A teacher of the law, seeking to trap Jesus, asked what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus told him to love God and obey His law, including loving his neighbor as himself. The legal expert then asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Luke 10:25-29 (edited)
IT’S CALLED THE PARABLE OF THE GOOD SAMARITAN.
We think we know the story because it’s an easy tale to follow. We can readily pick out each of the four main characters — victim, priest, Levite, benefactor — and place ourselves in whichever role we wish to accomplish whatever result we favor.
Most of us probably see ourselves as the benefactor. He was described as a Samaritan, which means little to us, just a slight reference to nationality, nothing significant, so we let it pass.
The holy men who passed by the victim without offering assistance are easy enough to place also — they’re the hypocrites, and surely we see many of those around, you know, people who say all sorts of good things but who don’t follow through. We even have an expression: “talk the talk but don’t walk the walk.” They might be called the “good people” in our community.
Do we ever look at the victim?
Jesus describes him as a man walking from Jerusalem to Jericho, who was attacked by robbers, beaten, and left for dead. He gives us no other description, so we tend to ignore him.
LET’S TAKE ANOTHER LOOK AT THE VICTIM.
The victim was a man, but for our purposes, the victim could have been a woman. He probably was a young adult, but he easily could have been middle-aged. Was he well off? Apparently enough to be worth robbing but maybe not enough to own a donkey. He walked alone, which doesn’t tell us much unless we understand the traditions of that time and place.
We know nothing about the robbers. How many were there? How old were they? How much money or other valuables did they recover? Were they ever caught and punished?
Those are the questions of our day, but they weren’t even mentioned in the story.
Jesus’ point in telling the tale was this simple one: A good neighbor is one who is willing to sacrifice something of himself, his time, his treasure, his effort to help someone else without regard to who it is who needs help.
Now, we start to see the significance of the benefactor being a Samaritan … because the victim, without being identified to a Jewish audience, had to be a Jewish man. The Jews and Samaritans in that day did not mingle, since the Jews considered themselves morally and ethnically superior to their Samaritan cousins, who had married non-Jews.
WE’RE THE VICTIM IN THIS STORY.
Jesus flipped the account from our usual understanding. We usually see ourselves as the hero coming in to save the day
, even when our “leaders” fail to deliver. In fact, we often see the Samaritan reference as an admonition that we should lend ourselves to those who are different from us, to reach out to an “other.”
The story Jesus told is more like a verbal uppercut, a swift hard right to the jaw, a blow that rocks our head back and buckles our knees.
Instead of being the benefactor, we’re the victim.
If we’re the victim, the helpless one, the needy one, then who is our neighbor? Who will help us? If it’s not the community leaders, the ones we look up to and admire, if it’s not our family or close friends, then, when we’re in our deepest need, when our very survival depends on a selfless deed of sacrifice from a total stranger, who is it?
It’s the “other.” The “other” helped us. We know the “others” in our lives. They’re the ones we disdain. The ones we avoid. The ones we step around.
Yet, in Jesus’ story, it was the disreputable “other” who offered the help we needed when no one else cared.
LET’S GO BACK TO THE ORIGINAL QUESTION.
The legal expert asked Jesus what acts he must commit to merit, on his own, eternal life.
Jesus rightly pointed out that if he obeyed God’s law completely, that perfect record would merit salvation.
But we’re left with the clear picture in this story that we’re not perfect, that we’re not going to earn salvation on our own.
That was the point of the two religious leaders passing the victim on the street.
They weren’t just men who had dedicated themselves to God or to learning His law. They represented our best selves, that part of us that worships on Sunday and occasionally flips through the Bible during the week. That part that contributes when the plate is passed, the part that teaches children’s Sunday School or plays guitar in a praise band or directs traffic in the church parking lot.
So, in this story, we are the victim and we are the two religious leaders who failed to provide aide.
Jesus calls us to be the fourth man in the story, the “other.” The one who stretched out his arm to provide aid and comfort to the wounded and healing to the beaten. Perhaps also we could be the fifth man — the innkeeper who, on faith of future repayment, agreed to provide aide to the wounded man.
AS THE STORY ENDS, Jesus asks the legal expert if he can identify which of the individuals in this story is the neighbor.
Let’s pick up Luke’s account:
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
It sounds simple. No matter how many times we go over the story, it just sounds so simple. We need to extend ourselves to others in need. Got it.
How often, though, do we ask who our neighbor is? Is it the homeless man who hasn’t eaten all day but we suspect just wants beer money, or the confused teenager whose chaotic home life prepares him more for the comfort of a jail cell than the rigors of a community college, or maybe the young woman frightened by the prospects of bringing a child into the world before she completes high school?
Should we be discouraged when we ask ourselves if we even see our neighbor?
How does God see our questions?
Keep in mind that the legal expert who asked Jesus who his neighbor was had just moments before told Jesus he knew the Law of Moses quite well; in fact, he quoted from the Book of Leviticus, Chapter 19, written by Moses himself, which gives a full account of his neighbor.
Leviticus was written 1,300 years earlier. The legal expert had plenty of time to know who his neighbor was.
Jesus told the story 2,000 years ago. Together, we’ve had 3,300 years to get it right. Yet we still ask the question.
What is God thinking about our questions?
NOW WE SEE THERE’S A SIXTH PERSON TO THE STORY.
It’s the legal expert. The one who should have known who his neighbor was. The one schooled in the rituals and regulations that governed Jewish life.
Yet he missed the point entirely.
So, who are we in this story?
We may all, at some points in our life, be any one of the six: a victim in need of help, the benefactor who provides aide, one of the community leaders, an innkeeper who extends himself on trust that he’ll be repaid, or the legal expert who knew the words of Scripture but not their meaning.
Here’s the best part of the story. When Jesus says to the legal expert: “Do this and you will live,” He’s also telling us the same thing: We will live if we obey the Law perfectly.
But since we learn from this story that we don’t keep the Law, our salvation must come from a different source.
Fortunately for us, help is at hand.
Our salvation comes from the Lord, who through grace provides an escape route.
The One who told the story.
PRAYER: Our Heavenly Father, forgive us when we fail to recognize our neighbor, when we pass by a stranger in need, or overlook the “others” You place in our paths, or find excuses for why this isn’t the right time to help out. Lord, help us to see that our neighbors are all around us. You’ve placed us in this story but left it open which role we’ll play. Help us to be the Good Samaritan. We lift our prayer in Jesus’ Holy Name. Amen