The Good Samaritan Sermon
Why you should know the story of the Good Samaritan
Our summer sermon series, Bible Stories You Should Know, brings us into the New Testament with Jesus’ parable, the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Why should you know this story? First, it is the most recognizable of all Jesus’ parables. Second, it guides us on how to live an authentic life. Third, it helps explain why the term “Good Samaritan” is such a part of our culture. Countless charities, hospitals, and ministries are named after the parable. We even have Good Samaritan laws in our legal code. Your liability is limited if you are doing your best to help someone in an emergency. So, what is this story?
The lawyer who tested Jesus
Jesus tells the story as part of his response to a lawyer’s questions. A lawyer approaches Jesus. But he wasn’t the kind of lawyer we think of. He was an expert in the Old Testament laws and interpreted how they should be applied to their society.
I like to picture him with a professorial grey beard and a flashy red tunic. We learn later in the story that he cares about how he appears to others. Kind of a showoff. So fancy clothes. And red because Luke tells us that he came to test Jesus. The word for test is the same word for when the devil came to test/tempt Jesus in the wilderness.
The scene is a confrontation. The lawyer has plenty of reasons to think Jesus is what the kids call, “sus” or suspicious. In nearly every page of Luke’s gospel leading up to this encounter, Jesus had violated Old Testament laws. He cured on the Sabbath, he proclaimed forgiveness of sins. He shared table fellowship with sinners, tax collectors, and prostitutes. He let the disciples pick grain on the Sabbath and didn’t make them follow the prescribed ritual washings. And most curious was how he palled around with and cured people outside the faith.
The lawyer comes to set Jesus straight. Jesus’ followers must have held their breath in anxiety, wondering how this will turn out.
Eternal life: what is it, and how do we get it?
The lawyer asks, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He wasn’t asking about how to go to heaven because that wasn’t a very developed notion until long after Jesus’ resurrection. No, eternal life had to do with a quality of life in this world. How do you have meaning beyond the present moment? How do you live a life that adheres to God, one saturated by grace? In other words, how does one live a good life?
Jesus does the rabbi thing by doing something they still teach clergy to do. He answers a question with a question. “What does the law say, and how do you interpret it?” Jesus recognizes that you don’t just quote lines from the Bible; you have to figure out a reasonable way to apply them to life.
Jesus just lobbed him a softball question. Every Jewish kid had this answer memorized by the time they were five years old. “You shall love the Lord your God will all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus says, “You have answered correctly. Do this, and you will live.”
Who counts as my neighbor?
The crowd exhales. That was easy. Everyone agrees; let’s go eat! But the lawyer hadn’t had his Perry Mason moment yet. So he baits the trap, “And who is my neighbor?”
Luke tells us that he asked the question seeking to “justify himself.” He wants to show off how good of a neighbor he is. He likely had stories locked in the chamber of how he helped the next-door kid, Benjamin, wipe some schmutz off his face. Or how he mowed the rabbi’s lawn. Of how he gave 30 silver pieces to the turn-in radicals fund.
To us it sounds like he lobs a softball question back to Jesus. Everyone knew the passage from Leviticus about loving one’s neighbor. The context is about taking care of your people. Your people. The people who are like you that you share things in common. When we think of our neighbors, we think the same. Neighbors are people we share a zip code with, a socio-economic demographic, and a similar culture and worldview.
The trap the lawyer set was to get Jesus to say that neighbors are like you. Share love with the ones who are like you, your people the ones around you. These are the people you are responsible for. If Jesus had given that kind of answer the lawyer could have said, “Then stay inside your circle Jesus. Don’t be messing with tax collectors, sinners, prostitutes, foreigners, and especially the stinking Samaritans!
Who can I exclude from neighbor love?
What the lawyer wanted to know is not who is the neighbor but who isn’t my neighbor. How far out do I have to go to show care to people?
It reminds me of a pastor friend whose church hosted several ethnic congregations on Sunday mornings. The church was crawling with people on Sunday mornings from all these congregations meeting in various places on their massive campus. He said the had usher came up to him and essentially asked. With all of these people crawling around here on Sundays it’s hard to know who might be coming to our worship. How do we know who to be nice to and roll out the red carpet?”
Uh, I don’t know. All of them?
Instead of giving the lawyer the answer he expected, Jesus did another typical rabbi thing. Answer a direct question with a story and more questions.
A Priest and Levite
Jesus makes up a story about a man on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho.” This road was notorious for people getting mugged along the way. It would be akin to someone opening a story, “A guy was walking down skid row.” This can’t turn out well. You are not surprised to learn that he fell among thieves who robbed him, beat him, stripped him, and left him for dead. Now the way Jesus tells this story, we are to see ourselves as the guy in the ditch. Some circumstance that could happen to anyone and you lay there, your life draining away into a puddle of blood under your head. But there is hope!
Along comes a priest. And you think, “He’s going to help. Man of God. Dressed up in his godly robes and majestic headwear. That’s his duty.” But nope. He walks on the other side of the path to avoid him. This is kind of funny because this was a narrow path, (it’s not like 10 lanes of traffic across the 91). The priest has to practically step over you.
Some commentaries have attributed motives for the priest that the text doesn’t provide. For example, if the priest were on his way to perform his official duties he couldn’t come into contact with a corpse or bleeding person, so he was putting the law above human compassion. But other scholars are quick to point out that the text never ascribes motive and the Jewish expectation was that of course the priest was supposed to give assistance, no question. But he didn’t.
