Scripture (Luke 10:25-37) can be found here…
We love this story. We know this story so well. We love hearing this story, because it reminds us of our calling to love one another and help one another.
Only, we don’t know this story, not really. Or, even if we do know it, it goes so hard against the grain of our basic human instincts for self-preservation, we can hardly take it in. It’s a story that wants to transform us, and that is the hardest task of all.
When you think about it, it might make more sense if we hated this story.
But wait. This isn’t even a story. Not really. It’s a parable. Stories are narratives we tell that tend to shore us up, confirm our common identities and world view. Stories often give us a feeling of security.
Parables are the opposite of stories. (1) They destabilize us. They remove the security of what we thought we knew, and, when Jesus is sharing them, give us a glimpse of God’s view of things.
Writer Clarence Thomson says that Jesus uses parables for a very particular reason: we are not fully here. We are not fully awake. In fact, he says, we’re in a trance. It is the nature of our trance that we see what we expect to see, we hear what we expect to hear, and we act accordingly.
Parables are designed to wake us up. Parables are designed to shake us up. Parables snap us out of our trances.
Our passage begins with a question. A lawyer, which is to say, an expert on biblical law, asks Jesus a question.
Here’s everything I know about lawyers, having been married to one. Lawyers are never supposed to ask a question to which they don’t already know the answer.
“Rabbi,” the lawyer says, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answers, “What does it say in the law?” (This guy interprets the law for a living. So, he’s got this, right?) He answers, “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 you shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
“A-plus,” Jesus says to the man, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
But, the lawyer “wants to justify himself.” That’s a tricky phrase. We need to take care not to judge the lawyer too harshly. (2) He calls Jesus “teacher,” he engages with him respectfully, and, so far, they are in complete agreement. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus is also always respectful when engages those who teach the law. Still, it seems as if the lawyer wants confirmation that he is right, and it’s possible he does want Jesus to shore him up, to confirm—again—that he and Jesus share a common identities and world view. So, he asks, “And who is my neighbor?
And this is where the parable begins. It starts with violence. A man is beaten, and robbed. He’s left by the side of the road, where he may not survive his injuries. His only hope is the possibility that someone passing by will help.
He’s in luck! A priest passes by! This would of course be a Temple priest, a member of the priestly tribe, someone dedicated from his childhood to serving God and offering sacrifices in the Temple. Surely he…
Nope. The priest does not stop.
Then, a Levite goes by. Same tribe as the priest, more of a priestly helper in the Temple, and still, a religious professional, someone who, of course would…
Nah. The Levite doesn’t stop either.
The ones who know God’s law best, the ones who interpret it for the whole community, the ones who could recite the lawyer’s answer when they were still children… they cross over to the other sided of the road; they avoid being anywhere near the dying man.
Then a Samaritan comes along, a man from the region of Samaria. He is moved with compassion for the man who has been so badly beaten. And so, he does everything he can to help. He goes to the man. He dresses his wounds, and bandages them. He lifts him onto his animal, and takes him to a nearby inn, and there he continues to care for him. When he has to leave, he gives the innkeeper money to pay for ongoing care for the man, and he promises to reimburse the innkeeper for any additional expenses when he comes back that way.
It is really unfortunate that, in our contemporary culture, the word “Samaritan” has come to mean a really kind-hearted and generous person, because that obscures for us the deeper meaning of this parable; it makes it harder for us to understand what Jesus is about here. We all want to be the Samaritan.
In Jesus’ day, no one wanted to be a Samaritan. (3)
In Jesus’ culture, Samaritans were hated. Coming from a region outside Judea, they were considered the ultimate outsiders, even enemies. There was fierce contempt of their worship places and practices—they had five different shrines, and it was a common insult that they must have five gods… so, clearly, they could not possibly worship the one true God, the God of scripture, the God of biblical law.
The Samaritan is the hero of this passage, and for Jesus’ listeners, for this legal expert, that is shocking. That is devastating. Who, Jesus asks, was a neighbor to the bleeding and broken man? And the lawyer doesn’t say the name of the hated outsider, he doesn’t say, “the Samaritan.” He simply says, “the one who showed him mercy.” The parable has broken his trance. He understands.
Go, and do likewise, Jesus says.
Go and do likewise.
Who are our modern-day Samaritans? Who are the people we consider so “other,” the people we revile so much, we would be shocked to find them as the heroes of this story?
In 19th century America, they might have been enslaved Africans. But even then, there were those who considered them “neighbors,” and so the Underground Railroad was born.
In 1930’s and 40’s Germany, they were Jews. But even then, there were Germans and Dutch and French people who considered them neighbors, and hid them in their basements. There were Oscar Schindler, who protected them and found them safety.
In the aftermath of 9/11, they were Muslims. But even in this country that was attacked, there were and are people who rally around Muslims, consider them neighbors, and stand in solidarity with them.
Today? I leave it to each of us to fill in the blank for ourselves. If you or I were beaten, broken, bleeding by the side of the road, which rescuer would shock us the most? Would make us the most uncomfortable? Would challenge the most profoundly our ideas of who our neighbor is?
Here is the beautiful truth: God comes to each of us in the guise of other human beings, all the time. We need one another, and so God has given us to be neighbors to one another. And when we are on the receiving end of that kind of life-saving compassion, when another person’s heart is moved for us, and they step in, and consider us neighbors, no matter who they are, all that’s left is our common humanity.
Our neighbor isn’t who we think he is. He is the last person we expect. Sometimes, the one we fear. But the compassion of God has already bound us together. God has put us on this earth so that we might be one another’s Samaritans—that we might give each other a beautiful shock, and change one another’s lives forever. Do this, Jesus says, and you will live.
We love this story, designed as it is to remind us of God’s persistent call to us to love one another and help one another, even the ones who are our modern day Samaritans. Go and do likewise, Jesus says. Love the ones—and let ourselves be loved by the ones—we least expect, because, as it turns out, they are the ones who will heal us and show us the way home.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
(1) Clarence Thomson, Parables and the Enneagram (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1996), 8, 11.
(2) Marilyn Salmon, “Commentary on Luke 10:25-37,” Working Preacher, July 11, 2010, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=635.
(3) Karoline Lewis, “Just Ask: Dear Working Preacher,” Working Preacher, July 8, 2019, https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=5365.