Just then, a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He 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.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, & you will live.”
But, wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus 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. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He 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. The 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.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.”
One of my college professors allowed us to earn up to two extra points by sharing one clean joke at the end of every exam. It was completely subjective and based on the degree to which the professor laughed, and he might award as little as half a point up to the maximum allotment of two points. If the joke made fun of any group of people, he stipulated that you had to be a member of that group. So, only Polish people could make Polish jokes, only people from Arkansas could pick on Arkansas, only blondes could tell blonde jokes and so on. The exception to this rule was lawyer jokes. Lawyer jokes were fair game.
So, just to get them out the way, here are three lawyer jokes for you.
How does an attorney sleep? First he lies on one side, and then the other.
"You seem to be in some distress," said the judge to the witness. "Everything ok?" "Your Honor, I swore to tell the truth, the whole truth & nothing but the truth, but every time I try, some lawyer objects."
A new client had just come to see a famous lawyer. “Can you tell me how much you charge?” “Of course,” said the lawyer. “Well, how much?” said the client. “I charge $200 to answer three questions.” “Isn’t that a bit steep?” “Yes it is,” said the lawyer. “That’ll be $200.”
Lawyers are detail people. Then, as now, the presence of a lawyer indicates that complications are about to arise. Lawyers worry about the definition of terms. In today’s text, Luke introduces us to a lawyer who asks Jesus a question to “test” him, but as Jesus unfolds the story we have all come to know as the Good Samaritan, we find that it is the worldview of the lawyer that is put to the test. May we pray.
Let’s take a look at the story. Jesus was on his busy way to Jerusalem, where he had an appointment with some temple officials, the high court, and the Roman governor. And it is in that fray that a lawyer approaches Jesus with a legal question. Elsewhere in Scripture, we might find the word “scribe” instead of lawyer. The scribes were “Scriptural lawyers” who were based out of the temple. However, given that the temple was destroyed in the year 70 and Luke didn’t get around to writing this Gospel until nearly 15 years later, the term “scribe” had probably evolved into “lawyer.”
This lawyer does address Jesus as “teacher” – certainly a sign of respect, and Jesus returns the respect by answering the lawyer by asking another question – a common stylistic feature of debate at the time, particularly among rabbis and interpreters of the law.
The lawyer asks, “Teacher, from a legal perspective, in your view, just what do I need to do to inherit eternal life?” “You’re the lawyer,” Jesus responded. “Just what does it say in the law?”
Well, the attorney could quote the legal code, the law of Moses, and he quotes back the teaching we have come to know as the Great Commandment. “The law says, ‘Love the Lord your God with everything you’ve got, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus says, “There you have it. Right on. Good answer.”
But, you can feel that something is still unresolved in this story. We have two good questions, two good answers, and two men who agree. At this level, it’s pretty calm between Jesus and the lawyer, but you know that something is brewing just below the surface. And then it comes out. This detail-oriented lawyer begins his cross-examination. “Uh, back up there just a second Jesus.” “I’m a little unclear on your use of the word ‘neighbor.’ Could you define that for me? Who exactly is my neighbor?”
This is a limit-defining question. This loving your neighbor business is fine and all, but just how far are you supposed to carry this thing? State your terms, Jesus. Surely, at some point we can say there’s a dividing line between ‘neighbor’ and ‘stranger.’ Just give me your definition of neighbor, Jesus. Get me the most correct, clearest, most concise answer, and we’ll all be on our way.
Fred Craddock put it succinctly, “Having right answers does not mean knowing God. Students can make a 4.0 in the Bible and still miss the point.” Sensing this, Jesus doesn’t define the term ‘neighbor,’ but provides a description of what a loving neighbor does by telling the story we know as the Good Samaritan.
A man is on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho, on a perilous road that drops from over 2500 feet above sea level to 800 feet below in only 45 miles. The man is robbed, stripped, beaten, and left for dead. Some good, faithful, orthodox, Bible-believing, genuine, well-intentioned church members approach. But rather than stopping to help, they cross the road, going out of their way to not get caught up in the situation.
But then along came a third person, and Jesus tells us that this third person saw the man lying there and showed mercy toward him. He’s the hero who acted courageously and bravely, whose heart was open with compassion, who went above and beyond. There’s only one tiny little problem: he’s a Samaritan.
He’s all but a natural enemy to the man lying on the side of the road. Jews and Samaritans had a bitter history of racial and religious hatred. They hurled insults and took great pains to avoid each other. The man on the side of the road may have even preferred the slow painful death in the pool of his blood to being helped by this foreigner, this despicable and despised enemy.
But it is this Samaritan, despised and rejected, who is nevertheless moved with compassion and tenderly cares for the injured man. Having told that story, Jesus now says to the lawyer, “So, you define the term ‘neighbor.’ Who proved to be the neighbor in this story?” The lawyer can’t even bring himself to spit out the word ‘Samaritan,’ and simply mumbles “The one who showed mercy.”
“Go and do likewise.”
When we read the parable of the Good Samaritan, it would be easy for us to moralize this story. If ever there were a text begging for a good old-fashioned moralistic sermon full of “Thou shalt do this” and “Thou shalt not do that” with lots of guilt and coercion mixed in, this is the text.
