GOSPEL Luke 10:25-37
Jesus is challenged to explain what is involved in obeying the greatest commandment. He tells a parable rich in surprises: those expected to show pity display hard hearts while the lowly give and receive unexpected and lavish mercy.
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.”
This is one of the most well known stories of scripture. In fact, so well known that there is a law with this title. The good samaritan law in Pennsylvania protects someone who would voluntarily stop to offer aid to someone experiencing an emergency.
And many sermons preached on this text stop there. I’ve preached that sermon. If you see something, say something. Be the person who stops and helps. I think that’s a pretty good lesson to be reminded of, but that’s not the whole story. Jesus could have told that story easily with any number of examples but he used the examples and characters he did for a purpose.
Orthodox Jews believed that the Samaritans were not true Jews – not true followers of the Torah, the law, because they worshiped not in the temple, but in a different place. Put very simply, the Samaritans were people left behind when the Assyrians sent jews into exile – and when the Jews were permitted back generations later, things had changed. The religious practices and the extent to which they were involved with and intermarried in other cultures had drawn a line in the sand between the two groups, and that line just kept getting deeper and more pronounced. By Jesus’ time, it was them versus us.
This is a story of hostility between tribes. “Imagine the hatred between Serbs and Muslims in modern Bosnia, the enmity between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland or the feuding between street gangs in Los Angeles or New York, and you have some idea of the feeling and its causes between Jews and Samaritans in the time of Jesus. Both politics and religion were involved.” https://www.franciscanmedia.org/ask-a-franciscan/the-rift-between-jews-and-samaritans
Remember in John’s Gospel Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at the neighborhood well, and speaks to her, just to ask her for water. Before we even hear the story, John gives us a footnote to remind the reader – (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) That interjection also makes me think of the segregated south – with its water fountains, bathrooms, restaurants and any other number of public neighborhood places where white folks did not share things in common with black neighbors.
So this is not merely a story of tribes, but a story of who is expected to act righteously, and who would be expected to be the villain. It’s a tale of expansive mercy, of growing neighborhood, and what it means to be the recipient of undeserved compassion.
But this story has also been used to keep law abiding Jews in their place, as second class citizens, and worse given the anti-Semitic rhetoric we still hear today in our country. We’ve often been told that that the priest and the levite passed by on the other side because they were more concerned with rules than people, perhaps you’ve even heard that they couldn’t touch the man because he was half-dead, and if he became totally dead, it would have rendered them impure and unclean and they wouldn’t have been able to attend to their temple duties – but a close reading shows that they weren’t on their way UP to Jerusalem, they were also heading down to Jericho, away from the temple. They would have been expected to come to the aid of a fellow traveler, according to the law. And the fact that they didn’t should be surprising.
What about the innkeeper? What sort of business person is it that would take on medical duties with an IOU from a samaritan? Isn’t the innkeeper’s reaction surprising as well? This fits right in with the gospel in its entirety, and with Jesus parables in general, which turn things upside down and surprise us and make us think. Luke’s Gospel is about reversals, bringing down the powerful and lifting up the lowly. It’s not just that the Samaritan acted with mercy and compassion, all the characters of the story act contrary to what we would expect of them. Surprise!
I recently posted a quote on social media about Disney princess theology. Preacher and public theologian Erna Kim Hackett writes “White Christianity suffers from a bad case of Disney Princess theology. As each individual reads Scripture, they see themselves as the princess in every story. They are Esther, never Xerxes or Haman. They are Peter, but never Judas. They are the woman anointing Jesus, never the Pharisees. They are the Jews escaping slavery, never Egypt. For the citizens of the most powerful country in the world, who enslaved both Native and Black people, to see itself as Israel and not Egypt when it is studying Scripture, is a perfect example of Disney princess theology. And it means that as people in power, they have no lens for locating themselves rightly in Scripture or society- and it has made them blind and utterly ill equipped to engage issues of power and injustice. It is some very weak Bible work.” (https://www.liberatedtogether.com/feisty-thoughts/why-i-stopped-talking-about-racial-reconciliation-and-started-talking-about-white-supremacy)
That resonated with me deeply – We always want to identify with the hero. The savior. Especially in the church. I may not be a princess, but I’m certainly the hero of my own story. But I’m not an outsider. I’m not helpless and half dead, I’m the helper. And that’s the sort of perspective that can make it hard to be relying on God – when you’re always relying on yourself.
Understanding God’s abundant and undeserved mercy and compassion for us begins with our need and our inability to help ourselves. When we place ourselves in the narrative as someone other than the hero, we de-center ourselves and look for Christ in the “other” – and where our surprising God is at work saving us on a daily basis. Amen.