Image: The Good Samaritan ~ Vincent van Gogh
~ Luke 10:25-36 ~
Stripped down to its bare essentials, this is what Christian faith is all about: Love God and love your neighbor. Indeed, as Christianity, of late, tries to sort out what the important stuff is there is a refocusing on these two straightforward commands of Jesus: Love God and love your neighbor. In all of the political and cultural upheavals and confrontations of these times, the idea of simply “following Jesus” boils down to this: Love God and love your neighbor. It’s that simple, right? Well, let’s see about that.
All three of the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, include these “greatest commandments” spoken by Jesus, but only here in Luke does Jesus tell a story to make it clear what loving one’s neighbor is all about – the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Do what he does and you’ll be good.
So, how do you measure up? The message is right there. Aren’t we supposed to emulate this Samaritan? He is the ultimate example of how to love one’s neighbor. This, indeed, is the epitome of Christian ethics. That’s why we have hospitals named “Good Samaritan” hospital.
I mean, talk about a Good Samaritan – this guy is it. There’s this poor sap lying in the ditch by the side of the road. He’s been robbed, stripped and beaten. He’s been left for dead. Skipping over the other two losers for a moment, this Samaritan guy sees the beaten man and, being moved with compassion, he acts. Ignoring the grossness of it all, he bandages his wounds, pouring salving oil and wine on them. He then inconveniences himself even more by placing the man on his donkey effectively denying himself a comfortable ride to the inn where he had hoped to spend a quite evening resting from his journey. But not to be, for when they get to the inn the Samaritan spends the evening caring for this fallen stranger. And then the next morning he has the innkeeper swipe his Visa card and tells him that whatever the guy needs, he will pay for. I hate to think how he explained all this to his wife when they got the bill. But there it is – an incredible display of altruism, of giving to a stranger in need out of no thought for his own needs, comfort, and personal finances. And for 2000+ years now this guy has been the benchmark for how one is to love one’s neighbor. So, how do you measure up?
Trick question! That’s been the problem all along: How do you measure up? How good are you? Are you adequately following the primo example of the Good Samaritan? This is the message of this parable, isn’t it? That is what Jesus is telling the lawyer, and by extension, all of us, isn’t it? Loving your neighbor means giving to those in need out of no regard for the personal cost to you. Well, how do you measure up?
Ahh, but I wonder. I wonder if that is the real intent of this parable. I wonder if maybe we’ve gotten the wrong message from this most famous of stories. Indeed, I wonder if maybe we’ve been misnaming this parable all along; that maybe it shouldn’t be called the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
To me, the central figure in the parable is not the Samaritan. He is simply one of three characters in the story who have an opportunity to display neighborliness as Jesus defines it. The central character – the one to whom the other three respond or not – is the man who fell among thieves. The actual Christ-figure in the story, in other words, is not the Good Samaritan but the down and out, left-for-dead man lying in the ditch. He, in fact, in all his lostness and proximity to death, is the closest thing to Jesus in the story.
This, of course, runs counter to the better part of two thousand years’ worth of interpretation. But I think it to be the better one. It is not primarily about the Samaritan but about the man on the ground. It has been misnamed. This, incidentally, means that all those Good Samaritan Hospitals have been misnamed as well. Although I don’t think Man-Who-Fell-Among-Thieves Hospital would inspire much confidence.
But here’s the issue. Calling it the Good Samaritan sets us up, as the hearers, to take it as a story whose hero offers us a good example to imitate. Now, I’m quite aware of the fact that Jesus ends his story precisely on the note of imitation: “You, too, go and do likewise.” But the common, good-works interpretation of the imitation of Jesus invites us, I believe, to distort the very message of the gospel. Yes, we are called to imitation. But imitation of what, exactly? I don’t think it is just a matter of doing kind acts, as good as kind acts are. Is not the imitation of Christ to follow him where he has been telling his disciples over and over throughout this story? Is it not to follow him to Jerusalem to be robbed and beaten and left for dead? Is it not to follow him to his death and resurrection? Is it not the taking up of the cross? I mean, that’s what Luke says over and over.
