God, by the grace of your Holy Spirit, may only the truth be spoken here and only the truth be heard. Amen.
Early in the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses lays down the fundamental law of Israel’s life: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord, and you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.”
This opens the Confession of Faith known as the Shema, which every adult male Jew is required to say twice a day. In the Synoptic Gospels it’s affirmed as the Great Commandment which, together with the Levitical injunction to love one’s neighbor, epitomizes the Mosaic Law.
In today’s passage, as we near the end of Deuteronomy, we hear it re-echoed as Moses reminds his followers, those very same people who have been reciting the Shema twice a day, to them he says the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart so that you can do it.
It is this teaching from Deuteronomy that provides a natural preface to the parable of the Good Samaritan. It is not, however, the first. There is another story of good Samaritans found in the second book of Chronicles. And it’s a pretty good story too. It concerns a battle between the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah, an account that would have been well known to Luke. And it goes something like this.
Ahaz was a young whippersnapper of twenty when he began to reign over Judah. And he did not do what was right in the sight of the Lord, as his ancestor David had done. So the Lord gave him into the hand of the Kings of Aram and of Israel who defeated him in battle, killing 120,000 in Judah in one day. But then, the people of Israel took captive 200,000 of their own Judean kin, including women and children, 200,000 all told. They also took much booty from them, all of which they brought to Samaria. But a prophet of the Lord was there, a Samaritan whose name was Oded, and Oded was scandalized. Oded went out to meet the army that came to Samaria, and he said to them, “Now, hear me, and send back the captives you have taken from your own kindred, for the fierce wrath of the Lord is upon you.”
Then several Samaritan chiefs who were morally outraged stood up and gave the Israelites a royal tongue-lashing for looting and enslaving their own kin, and sent them packing. Humiliated and ashamed, the Israelites left the captives and the booty, turned tail, and fled.
And then we’re told that the Samaritan chiefs got up and took the captives, all 200,000 of them, and with the booty left behind, they clothed them. They gave them sandals, provided them with food and drink, and anointed them. And then, carrying all the feeble on donkeys, they brought the captives safely to their kindred at Jericho, the city of palm trees, and returned home.
So even before today’s Good Samaritan, there were good Samaritans.
In today’s parable from Luke’s Gospel, we are told that a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. Now in fairness to your favorite attorney who may get a bad rap from time to time, the man raising the question is one that is learned in the Mosaic Law, not a Doctor of Jurisprudence. As a Biblical scholar he could reasonably assume to know far more about the Torah and Talmud than an illiterate itinerant preacher, an artisan from Galilee who teaches in folk tales and parables, food and sign and who heals the sick and the possessed with saliva, breath, and human touch.
But Luke alerts us to the lawyer’s motives and self-serving questions. Luke writes, “But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘and who is my neighbor?’”
Now, as a scholar of the Mosaic Law the lawyer surely knew his Scriptures. He could tell Jesus the history of the hermeneutic of neighbor from the time of Leviticus 19:18. “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
But Jesus, that clever and great debater, will turn the question inside out. The man who asked him the critical question was not satisfied with the simple, clear and oh-so-traditional answer—Love God and love your neighbor. What the lawyer really wanted is to know what the boundaries are. He wanted to know precisely which neighbors are included in the injunction. Who is deserving? Who is fit to be my neighbor? Who qualifies?
The lawyer may even be someone who asks questions like, “Is the tithe based on gross or net income?” Or, “Does the United Way count?” Sometimes when people ask these sorts of questions, they’re really asking a question. But sometimes, as we know, they ask to try and justify not doing what they think or know they should do. The time-honored way to ignore what God commands is to resort to the law. The question—who qualifies as my neighbor—is a legalistic question. The man asking was trying to justify ignoring those who were not disserving.
Some of you may remember the national political conversations concerning the disserving poor. This was a legalistic notion. It shifted the focus from our duty to care for the poor to who is disserving.
