An expert in the law 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, and 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 took off, 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 upon him, and when he saw him he was moved with compassion. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, treating them with oil and wine. 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 to him, “Go and do likewise.”
Many of us, even those of us who may not be familiar with the Bible, could probably tell you what a “Good Samaritan” is.
It’s a well-worn phrase that’s taken on a life of its own outside of scripture.
It’s used by leaders and politicians in speeches about our civic duties, hospitals and rehab facilities are named “Good Samaritan Health Center”, and just last week, I came across a news story that described a “good samaritan” who rescued a drowning boy at a public swimming pool.
(Don’t worry, the boy is fine).
But for as famous as this parable is both in and outside of church-life, our story for today doesn’t start with a Samaritan— good, bad, or otherwise.
Our story starts with a man with a question.
It’s not necessarily a question asked because the man is genuinely curious about the answer. He is, after all, an expert in Jewish life, so he probably knows the answer to his question. He’s asking more so that he can draw conclusions about Jesus based on his response.
And this question sets off a back-and-forth between these two experts—- Jesus and the man. They trade questions and scripture passages, each one of them turning the conversation back onto the other.
And it actually seems that after the man recites the two commandments on which all of Jewish law is built — love God and love neighbor— Jesus is fine to let this discussion end, with no need for a parable about “a Good Samaritan” that would become a common phrase to describe good people roughly 2000 years later.
But the man asks another question; he takes it one step further.
He wants to know who Jesus believes is his neighbor.
This question: Who is my neighbor? Is not simply a question about proximity or if Jesus knows the family that lives down the street.
The man is wondering who am I obligated to care for? What do I owe to other people?
Now, this man knows who is neighbors are.. he knows he should care for his family, his people, even the residents who live in community even if they aren’t Jewish. These are his neighbors and his faith directs him to care for them as he would care for himself.
But what about everyone else? What about strangers? What about enemies? Are they my neighbor? Are we obligated to care for them too?
But if the man takes this back-and-forth between himself and Jesus one step further with his question, Jesus takes its about five thousand steps beyond with his answer.
Because Jesus goes to the greatest extreme when he introduces a Samaritan as the hero of his short story.
Throughout the shared history of Jews and Samaritans, there has been violence, war, persecution, leading to prejudices, suspicion, a general distrust of entire groups of people. This sort of weighted history is hard to forget, so that even if an individual Jewish person and an individual Samaritan had no personal conflict, I’m not sure they would be able to see past the biases they hold against each other’s people.
Simply put: They are not neighbors.
And yet, it’s obvious that the Samaritan is the one who best exemplifies what it means to be a neighbor.
Imagine with me for a moment, you are the law expert talking with Jesus. You are faithful person who seeks to follow God in all that you do.
And then this teacher tells a story where two members of your own community — the priest and the Levite— are not the ones acting as a neighbor to the man who was robbed. Instead, the person who fulfills that role is someone you have no reason to trust, someone who you believe you owe nothing to.
In the back and forth that leads to this story, the expert is trying to pin down the boundaries of his love. He wants to know who exactly is and isn’t his neighbor. Who he should care for, and who he can write off. He wants to build a fence around the edges of his neighborhood.
But Jesus has no interest in fences that keep some people in and others out. Instead, he widens the circle, reminding the man that he should care for anyone in need. He should stop to help the man who has been robbed.
But then Jesus takes it another step further.
Because the man— by extension us — are not always the hero of the story.
Sometimes life is hard and cruel and without mercy. And in those moments, we feel less like a heroic good Samaritan, and more like the man robbed, left for dead, passed over by people we thought would help.
And then sometimes, we receive help. We are pulled out of that ditch, our wounds are bandaged, and we are given a soft place to land. And sometimes all that compassion and help comes from someone or something that in any other circumstance we would have no reason to trust.
Being a Good Samaritan is brave and difficult thing to do, but so is accepting that at some point, we will all need a Good Samaritan to help us.
The expert in the law keeps pushing the conversation one step further as a way to figure out the limits of his neighborhood, but it ends up widening the circle of care to unreasonably gracious proportions.
This is what Jesus expects from us… to take our love and care of neighbor one step further than we might want. To see our neighbors not only as the people who live down the street from us, not only the people who look and think and act like us, not only the people we like, but also the people who we could just as easily despise from a safe distance behind our fences.
Jesus takes our commitments one step further. Until we see neighbors where there were once enemies.
One step further until Jesus’ command to “go and do likewise” is as natural to us as breathing.
And then another step further until we can just as easily accept help as we can give it.
One step further until we have walked our way into heaven on earth, where all of God’s children are our neighbors.
It’s just one step further. And then another. And another….
Thanks be to God amen.