The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
A lawyer stands up to test Jesus and asks him this question: what must I do to inherit eternal life? It’s a legitimate question, really the one that’s on everybody’s mind. Jesus, how do I get into heaven? what’s the entrance fee? What am I supposed to do?
Jesus responds that the lawyer already knows the answer to his question, obviously, which the lawyer faithfully rehearses for us all: ‘Love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.’ ‘Right,’ Jesus says, and turns to go. Yeah, but hang on, says the lawyer. Who is my neighbor? Ah, says Jesus. Let me tell you a little story.
Like all the parables, there are a lot of ways to interpret the familiar parable of the good Samaritan – which, by the way, is our title for it, not anything Jesus calls it. He never says the Samaritan is good. But that’s our usual way of understanding this story: be a good Samaritan. Help people when they’re in trouble. And so we name hospitals and nonprofits after the good Samaritan, and even have good Samaritan laws to protect people who try to help but accidentally hinder, because we see in this story the tale of a good deed done, and the lesson that we all should be doing such good deeds for others.
But of course when you look more closely at the parable the meaning gets messier. From a seemingly simple and straightforward question, what are we supposed to do, and to whom should we do it?…Jesus leads us into some complicated territory.
The lawyer gets a bit of a bad rap for his pesky questions, and maybe he is being a bit of a jerk when he starts off this exchange. He may just be asking this to test Jesus, to provoke and debate, not because he really wants to know the answer and follow the advice. It’s easier to debate ideas than to act, after all. We all want to talk about things, but we don’t always manage to get out of that into actually doing something. But if that is what the lawyer is doing, Jesus doesn’t let him do it. Jesus simply asks a question in return, ‘What do you see written in the law?’ The lawyer answers with the famous summary of the law, but maybe because he’s feeling frustrated in his attempt to ‘get’ Jesus, or maybe because he really does want to know, the lawyer pushes further: ‘Well, then, who is my neighbor?’ And so Jesus answers with the parable, winding it up with a question in return, ‘Who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ The lawyer is forced into answering that it must be the Samaritan, ‘the one who showed mercy,’ and Jesus responds, ‘Go and do likewise.’ I wonder if the lawyer felt totally clear on just what to do likewise.
Because the parable doesn’t really answer the question, or not the one the lawyer is asking. The lawyer wants to know what he, a good Jew, should do, and he wants it clearly spelled out to whom he should do it. Maybe he really does want to get out of theory and discussion and ‘do something,’ and he wants to know just exactly how. Whom do I have to love, and how? Where are the boundaries? Where does my responsibility begin and end? But Jesus’ parable is tricky: he leads us through several characters, as if asking which one we identify with most. Are we the victim who falls into the hands of robbers? Well, how awful, no one wants to be a victim. Are we the priest and Levite, heartlessly walking by without turning aside? Of course not, we’d never do that. Ah, well then we must be the helper, the hero of the story who stops to lend a hand. But wait – he’s a Samaritan, one of the despised tribe of the north, a people the Jews loved to hate. People whose beliefs and practices were all wrong, people who were not be associated with no matter what. And just as this dawns on us, the listeners, Jesus wraps up the story and says, go and do likewise.
Today we’re beginning a series of small group conversations, seeing if we can discern together what God might be calling us to do, as Christians in America in this time. So many of us have talked about how appalled and horrified we are at so much happening in this country these days, so much of it absolutely contrary to gospel values. I find myself often looking at a headline in the paper and just feeling sick, unable to read further, and the weight of it all just settles in the pit of my stomach. How am I supposed to talk with my kids about this? How much worse is it going to get in their lifetimes? The ongoing violence of mass shootings and ‘ordinary shootings’ and too many guns; the poverty and homelessness in our cities and the greed and selfishness that perpetuates it; the dishonesty and power-grabbing in our leadership; the systematic despising of women and children in our laws and economic policies; fear of and exclusion of people on the margins; on and on we see the triumph of evil in our world. We can feel overwhelmed with how to address it. Is it all worse than it ever was? Probably not. Human evil has manifested itself time and time again in our history. This is only the current iteration of it. And yet it is all so obviously and deeply contrary to the way of Jesus, the teachings of scripture, the life we are called to live.
But what exactly are we to do about it all? It is hard to know where to start. Teacher, we want to say to Jesus, tell us what to do here. What should we do, and for whom should we do it? Who is our neighbor?
I wonder what version of this parable Jesus would tell us in response. Who would be the victim in a modern retelling? who would pass on by without stopping? who would come to help? And who exactly would we be in the story?
There is much being said now about how we are living in a time of reduced social trust, where we increasingly distrust one another and our institutions. A recent piece in the NY Times analyzing the link between poverty and violence made this point: ‘When society’s institutions have unraveled, people feel that they are on their own. They are then less likely to watch over one another or come together to address common interests.’ That about sums up where we are right now, in so many ways. We might not like to think so, but we might all be far more willing to walk on by than get involved, in our current social climate. We’re much less likely to want to risk ourselves for others, or give up our resources – just look at how we’ve gone through this pandemic, for starters. And we’re quite accustomed to naming others as Samaritans – not good Samaritans, but ‘those’ people, the ones who believe and think the wrong things, who are in the wrong tribe. Hard to see that we have any common interests, let alone responsibility to watch over one another across these divides.
But Jesus’ parable messes up all those distinctions. Who is your neighbor, he says? Who is being a neighbor to you? The short answer is simple: your neighbor is the one who is right in front of you. Your neighbor is the one who needs your help, and the one coming over to lend you a hand. It’s not just the one who is like you, similar in thought, word, and deed. It is the one who is right there, being affected by you and your actions. Your actual neighbor next door in your building. Your neighbor that you pass on the street. Your neighbor who made the clothes you are wearing or grew the food you are eating. Your neighbor who is serving in the military or in the police department in order to protect you. Your neighbor who might just be on the other side of all of the cultural divides of our time. Are you caring for them? Are you allowing them to care for you?
Unluckily for the lawyer, and maybe for us, Jesus doesn’t give a prescriptive answer to our questions – what should we do, for whom, exactly how much is enough, and so on. Instead, he challenges us to realize that all of humanity are our neighbors, regardless of tribe or creed. And lest that get too theoretical, he tells us a simple story about what it looks like to love our neighbor as ourselves, about a Samaritan who stops and sees a man in the ditch, and responds with pity and not indifference. Who halts his journey and goes to help, doing what he can to tend his wounds. Who offers his own animal and takes the time to accompany the man to the inn, where he gives his own money for his care, and then involves the innkeeper in the work as well, promising to return and follow up later. And who never seems to think, I’m a Samaritan. Why should I bother helping this Jew? I doubt he’d ever help me.
Loving your neighbor is less about fondness and common feeling than it is about basic, practical engagement. Getting involved with the other person, being part of their experience, sharing our resources to make their lives better – maybe one to one, face to face; maybe one to many across the globe, looking out for others, heeding the impact of our actions and choices on others, opting to help even when it goes against our convenience. It’s the very opposite of selfish individualism. It’s the kind of action that builds social trust. It’s all something we can do without a lot of complicating thought or discussion. It’s just all about being in relationship as human beings with other human beings. It’s what our neighborhood needs. Our neighborhood, that is, being the whole world.
What are we to do? Who is our neighbor? Look and see, Jesus tells us. Go and do like the Samaritan. Show mercy.
Let us pray. O God, give us grace that we may know and understand what things we ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them. Amen.