It put me in mind of a Dennis the Menace cartoon. As you know, Dennis is a holy terror who plagues his next-door neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Wilson. And yet somehow Mrs. Wilson is invariably kind and gracious. This particular cartoon shows Dennis and his friend, Joey, leaving Mrs. Wilson’s house with a fist full of cookies. Joey says, “Gee, I wonder what we did to deserve this?” And Dennis replies, “Look, Joey, Mrs. Wilson gives us cookies, not because we’re nice, but because she’s nice.”
So, who qualifies? Did neighbor mean a fellow Israelite which would eliminate the sojourner, the alien, and the stranger? The consistent teaching of the oldest commentaries was that the word meant only “a fellow in faith”, another Jew. Some texts came to include the alien, but this may have depended on whether the alien had become a convert.
In any case, the lawyer, a learned man, thinks he is going to be able to whip this itinerant rabbi and best him in debate.
And Jesus, as he so often does, responds with a story. We do not know anything about the battered man on the road to Jericho. He could have been a priest or a Levite himself. He could have been, for that matter, a Samaritan. We only know the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was a dangerous one. Jesus tells us the victim was stripped, so identifying clothing could not signal to the travelers who he is or what class of compassion he merited. At the time of this tale, a Samaritan would be at best a heretic in parlance of our day. At worst, he would be dismissed with the horror, resentment and disdain that we reserve today for terrorists. Today we have a media besotted with horror stories of the great Jihad against our Christians civilization, and yet our faith is in far less danger from Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists than it is from the fundamentalist zealots of our own traditions—something we seem to share in common with people of other faiths.
Now by chance, a priest was going down that road, Jesus says. By chance, not by commission, not by Divine Providence, not because he was engaged in an act of mercy. But simply by chance. He was a priest. Today members of the clergy do not have the social status they did then. We are not known for our power status or our net disposable incomes. But in the ancient world, members of the priestly class were held in high esteem. They had significant incomes and considerable social status and influence. The office of the High Priest might have been similar in stature to that of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, for instance. So when Jesus says, “Now by chance, a priest was going down that road,” he is giving the lawyer a character with whom he can identify, one that he can respect. And our lawyer would hardly have been surprised to hear that he passed by on the other side. It would not have been expected that someone of his stature would have embroiled himself in a potentially unsavory situation. Not because he was bad. By the social standards of the day, he was good. And no good upstanding citizen would frequent such an area unnecessarily or take such a senseless risk.
Although of slightly lesser stature, much the same could be said of the Levite. Moses had made the Levites the official priests in Israel. But Aaron had established his own priesthood, and over the years the privileges of the Levites passed to the Aaronic priesthood. The Levites were to that older community of faith what Deacons are to the church today. But it has not always been so. Grant Gallifer (?) reminds us that at one time the Deacons of Rome were called cardinal deacons. They chose the pope. And their successors, though seldom deacons now, are still called cardinals, second in rank only to the pope. They are the hinges that open doors and shut them, the word’s original meaning.
At the time of our tale, Levites were assisting clergy with duties particular to their quarter, we might say. Although of somewhat lesser esteem they were none the less people with means and influence. At the time of today’s narrative, both priests and Levites were well-respected, law-abiding, upstanding citizens, with a strong sense of duty. The lawyer listening to the tale would have heard nothing to alarm him. He would recognize that the priest and the Levite had places to go and things to do, laws to observe and prior commitments to keep. But the same could not be said of the Good Samaritan.
He was a heretic, a member of a hated sect, a pariah. A Samaritan would be the last person one would look to for help. At the mention of the Samaritan the lawyer seemed shocked. When asked by Jesus, “Which of these three was a neighbor?”, the lawyer could not bring himself to name him. He could only acknowledge the one who showed mercy. And what a lavish demonstration of mercy it was! He poured antiseptic wine on the broken skin, and amalian (?) oil to south the abrasions, and he proceeded to bandage his wounds. He put him on his own animal. Since the Samaritan led the animal to an Inn, this was no stallion that could carry two, but more likely a donkey with the Samaritan walking by its side. And when they arrived at the Inn, he cared for the man himself. And when he departed he provided the innkeeper with two denari, enough to cover food and lodging for several weeks, and the promise of a blank check for any additional costs.
