Lk 10.25-37 St. Mary’s Fr. Patrick Allen
In this morning’s Gospel lesson, we come to what is, with the possible exception of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the most well-known of our Lord’s parables: “the Good Samaritan.” But before looking at the details of the parable itself, it’s helpful, I think, to remember the occasion, the question, that gives rise to the parable.
Jesus, we read, is confronted by a scholar of the law – that is, an expert in the Torah, the law of Moses, who wants to test Jesus. So this is not an honest question seeking insight, but an attempt by an expert to expose the ignorance of this self-taught rabbi – from Nazareth, of all places – as a charlatan and a rube. He wants to discredit Jesus, and he’s going to do it by provoking a little debate.
So, What must I do to inherit eternal life?, the scholar asks. Jesus knows how the game is played and replies with a bit of pleasing deference, asking his own question in return – “You’re the expert in the law – how do you read it?”
And, let us give credit where credit is due, the scholar’s study has paid off. He gets the answer exactly right; it’s the very same answer, taken directly from the Hebrew Scriptures, that elsewhere in the Gospels we find on Jesus’ own lips: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (see Mt 22.37-39).
Now, this is where things turn a little weird for our scholar friend. Jesus is supposed to say something that begins along the lines of, “Yes, but…” Now they are supposed to begin a learned (at least on the scholar’s side) debate about the appropriate qualifications and distinctions to be made regarding the obviously exaggerated command to love God and our neighbor.
But that’s not what happens! Jesus want play. Instead he offers not the slightest caveat, not an ounce of nuance, only bare, 100% affirmation: You have answered correctly; do this and you will live – there’s nothing more to say.
And now it is not Jesus, but the scholar of the law – and each and every one of us who is exposed. Because if that’s the just standard, if perfect and pure love of God and neighbor are the keys to eternal life – and Jesus insists that they are – then the scholar knows he is condemned, and again – let us be honest; after all we’ve just admitted to God and one another in the confiteor – we, left to ourselves, are condemned with him, because we have failed at love, in things done and things we have failed to do, through our own faults, through our own most grievous faults.
In response to that kind of exposure, there are only a couple strategies. One is the way of faith, of course – we can lie down and die in faith and baptism, fleeing to God’s grace and mercy in penitence. But another is to try to shrink the requirement, to define the terms, parse the language, invent exceptions and excuses in such a way as to make the command small – or smaller anyway, to make it manageable, so we can justify ourselves and escape with our pride in tact.
This is the escape our friend the scholar opts for. And who is my neighbor?, he asks. Whom must I love as myself. And implied within the question is the other side – and to whom is my love not owed; whom may I safely ignore, pass by, from whose need may I safely avert my eyes? What are the legitimate limits of love?
That’s the question that draws the parable out of Jesus, that is the strategy of self-justification the parable of the Good Samaritan addresses.
Again, we know the parable, and we needn’t belabor the details. On the famously dangerous road between Jerusalem and Jericho, a traveler is set upon by bandits, severely beaten, robbed, stripped of even his clothes, and left for dead. Now come the passers by: first a priest, and then a Levite. Religious people, and professionally so, the very representatives of God’s law and worship, and they see the man, naked and bleeding, half-dead at least, and they shift uncomfortably to the other side of the road – into the other lane, just as I so often do down at the corner of Spring and Lockwood, where there is always the homeless man with the cardboard sign – they shift to the other lane, and they keep moving.
Now, it’s likely that the people listening to Jesus tell this story shared some smirks at this point. The madding crowd then, just as now, loved to see the mighty brought low, and loved especially the exposure of hypocrisy among the publicly and professionally religious – even if it’s not really a matter of hypocrisy at all but just garden-variety human weakness.
