesus and a lawyer (an expert on the Mosaic law). It is clear by the language of “test” that this is no mere friendly exchange. The same language was used of the devil earlier in the Gospel. Notice that the lawyer couches his challenge in the language of eternal life. He is interested in personal salvation. He may have been expecting Jesus to make some claim about himself as the source of salvation, but Jesus does not move in this direction. Instead, Jesus responds with a question for the lawyer. He asks, “What do the Scriptures say?” The lawyer answers by quoting from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Lev 19:18. He responds in essence: Love God and love neighbor.
These core texts hold together the dual affirmation that one’s relationship with God is manifest in one’s relationship with others and that our life with others is rooted fundamentally in our relationship with God. The lawyer is dead-on right.
Jesus fully affirms his answer. But notice the action implicit in Jesus’ reply, “Do this and you will live.” Life with God involves more than knowing correct answers. It is about actual practice. It is interesting that Jesus does not include the word “eternal” in his answer. It is a simply “you will live.” In other words, central to the Gospel is its insistence that Kingdom living is a present reality and not merely a hoped for prize at the end of life. It profoundly matters how one lives today. This may have jarred the lawyer. Rabbi Akiba who was born later in the 1st century captures something of the spirit of the attitude of students of Scripture from Jesus’ day: “Study of the Law is of higher rank than practicing it.” Perhaps sensing that Jesus is pressing for a deeper commitment, he asks for clarification: “Who is my neighbor?”
It is at this point that we have to be careful about our own attempts to mute the power of this story. It is too easy for us today to answer the question “Who is my neighbor?” with a quick reply of “Everyone.” Of course this is the correct answer, but Jesus is intent in this passage on pushing us to think about a different question: “Who is not my neighbor?” Before we reply, “No one”, let us engage Jesus’ story.
The Practice of Life
It is in response to these questions that Jesus further subverts the lawyer’s question and calls all who are listening to a profound realignment with God and neighbor by telling a short story with four characters: a unnamed traveler who is assaulted, robbed and left for dead; a priest who passes the injured man; a levite who likewise does not stop to aid the man; and a Samaritan who stops, applies first aid, carries him to an inn, cares for him that night, and leaves enough money with the innkeeper to nurse the man back to health.
It is easy to read this story as a moral lesson in doing good to a fellow human being. This is in fact part of the story. It is also possible to read the story as a critique of religious leaders who are too busy practicing the formalities of religion to apply its teaching to their daily lives. But there is much more here.
Let’s look at some of the details of the story and see if we may have overlooked anything. First, let us notice that the injured man is not identified. Jesus’ audience probably assumed that the man was an Israelite, but the text does not tell us his identity. He is merely an individual who desperately needed kindness, mercy, and hospitality. This invites us to reflect on our own commitments. How much is the likelihood of our loving a neighbor dependent upon ethnicity, gender, or religious background of the person in need? By not identifying the injured man, this text suggests that such issues ought not to control our actions.
Second, both the priest and levite see the injured man yet go out of their way to avoid helping their fellow traveler. This is contrary to expectations. Such figures were expected to show mercy and embody compassion.
By having the priest and levite pass by without helping, Jesus’ audience would have expected a “hero” to emerge who would help the fallen man. If most of us are honest, we recognize that in such situations, we tend to imagine a hero or heroine who is like us. Jesus’ audience may have expected the hero(ine) to be a common Israelite who would model faithfulness and justice. But this is not the story that Jesus narrates, is it?
The unlikely hero who rises up to step into a moment of need is not a member of God’s people. He is an outsider. He is a Samaritan. Moreover, it is a Samaritan who is traveling inside of Israel and who actually exceeds the expected actions of an insider. The Samaritan acts in extraordinary ways to be a neighbor to a fellow human being.
The person who acts as the neighbor in the story is ironically the very person whom the lawyer as well as most of Jesus’ audience would not have considered to be their neighbor yet alone a person who embodies the values of God’s kingdom.
What caused the Samaritan’s actions? The text offers a key phrase: “moved to pity.” Compassion fueled the Samaritan’s deeds. This is a critical note because elsewhere in the Gospel of Luke we are told that this is Jesus’ motivation. The idea is that the Samaritan is touched inwardly by the need of another in such a way as to move him to action. Compassion is the fuel of mission. It drove Jesus. It drove the Samaritan. Does it drive us?
Go and Do Likewise
“Go and do likewise” is a call to conversion for the lawyer and all who heard Jesus that day. Kingdom living is radical. It challenges our assumptions about status and membership. It demands that we manifest the Gospel through our acts and deeds toward others. It assumes a willingness to break down boundaries that separate the human family.
But there is a final subversive element present that calls us to a profound realignment with God’s mission. The presence of a Samaritan who embodies the values of God’s kingdom would have presented Jesus’ audience with a fundamental challenge. It points to the openness of God’s kingdom to persons whom some may consider outside of the boundaries of God’s grace. Who represents the Samaritans in our local communities today? Whom do we consider to be beyond the limits of God’s grace? What would it mean if such persons embodied the Gospel more profoundly than we?
When Jesus said, “Go and do likewise”, he was implying the inclusion of the Samaritan in the Kingdom. Are we ready to reach out to embrace those persons who already embody love for God and love for neighbor and include them within our communities as we seek to follow the Risen Lord Jesus into the world to make disciples of all nations. Let us pray diligently that the Lord would so fill our lives with compassion that we will be able to boldly “Do likewise” when such moments arise. Amen.