The word is very near you, says Moses. It’s in your mouth and not just your ear that you may speak it. In your heart and not up in heaven or beyond the sea, but right here on the Road to Jericho that you may perform it. “Go and do likewise,” Jesus said. Or in the words of Nike, that great corporate giant, “Just do it!”
The story is told that in 1939 as the Nazis were moving into the Netherlands, Henry Kramer, a Dutch theologian, was asked by a group of Christians, “Our Jewish neighbors are disappearing from their homes. What should we do?” And Kramer answered, “I cannot tell you what to do, but I can tell you who you are. And if you know who you are, you will know what to do.” That band of Christians enlisted in the Dutch Resistance Movement because they knew who they were, so they knew what to do.
By our parable today Jesus says there is no love of God that does not express its love in love of neighbor. But the Bible has always taught it. Jesus added no special rules. The word of God is not sealed away in the Arc of Covenant. It is not the exclusive possession of the Church. And it is not in the hands of lawyers, judges or clergy. It is everywhere we are.
St. Francis of Assisi once said, “Proclaim the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” The Good Samaritan doesn’t seem to have found words necessary. He had The Word of God in his heart.
So who qualifies to be our neighbor? Everyone. And where do we find our neighbors? Everywhere. We find our neighbors in every place where another’s oppression meets our freedom, where another’s illness confronts our health, where another’s poverty encounters our wealth, where another’s ignorance comes face to face with our knowledge in whatever situation calls to us for compassion and for sharing. Even when we have no abundance of health or wealth or wisdom to share, the love of God is expressed every time one beggar tells another where to find bread.
Jesus turned the lawyer’s original question inside out. When the lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbor?” he wanted clear boundaries. He seems to have meant, “Who is my neighbor and who is not?” And after all, sin and sinner seem to be everywhere. And surely those who live outside the law of God live outside the law that says we should love them. If that lawyer were living in today’s world, he might well be concerned about refugees, immigrants, boat people, people with HIV-AIDS, drug-users, so-called welfare queens, Colombian drug lords or felons, to name a few. And certainly heading the list would be some of the extremists, Adolf Hitler maybe, or Mohammed Atta. Surely some of these warrant a rebuke, our contempt, our anger or our neglect. Surely some are not worthy of as much love as we might give to those we regard as more pure, more deserving and more esteemed by God.
A Native American boy was talking with his grandfather about the state of the world, and he asked the old man what he thought about it. And the grandfather replied, “I feel two wolves are fighting in my heart. One is full of anger and hatred while the other is full of love, forgiveness and peace.” “Which one will win, grandfather?” asked the small boy. And the old man replied, “The one I feed.”
The lawyer wants to know exactly who is my neighbor, and Jesus answers, “everyone.”
It’s said that when Mohandas Gandhi boarded a train one day a sandal slipped off his foot and landed beneath the train. The great Indian leader did not have time to retrieve it. So quickly, he leaned down and removed the other sandal and threw it back down the track in the direction of the first. When asked for an explanation the great man replied, “The poor man who finds the shoe lying on the track will now have a pair he can use.”
The tale of the Good Samaritan is a story about the love of God. God loves indiscriminately. God shows no partiality. God is not the least bit interested in who we think is deserving of because in fact none of us are. And yet God loves us anyway— every single, solitary one of us.
As one theologian said, “God has no taste, absolutely none.”
Paul, a more likely one of his followers, writes from prison to the Colossians, reminding them and us that God has delivered us from captivity to the power of darkness and transferred us with shiney new passports to a new jurisdiction of freedom, the freedom to serve where we are called, to rescue where we can, and to restore where we are able. And that gift of freedom allows us in the words of Jesus to “go and do likewise.”