Texts: Leviticus 19:17-18; Luke 10:25-37
The theme of this year’s Alliance of Baptists Sunday is “Love God. Love Neighbor.” I want to focus on the second half of that theme – “Love Neighbor.” The texts I have chosen are Leviticus 19:17-18 and Luke 10:25-37. The former is the statement in the ancient Jewish law that contains the requirement that we love our neighbor as we love ourselves. The latter is Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, which was told in response to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” I will concentrate on the well-known parable of Jesus, though we will have occasion to talk about the text from the Torah along the way.
The interpretation of the Bible is always subject to the prevailing values of culture. We never know the degree to which societal attitudes have influenced what we think the text means. So I worry, given the values of our culture today, what some people might think the parable of the Good Samaritan means.
Can you imagine how the parable would be interpreted at, say, an NRA convention? “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves who would have stripped him and beat him and left him for dead, but he pulled out his AK47 and wasted them. End of parable. The fact that the parable does not end that way is the guy’s own fault – he wasn’t packing.”
I wonder how the parable is being interpreted this morning in a certain, unnamed, recently prominent Western state? “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves who stripped him and beat him and left him for dead. But a Samaritan came along and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He got off his donkey and would have bound the man’s wounds and taken him to the nearest ER but two members of the Judean Mounted Camel Patrol pulled him over and said, ‘Could we see your green card, please?’
We absorb the world’s values by osmosis. I confess that I have been infected by the cynicism of the day. I have always wanted to preach a sermon titled, “How to be a Good Samaritan Without Getting Your (donkey) Stolen.”
The result of our absorption of the values of our culture is that in my opinion the parable of the Good Samaritan has lost its cutting edge. It just doesn’t have the bite it probably had when Jesus first told it. The only way for the story to regain its power is for us to go back to the text and look at it very carefully. I have a personal reason for suggesting that. A week or so ago, I was talking with my wife about this parable, exploring ways I might approach it in this sermon. Nikki pointed out something in the text that I had never seen before, something that was right there in black and white. In English. Not Greek or Aramaic. I had been misinterpreting the parable of the Good Samaritan for as long as I had been preaching, over 45 years, because I had not seen what was right in front of me. So, let’s take a close look at the parable of the Good Samaritan.
“A lawyer stood up to test Jesus.” Let’s stop right there. (I told you we were going to look very carefully.) It was a lawyer who initiated the conversation with Jesus by asking a question about eternal life. The text says that he did not ask that question because he was concerned about the fate of his soul. It was a test question. We are often told that meant that the lawyer was trying to trick Jesus or trap him, but that is not necessarily so. I think it was more like one constitutional lawyer asking another, “What do you think the amendment about the right to bear arms means?” Here was a young traveling preacher, Jesus, who was attracting crowds with his own way of interpreting the law, and the lawyer was checking him out. Where does this guy stand? Is he liberal, conservative? A strict constitutionalist? The lawyer raised the issue by asking, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus understood immediately that he was being tested on his understanding of the law. He put the ball back in the lawyer’s court by asking, “What does the law say? What do you read there?” The lawyer gave an interesting answer: “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.” That answer is interesting because it was exactly the answer Jesus gave on another occasion when he was asked, “Which is the greatest commandment?” (Matthew 22:34-40) So, we shouldn’t be surprised to hear Jesus respond to the lawyer, “You have given the right answer; do this and you will live.” (I have seen many evangelistic tracts that raise the question, “What must I do to be saved?” The answer the tracts always give involves believing certain things about Jesus. I have never seen a Gospel tract that answers the question the way Jesus himself answered it: “Love God and love your neighbor. Do this and you will live.”)
In response to Jesus’ congratulatory remark, the lawyer posed another question: “Who is my neighbor?” Remember he’s a lawyer. Even back then lawyers were taught to think in fine-line distinctions and careful definitions. Granted, the law said that we should love our neighbor, but the lawyer knew that the actual application of the law hinged in part on how you define “neighbor.” Given what the ancient law actually said, that was the pivotal question. Listen carefully to the law.
