Fifth Sunday after Pentecost Year C
What is the most important thing in your life? Or maybe I should ask, what are the most important values that you try to live by? Or who are the most important people in your life and how do you treat them?
So since I’m asking, how did you come to Grace, or maybe more properly how did you find yourself wanting to be a part of this particular part of the Jesus movement, called the Episcopal Church and Grace Church in particular? And maybe you’ve asked the question in your own mind and heart - or maybe out loud, something like the rich young ruler in our Gospel today – what do these Episcopalians believe about eternal life and what must I do to be a part of their group?
If you’ve asked that question and are still wondering what we might say, I hope you hear Jesus’ response to the lawyer today, because that is our response as well – love God with all that you are and love your neighbor the way you love yourself. Jesus says to the lawyer, “do this and you will live.” But now comes the more difficult question – how do we love God and our neighbor? Living those ideals is much more difficult than proclaiming them as our core values.
The author of Luke’s gospel interjects a motivational qualification to the next part of this lawyer’s exchange with Jesus – “But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus answers the lawyer’s question with a story that is one of the most familiar in the entire scripture, commonly known as The Good Samaritan. Of course we all know this story. In fact, we’re so familiar with it that the story that would have shocked Jesus’ first century Jewish audience has become innocuous to us. Even the term, good Samaritan, means the opposite of what it would have meant in Jesus’ day, because it was a contradiction in terms – there was no such thing as a “good” Samaritan.
So to help us get the context for this story you should know that the Samaritans were a group of Jews who intermarried with a non-Jewish group hundreds of years before Jesus’ day and established an alternative religious system to the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. You might use the derogatory term “half-bread” for these people’s ethnicity as well as religious heretics and traitors to the Jewish people. So you can see why there was no such thing as a “good” Samaritan.
Think what term might have that impact on us today. Of course there is probably no one term that works so well for everyone in our society as divided as we are today. Maybe we use political terms to effect the same shock – the good Democrat – our Republican friends might say there is no such thing. Or conversely, the good Republican – our Democratic friends might balk at the contradiction.
Or maybe we use religious language, the good Muslim – no they are all terrorists, or the good Atheist – how can someone who doesn’t believe in God be good? What is the group you would say the one from whom cannot be good – maybe a white supremacist or antifa? You get the idea.
Remember the question the lawyer has asked Jesus in order to justify himself in response to loving his neighbor as himself– “who is my neighbor?” So Jesus tells the story of a person who gets robbed and beaten and left for dead on the way from Jerusalem to Jericho. Everyone knew the path Jesus was talking about. Laurie and I visited this trail on our trip to the Holy Land a few months ago. It was easy to see how bandits could hide on either side of this trail up in the caves and rocky cliffs while pedestrians walked along in the valley below. And if you were by yourself it would be a dangerous trip.
So Jesus identifies two people who see the injured man and do nothing to help him, a priest and a Levite. Both of these would have had responsibilities serving in the temple at times leading religious observances and would be persons of authority who would be well-respected among Jesus’ hearers as well as the lawyer to whom this story is addressed. The priest and the Levite would have been considered “good.” Yet, they do not act as good people by refusing to help someone in need. Jesus’ hearers would also be expecting that the third person in this story would be an Israelite, not a Samaritan. It was a common convention of the time to hear stories about a Priest, a Levite, and an Israelite, much like our jokes about a Priest, a Rabbi, and a Pastor.
But along comes a person whom everyone knows is bad, a Samaritan, and that man does what is good, tasking care of the injured person, rather than killing his enemy. You see the point of Jesus’ story is to get us beyond the stereo-types and judgments we have formed about particular groups of people and discover our common humanity. The Jews of Jesus’ day only considered other Jews as their neighbors, not traitors and foreigners like the Samaritans. If you’re like me, you tend to identify with the Good Samaritan and hope that you would be as generous as he was in this story, treating the injured man as his neighbor.
But that’s not really who I am and probably not you either. Because that would mean we would be the outsider here in Siloam Springs, like the Samaritan was in Israel. We would be the traitor and the foreigner, which I’m guessing most of us are not. So that means we are either the Priest, the Levite, or the injured man who has been robbed. We are the ones who either walk on the other side of the road so we won’t inconvenience ourselves, or we are the one who has been injured and needs help.
The Jewish New Testament scholar, Amy Jill Levine says this:
“We should see ourselves not as the Samaritan but as the person in the ditch who is saying, “Who’s going to help me?” and who then realizes that the enemy, the one we think is going to kill us, is the very one who will save us.”
Because the point of the story is to answer the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus asked the lawyer, “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.”
What must we do to inherit eternal life? Love God and our neighbor, who just so happens to include those we consider to be our enemies.