Maybe he didn’t want to get involved. Maybe he thought it could be a trap that I fall into. Maybe he thought guy had it coming putting himself in danger like that wandering around in this neighborhood. Maybe he didn’t have time. (Princeton Seminary experiment).
After the priest, a Levite came along. Levites were people who had special roles in the service of God for worship and taking care of religious business.[i] But he passes by, also. How does it feel to be passed over twice by people who represent institutions that are supposed to help?
What makes the Good Samaritan good?
Along comes a third man. Now everyone listening to Jesus was expecting the third man to be an Israelite.[ii] Because there were jokes and stories that involved the triad of priest, Levite, and Israelite. Just like we’d start a story with, “A priest, minister and rabbi walked into a bar.” But Jesus didn’t follow the typical form of a priest, a Levite, and an Israelite. He substitutes a Samaritan for the Israelite. For us, it would be like saying. “A priest, a minister, and a rabbit walked into a bar.” But we know the rabbit said, ‘I’m only here because of spell check.’”
The crowd would have gasped by Jesus’ subversion of the regular story. Not a priest, Levite and Israelite, but a priest, a Levite and a Samaritan. Now to say there was animosity between the Jews and the Samaritans would be the understatement of the year. The divisions were ugly. Ancient hatred on both sides. When one Jewish person called another Jew a Samaritan it was the biggest insult you could make.
Even our calling this the story of the good Samaritan is cringy if it implies, Yeah, there was one good one, not like all the other scumbags.
So along comes the Samaritan and has compassion for the man. The biblical word for compassion has the same root as a womb. It is something you feel deep inside, evoking caring instincts. Moved by compassion, he goes to extraordinary lengths to save the guy. He bound his wounds poured oil and wine on them. Put him on his own animal. Took him to an inn opened an account with the innkeeper (sometimes there was room at the inn in Luke) and said whatever it takes, however long it takes to get him back on his feet, put this on my account.
Then Jesus asked the lawyer, which of these three was a neighbor to the guy in the ditch.
“The one who showed mercy.”
“Go and do likewise.”
Eternal life involves loving neighbors who might also be enemies
The lawyer wanted to know what he had to do to have eternal life, a life worth living, a life that connects you with the Eternal One. The answer is love God with your whole self and love your neighbor but neighbor includes enemies, people in need, people who’ve made mistakes.
Our Christian ethic is rooted in this story. We are people who help. We are people who get involved to improve our neighborhood. We also respond to Jesus’ invitation to expand the circle of who we consider our neighbor. Sometimes when we give money to people overseas, people will ask, “Why should we send our money to help those people when there are hurting people right here?” Part of the answer is that we remind ourselves that Jesus challenges us to widen the circles of our care. Our neighbors are those in need anywhere in the world.
We are connected to them in God’s eyes. When God looks at the world our puny divisions and national boundaries are nothing. It’s one world and if we are going to sense God it means to love our neighbors. To help even those who aren’t like us, any who are in need.
Who is in the ditch today?
Who has been passed over and left in the ditches today? Who can we help? I learned that over the past two years there has been a huge spike in the number of senior citizens becoming homeless. I think of children lost in the foster system and 28 million people in the US without access to healthcare because they cannot afford insurance.
Martin Luther King Jr. in his last sermon talked about this parable and said we should always be asking not, what will happen to me if I don’t help, but what will happen to them if I don’t help.
Action not guilt
Over the years, I’ve often felt guilty and lost sleep over not being able to help more people. With so much need in the world and around us, how can we respond to all of it. There is just so much we can do. Taken too far the story might seem that we should hop our of our car every time we see a homeless person and give them our credit card.
Early church theologians felt this too and came up with an allegorical interpretation. Jesus is the outsider (to the religious establishment) who shows mercy on people, who gives lavishly, and sacrifices to make us whole. He brings us to the inn (seen as the church) a community who helps us back to wholeness when life beats us up.
But that it taking the story beyond its intention, its context. There were times when Jesus had to walk away from healing people to go and care for himself. We do what we can. We open our hearts. We give through the church and belong to a church that is doing good, providing resources. We give to agencies who make sure people’s stories check out and they aren’t running some scam. It’s how we can sleep at night.
Our summer sermon series Bible Stories You Should Know brings us into the New Testament with Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Why should you know this story? First, it is the most recognizable of all Jesus’ parables. Second, the passage gives the key to a meaningful life. Third, it explains why so many hospitals, charities and benevolence programs carry the name “Good Samaritan.”
Michael Curry says, “saturated by grace?”[iii]
Jesus recognizes that scripture isn’t just words on a page, but they must be interpreted and applied into a current context.[iv]
[iii] Sermon by Bishop Michael Curry https://cor.org/leawood/search?q=Neighbor#d/sermon/30073/cor_l
[iv] See D. Mark Davis. “1. I love, love, love that Jesus asks both, “What has been written?” and “How do you read?” Together they imply that the Scriptures are living texts of interactive possibility. They are not, on the one hand, stagnant words that simply say what they say to whoever reads. Nor are they empty pages onto which we can pour opinions willy-nilly. Literalists beware: There is the written and there is the reading of the written.” (https://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2013/07/a-neighbor-is-one-who-nurtures-wounded.html)