17 You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. 18You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.
Don’t you get the impression that when the law talked about “neighbor” it meant “your kin” or “your people”? You could certainly interpret it that way. My guess is that is the way the lawyer interpreted it. What that would mean in practice would be that the law would require you to treat your own people according to the dictates of love, but you would not necessarily be required to treat anyone else in that way. After all, they are not your neighbor. When the lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbor?” he wanted to know how Jesus defined the term. But at a deeper level, he was asking, “Do I have the same obligation under the law to treat people who are different from me the way I am required to treat those who are like me? Or can I treat them differently?” That is what was at stake. It was in response to that question that Jesus said, “Let me tell you a story.” The story he told was the parable of the Good Samaritan.
You know the basic outline: a traveler was set upon by thieves who beat him, robbed him and left him for dead. We should imagine that the victim was a Jew, though that is not stated, because the parable makes no sense otherwise. Presently, a priest came by but refused to help the wounded man. Then, a Levite, a temple functionary, came along, and he also by-passed the man. Finally, a Samaritan happened by. He stopped, bound the man’s wounds, put him on his donkey, took him to the nearest inn, and gave the proprietor money for his care. He even pledged to come back and make up the difference if the amount he left turned out to be insufficient.
I think it is worth pointing out if the Samaritan had walked on by as the priest and the Levite did or if he had decided to help the wounded man on his way to paradise, no one would have known. They were in the middle of nowhere. Given the ill-will between Samaritans and Jews, if word got out what he had done, I suspect that some of the folks back home might even have congratulated him.
The animosity between Samaritans and Jews is well-known. We run into it in various places in the Gospels. Two quick examples. One day Jesus was traveling from Galilee to Jerusalem, north to south, a route that took him through Samaria. But when he sent a couple of disciples ahead to make overnight arrangements in a Samaritan village, the locals refused to accommodate them. They didn’t want Jews in their town. The disciples were understandably indignant, but Jesus respected the wishes of the villagers and by-passed the town. (Luke 9:51-56)
The bitterness ran both ways. Once Jesus was involved in a heated debate with some of his critics. He said, “Whoever is from God hears the words of God. The reason you do not hear them is that you are not from God.” (John 8:47) Angrily, his critics said: “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” Which is being interpreted, “Oh, yeah, well, you’re a Samaritan! What do you think about that?” When they could no longer hold up their end of the debate, they resorted to name-calling. And “Samaritan” was the worst name they could think of. It was the n . . . word of the day.
In that raw, charged cultural context the parable of the Good Samaritan was explosive. It was guaranteed to offend people. That is exactly why Jesus told the story the way he did. He wanted to challenge people’s preconceived notions. Think about it; if all he wanted to do was to tell people they had an obligation to help those in need, he didn’t have to make the hero a Samaritan. It could have been someone else. Jesus wanted his hero to be one of “those people.” He wanted the victim to be one of “our people.”
By the way, the way many of us identify with the characters in this story is all wrong. Reading a story in the Bible, I think most of us identify with the hero, in this case, the Samaritan. When you heard the story read earlier, did you identify with the lawyer? Of course not. Even if you are a lawyer, you identified with the Samaritan. But think about it. The Samaritan was a member of the oppressed group. If you are gay or lesbian, you can be the Samaritan. If you are an African-American, you can be the Samaritan. But if you are a straight, white guy, no way do you get to be the Samaritan in this story. You are not the Samaritan on the donkey; you are the Jew on the ground. And you know what? Samaritans look a lot different from that angle.
Jesus wanted to tell a story in which the cultural tables were turned, in which a member of the dominant group found himself at the mercy of a member of the group he and/or those like him had oppressed, only to find himself treated with compassion. It would be like Jesus telling Fred Phelps of the Westside Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas (website: Godhatewsfags.com) a story about a gay man who stopped to bind the wounds of a homophobic Baptist preacher. It would be like Jesus telling a story to the nut in Florida about a Muslim man saving the life of a narrow-minded, bigoted Christian Bible thumper. The story Jesus told was pointed. It was powerful. It was radical. And it was dangerous. It could get you killed. And it has got lots of good people killed over the centuries.