But perhaps we shouldn’t be quite so hard on these two passers by. After all, they had places to go and people to see, jobs to do and religious duties to perform. Maybe this is less hypocrisy and fear than what is sometimes called “an abundance of caution.” After all, the Mosaic law stipulated that anyone who touched a dead body would be ceremonially unclean for seven days (see Nm 19.11-13). That’s a week’s stay-at-home unpaid furlough. And we read that the victim was left “half dead,” perhaps unconscious, and how do you tell whether a man is dead or just half dead, except by touching him? What would have happened had they stopped? There likely would have been consequences, consequences borne not just by themselves but by their family and other dependents as well.
So it may be that Jesus isn’t just serving up some stock characters, the usual hypocritical suspects, to get the crowd on his side, but rather is pointing them and us to the hard choices that love in a fallen world often requires. Love always costs, and our Lord wants us to count the cost.
Well, if the crowd smirked at the priest and the Levite, they would have been scandalized at the third passer by, the hero of the story, the Samaritan, who does stop, who pours on oil and wine, binds up wounds, and carries the poor beaten man to an inn and pays for his continued care. Generally hated by the Jews of Jesus’ day (and the feeling was generally mutual), the Samaritans were considered to be ill-bred, racially inferior heretics. By introducing a Samaritan hero, an outsider, Jesus is stirring up, exposing to his kindly light, the religious, racial, and historical prejudice of the crowd. None would have considered that they owed neighbor-love to a Samaritan – just the opposite. But it is the Samaritan who stops, the Samaritan who loves.
The scholar of the law wanted to define terms, to parse language, and to shrink the circle of neighbors. Well, it turns out that Jesus is interested in defining terms as well. And it’s not just that he pushes the love-thy-neighbor command beyond the normal and expected borders of proximity: family or tribe or race – “folks like us”. As so often, he turns the whole matter on its head: Which one of these three…was neighbor to the robber’s victim?, he asks. He’s not interested in “neighbor” as object, but “neighbor” as subject. In other words, for Jesus, the question to ask is not “who should or should not be the object of my love, of my mercy” – but rather, am I a lover? Am I merciful? And here there can be no divorce between being and doing. Mercy is as mercy does. In Jesus’ terms, it’s not possible to define one’s neighbor, one can only be a neighbor.
Go and do likewise, Jesus says. The question Jesus would have us ask is not the scholar’s Whod is my neighbor?, but, “Am I a neighbor? Are we neighbors?” And then we have to ask ourselves, if I find that I don not have a neighbor’s heart, what do I do? How can I exchange this heart of stone for a heart of flesh?
Well, we’ve talked about the priest, and about the Levite, and about the Samaritan. But of course there’s one more character in the story. There’s the half-dead man in the ditch. Who is he? Is he a Jew or Samaritan? Rich or poor? Righteous or sinner? In he one of the “deserving poor” or not? There’s no way to tell. But when we place the parable back into the context of the Gospel – don’t we begin to recognize him? Doesn’t that profile begin to look familiar? A man for every man, outside the city, beaten, bleeding, naked, dying, with…
…No form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not… But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed (Is 53).
Blessed Mother Theresa was once asked by a journalist what had led her and her sisters to Calcutta to do “social work” among the poorest of the poor, picking up the discarded and dying out of the gutters. And she quickly replied, We are not here to do social work. We are here to adore Christ in the least of his brethren. On another occasion she was visited by another journalist, and as she washed the failing body of one more discarded human being, with tweezers carefully pulling maggots out of the man’s festering sores, the journalist was overcome by the stench and horror and said, “Mother, I wouldn’t do what you do for a million dollars.” She looked up at him with that wizened face, smiled, and said, “Neither would I.”
I wouldn’t be a neighbor for a million dollars. Mercy can be hard, and inconvenient. It often requires difficult choices. Love costs. But recognizing the face of the half-dead man in every one in need, to see and taste his love for us in his broken body and poured out blood, knowing that those stripes and wounds are for me, for us, will make all the difference. It will raise us to new life, and turn us in to neighbors.