But, our problem generally isn’t knowing what we should and shouldn’t do. It’s having the vision to see the person in need not as a burden, but as my neighbor, to recognize in the face of another their needs not as a hassle, but as an opportunity to show the mercy I myself have experienced in Christ. My problem isn’t a lack of information; it’s a lack of faith. What we need from the church is not an instruction manual or moral advice or a life-coaching session, but a cornea transplant. We need new eyes. We need the eyes of faith to see others as neighbors, other children of God loved by God just as I am loved.
A few months ago, I was driving in on a Sunday morning. As I rounded the curve near the Salvation Army on Marsh Road, a woman walked into the road from the other side, screaming, waving frantically, almost walking right in front of the car as I drove past. Now, I did not want to stop. She was just going to ask me for help, and I really didn’t want to get involved. She probably wanted a ride somewhere, and I could see that she was dirty and sweaty, I assumed she was also smelly, probably a little bit crazy, and who knows what I would have gotten myself into. And, did I mention it was Sunday morning? Kind of an important work day for me – most of you would notice if I didn’t show up! A few of you would be happy, but you’d all notice, nonetheless.
But, as I drove on by, I glanced at the copy of the sermon sitting on the passenger seat. In a few hours, I was going to stand here and tell you to love your neighbors, to go out of your way to show kindness and practice compassion, to look for the opportunities God places in front of us to be the hands and feet of Jesus. As I realized I really had no choice and pulled off into the apartments to turn around, I said out loud, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” Well actually, I said something else, but let’s just say the sentiment was about the same.
I slowed next to the woman, rolled down the window to ask if she needed help and received confirmation that she was, indeed, both smelly and crazy. She told me her skin felt like it was on fire, and she was walking to the Emergency Room at CMC. You all know I like to keep my car immaculately clean, both inside and out, but by then, it’s not like I really had a choice. So off we went to CMC, because I really couldn’t stand up here and tell you to go out of your way to love your neighbor if I wasn’t willing to do the same thing.
Now, please don’t celebrate your pastor as some sort of sacrificial, heroic figure, or think that I’m telling you that story so you’ll think better of me or something silly like that. But, where I was different from the Good Samaritan is that I was still thinking about myself even as I carried out this act of kindness. “I hope this doesn’t make me late.” “I hope she doesn’t ask for anything else.” “I hope she doesn’t lose it in the car and do something crazy.” “I wonder if that smell is going to come out of the upholstery.” And, I’m not even sure I was operating out compassion. In the text, like the priest and the levite, we often ask, “What will happen to me if I help?” The Good Samaritan, however, asked, “What will happen to him if I don’t?”
Jesus doesn’t present the story of the Good Samaritan as a moralistic tale. Jesus isn’t saying, OK, everybody – go out and be just like the Good Samaritan.” For one thing, if Jesus were just giving this story to us as a moral example, he would have left out the Samaritan altogether. He would have just said “Two people passed by, but the third person stopped to help, so everyone should be like the third person. Go and do likewise.”
If this were just a moralistic “Help your neighbor” story, Jesus wouldn’t have made the hero a Samaritan – there was no need to do that! If a Samaritan were introduced at all, it would have more sense for the Samaritan to be the one in the ditch. Then we’d have a classic “love your enemies” story. You know the rules: help those in need, and hey, look, you get bonus points because the guy in need is your enemy. Good for you!
But there’s another problem with an overly moralistic reading of this story. If Jesus’ point is that he wants us to imitate courageous compassion, the sad fact is that we can’t do it. It is simply not in our nature to forget ourselves and risk everything for a stranger. We may know it’s the right thing to do, but simply knowing the right thing in our minds doesn’t mean we can we do it. This isn’t mind over matter. This isn’t “Put your mind to it and you can do anything.” If we are going to be good Samaritans, this will require more than just a change of mind. It will take a change of heart. And that’s what this story is about: a change of heart.
When we read this story through a moralistic lens, we are all inclined to cast ourselves as one of the travelers on the road. We may identify with the priest or the levite who passed by – they’re the bad example – or we may identify with the Good Samaritan – he’s the good example. But when we read this story as the change that God works in the human heart, we realize that we are the one left half-dead in the ditch. We are the one who needed rescuing. We are the one dependent upon the compassion of another, and sure enough someone has come along and rescued us, and because of that encounter, our hearts have been changed.
That is the point of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. What the lawyer discovered, and what we must also discover, is that we cannot stand on the sidelines and figure out how to be good, getting our doctrine in order, defining our terms, figuring who exactly is and is not our neighbor, figuring out the best loophole or the most efficient route to eternal life. Because no matter how religious or virtuous we are, we still can’t do it. We are helpless to be Good Samaritans on our own strength, because you and I are the person in the ditch, the one who lies helpless and wounded beside the road, the one who needs to be rescued. And along comes a Good Samaritan, a Good Samaritan named Jesus – despised and rejected – who comes to save us, speaks tenderly to us, lifts us into his arms, and takes us to a place of healing. As St. Paul said, “while we were still God’s enemies,” God saw us in the ditch and had compassion, and Jesus came to save us.
And perhaps that’s why Jesus never answered the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” The real question is who has been neighbor to you? The crucified one has been neighbor to you. Have you felt his mercy make your own heart merciful? If so, you will know what this means and you won’t need me to explain it any further: Go, and do likewise.