But it doesn’t have that bite today, does it? We have somehow managed to reduce this once powerful story to an inoffensive platitude that has all the motivating power of “Be a helper.” Ask anyone who is familiar with this story, what is the point Jesus was making, and you will likely be told that we are to help our neighbor, who is defined as anyone who is in need, regardless of their race, ethnicity, religion, etc. etc., etc. It’s hard to argue with it, really. It’s just simple decency. The problem is that isn’t what Jesus said.
Remember earlier in the sermon I said that for over forty years I misinterpreted this parable because I couldn’t see what was right in front of me on the printed page? This is what I was talking about. For all those years I preached and taught that the point of this parable is that we must recognize anyone in need as our neighbor, regardless of his/her place in life, his/her race, religion, class, gender identification, ethnicity, whatever. That is what I preached and that is what I taught. Then last week Nikki read the text and said, “I’m sure there’s truth in that but that isn’t what Jesus said.” I took the Bible from her hands, read the text, and said, “Where were you forty years ago?” She was right. That isn’t what Jesus said. After he finished his story, he asked the lawyer a question. What did he ask? He did not ask, “Which of these three – the priest, the Levite or the Samaritan – recognized that the man who fell into the hands of the robbers was his neighbor?” That is not what he asked. He asked, “Which of these three was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
Jesus did not define “neighbor” in terms of the victim, he didn’t define “neighbor” in terms of the one who needed help, as we are prone to do and as I did for over forty years. He defined “neighbor” in terms of the one who showed mercy, the one who acted compassionately, the one who could have exacted revenge, and might have been expected to do so by some, but didn’t. The Samaritan was a neighbor not because he was weak but because he was strong, not because he was in need but because he got involved when he didn’t have to, because he did something risky, something that could have got him in big trouble with his people back home, because he overcame the group-think that lumps people together and says, “They’re all like that. People like him have oppressed my people my whole life, so I will get even with them by leaving him here die.” He was a neighbor because he acted mercifully.
Not long ago, there was a press conference in downtown Winston-Salem called by supporters of an African-American man who was convicted of assaulting a white womanand who has been in prison for many years. He has always maintained his innocence and the Innocence Project agrees and so do his friends, family and supporters. I was on grandbaby-sitting duty that morning, so I pushed Rohin’s stroller downtown where he and I joined the group. When I arrived, I saw an old friend and asked, “Who’s here?” “The usual suspects,” he said. I looked around; he was right. The people in the crowd were the same ones who showed up to counter the message of hatred spewing from the mouths of members of the Ku Klux Klan standing on the Forsyth County Courthouse steps; the same ones who participated in or otherwise supported us in our same-sex ceremony; the same ones who stood on the steps of Wait Chapel and called on the District Attorney to free Daryl Hunt. The usual suspects: a religion professor or two from Wake Forest University, a couple of Presbyterian pastors (one of whom was tried for heresy because he participated in Susan and Wendy’s ceremony), Imam Khalid Griggs of the Community Mosque, the Unitarian pastor and members of his congregation, several African-American pastors, the rabbi and members of Temple Emmanuel, a few people who have no religious commitments at all. The usual suspects.
Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists, agnostics — my neighbors. Why are they my neighbors? Because anyone who shows mercy, anyone who acts out of love, anyone who shows up, speaks up, and acts up for justice is my neighbor and yours. Anyone.
We’re not going to get into the “my people/not my people” thing, said Jesus. If he is a Samaritan, so be it. If he is a Muslim, if she is a Jew or a Hindu, if he is a fundamentalist Bible thumper, if she is an atheist or isn’t sure or could care less, so be it. Gay or straight, liberal or conservative, if s/he refuses to exact his/her pound of flesh but acts mercifully, compassionately, if she stands up for justice, she is my neighbor. The neighbor is anyone who rejects the cultural message that it’s okay to have a double standard, one for the way you treat “your people” and another for the way you treat those you decide are not “your people.”
The lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus answered, “Wrong question. What must I do to be a neighbor? That is the question.” The correct answer, as the lawyer finally was forced to admit, is: Show mercy. Jesus’ parting words to the lawyer are his final words to us as well: “Go thou and do likewise.”