"The Good Samaritan" by Van Gogh
The Gospel lectionary reading for today is Luke 10:25-37...This reading reveals Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan in context. The story arises out of a lawyer standing up to test Jesus with a question: "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" Apparently, Jesus was asked this more than once. We dealt with the question as it was asked by the rich young ruler some time ago. Jesus' response here is to ask a counter question: "What is written in the law?" By asking this question it keeps Jesus out of trouble, at least for the moment. It was probably being said that Jesus was speaking and acting against the law. But here Jesus reinforces the law.
Just then a lawyer 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 neighbour 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 neighbour?' Jesus replied, 'A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, 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 travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. 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 neighbour 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.'
The lawyer answers Jesus with the same answer Jesus gave when he was asked about the greatest commandment. The answer in both cases is simple: "Love God and your neighbor."
But the lawyer wants to justify himself. He knows that he has not loved everyone. It seems he would like Jesus to limit the scope of the command. But Jesus does just the opposite. Jesus shows us how expansive this command is by telling a story.
And it was a very true to life story. Everyone in Jesus' audience would have known that the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was a dangerous road often frequented by robbers. Thus, it would be no surprise that a man would be robbed and left half-dead by the side of the road.
What might have been surprising, and even offensive, to Jesus' audience was the identity of the ones who failed to help the helpless man and the identity of the one who did help him in the end. The Jews would perhaps expect a fellow Jew like Jesus to tell a story in which a priest and a Levite offer help. But in Jesus' story they don't. The only one who offers help is a half-breed Jew, a despised Samaritan. Change the names to reflect people of today who you would expect to help someone in trouble and the kind of person you would not expect to offer help, and you will get the sting of Jesus' story. How might this story come across if we replace the characters of the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan with a Jew, a Christian, and a Muslim?
In the end, Jesus turns the lawyer's question around completely. He shows this lawyer that the really important question is not: "Who is my neighbor?" but rather: "To whom can I be a neighbor?" The answer to Jesus' question: "Who acted as a neighbor in this story?" is obvious. The one who acts in a neighborly fashion is the one who shows mercy. Jesus tells the lawyer and us that we should go and do likewise.
But let us not forget what prompted Jesus to tell this story. The prompt was the question: "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus does not give the answer that many of us as good Protestants would like him to give. Jesus does not say, at least not here, that it is all a matter of God's grace. He does not say that one cannot inherit eternal life. The story makes clear that inheriting eternal life is not even a matter of having "the right theology" or even "the right religion". After all, the one who acts as a neighbor is not of the pure Jewish religion. The Jews listening to Jesus' story would have thought that this Samaritan in the story had some really messed up theology. But it is as if Jesus is telling us that this does not matter. All that matters is that the Samaritan acts as a neighbor. (In a way, the Samaritan reminds me of the character of Emeth in C. S. Lewis' The Last Battle.)
The story suggests what Jesus teaches elsewhere, that everyone who shows mercy will also receive mercy. And it raises for us the question: "To whom does God want us to show mercy today?"