Let’s dig into this story. First of all, it is set up by the lawyer’s question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Notice first of all that Luke puts the man’s motive right out there for all to see: He did this to test Jesus. In other words, he was hoping to trip Jesus up so he could get him into trouble. But that is typical of almost everyone who represents the power structure when they ask a question of Jesus. But second, note that he is not asking about to whom he should direct his good works. He is asking about salvation, inheriting eternal life.
Like any good Rabbi Jesus answers the man’s question with another question. That seems to be a particular Rabbi tactic. Such as: “Why does a Rabbi always answer a question with a question?” To which the Rabbi responds: “Why shouldn’t a Rabbi always answer a question with a question?” So, Jesus says: “What is written in the law?”
To which the lawyer promptly answers with the now famous two greatest commandments: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. “Good,” says Jesus, “you have answered well.” But the lawyer can’t leave it at that. So “that he might justify himself,” it says, the lawyer asks: “And who is my neighbor?” And so Jesus tells this story.
But note how this story proceeds. To whom is the reader to identify with? From the very beginning of the story it isn’t the three passers-by we are to identify with. It is the man who fell among the thieves. The question at the beginning puts the focus of “who is my neighbor?” first on the priest, and then the Levite, and then the Samaritan. Which of these three is my neighbor? It is the man looking up out of the ditch who asks the question: “Who is my neighbor?” As the hearers of the story, we are the ones to ask this question. It is the one who helps me in my helplessness, who renders me mercy, who lifts me out of the ditch and dresses my wounds and puts me on the donkey and takes me to the inn.
It is only at the very end of the story where we get this notion that the one we are to identify with is the Samaritan. But that isn’t, I believe, who we are supposed to identify with. Yes, Jesus says “go and do likewise” but it isn’t necessarily the point of Jesus story to follow the example of the Samaritan to go and do good works to those in utter need (as good as that is).
Look at Jesus final question: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” As the hearer of the story I’m supposed to be asking: “Which of these three was a neighbor to me?” So, who is my neighbor? My neighbor, according to Jesus’ story, is the outcast Samaritan who shows mercy to me, the man who is utterly lost and left for dead in the bottom of the ditch by the side of the road.
Here’s my take on what this parable is really about: This is a parable about grace – about receiving grace. It is about receiving grace because we are utterly lost and completely incapable of inheriting “eternal life” on our own (Remember that was the lawyer’s original question). This is a story about being willing to receive mercy. Jesus makes the giver of grace and mercy in this story a Samaritan to drive home the point that our salvation and acceptance does not come out of some treasure trove of good works. He is an outcast himself in contrast to the priest and Levite who would represent self-righteousness and religious merit. The point is there is nothing we can do to deserve or earn God’s acceptance. Everything we have in God is because of grace and mercy given to us in our need, in our utter lostness. That is the story of the Gospel, the Good News.
Now, by and large, we are good people. If faced with a given situation we would be quick to render aid to a person in need. We would want to be Good Samaritans. So, I don’t think I have to preach to you, to cajole you, into being Good Samaritans.
But how are we in experiencing need? How are we in understanding our lostness? Ah, there, I think, we all might find a need for improvement. Do we need to work on our need for grace and mercy? Of course, we don’t work for it. The very point is we just lie there in the ditch, if you will, and wait for the grace and mercy to come. Or are we inclined to throw off the helping hand of mercy and struggle to get up out of the ditch ourselves? Are we inclined to fix ourselves?
So what do we do with this? Well, if this were a sermon about good works I could give you a list of good things to do. But how do you practice receiving grace? Giving is active, which is why, I suppose, we like to extol giving. But receiving can be kind of passive and that might feel too uncomfortable. But this isn’t a “doing” kind of sermon. This is a “being” kind of sermon. This is about a way of thinking – a way of thinking about yourself and about God. I believe that receiving grace is a kind of spiritual discipline. So maybe we should think of developing a practice of receiving. Practice being a recipient of God’s grace.
Who is my neighbor? Well, it is the one whom God is working through to give me grace and mercy. Who is my neighbor? It is the one from whom I might not expect aid. Who is my neighbor? It is the grace and mercy of God which saves me out of my lostness. So, just lie back down in the ditch and let God the Samaritan tend to your wounds. OK?