The Parable of the “Good Samaritan” is perhaps the best known story of the Bible. It is remembered as an inspiring story about responding to the crisis of others. Charitable organizations and emergency travelers services often use “Samaritan” in their title. Responding to the crisis of others will be always be the enduring and popular meaning of this story. But as people of faith it is important to remember that the deeper and more fundamental questions in this story are: (a) “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (or “How can I be assured of a place in the Kingdom of God?”); and (b)”Who is my neighbor?” These were both questions of theological debate but at an elementary level these were questions assumed answered in the Law and its traditions. Clearly there is a game going here. A game between a formally trained scholar in the Mosaic Law who is also a temple official and a peripatetic lay teacher of dubious training and no official status.

Luke, the writer of this Gospel, states up front that the antagonist in this story asked this question only to “test” Jesus. This legal scholar’s purpose is to “challenge” Jesus and his teaching in front of his audience. Everyone in the crowd knew the traditional teaching, that eternal life was promised the “community of God.” And the community of God would be composed of Jews faithful to the law. That is why the scholar recited the summary of the law: “You shall love God will all your heart, soul, strength and mind.” It was an abbreviated way of saying the answer is in the Law.

But, it was not just the Law that burdened the everyday person but the systems of codes, practices and interpretations of the Law advanced by the religious bureaucracy. I once saw a cartoon in which Moses was standing at the foot of Mt. Sinai holding in his hands two tablets of stone. Behind him were mounds and mounds of other tablets. “The good news,” says Moses, “is that in my hands are ten commandments. The bad news is that behind me are the codes, regulations and interpretations.”

The laws that defined the community was this temple lawyer’s business and he had no doubt that he was a bona fide member of the elect community. The unspoken challenge in this story was how does Jesus know, or even the crowd know, that they are part of the community of God? That is why the question, “Who is my neighbor?” was so important. If Jesus answered, “Those who keep the Jewish Law,” he would confirm adherence to rules and practices as the way into God’s Kingdom.

On the other hand, if Jesus gave an unconventional answer, such as the conversion of the heart as the criteria for membership in God’s kingdom, then he would be seen as either one ignorant or disrespectful of the traditional teachings of the community and thus not an inheritor of eternal life in God’s Kingdom. So, as you can see, there is a game going on here.

And the crowd is listening intensely. They are listening not simply for the sport of debate. Rather, they know that they have not been able to understand or keep the many religious law and practices. In fact that is why they had gathered to hear Jesus in the first place. They were wondering if there was any hope that they might still be “inheritors of eternal life.” Was there any assurance, any hope? So what is Jesus to do? How should he answer? Well, as you know, he tells a story.

At one level the story was immediately indicting of established religion and piety because Jesus used two highly visible officials of Temple Religion. The one a temple priest, the guardian of ritual and ceremony; and the other a Levite, a powerful lay leader and teacher of the temple. If Jesus were making this parable today he would probably use an Episcopal Priest and a Southern Baptist Deacon. The crowd understood the symbolism of such titles and status. They also understood that the purity laws could have kept such high religious officials from touching someone who might possibly be dead. So although humored there was no surprise at this level.

But what no one could anticipate is that the good guy would be a Samaritan. The logical third person in such stories would be a pilgrim or worshiper traveling to Jerusalem for worship. But never a Samaritan. Even the crowd is no longer humored. The animosity between Jews and Samaritan was great (John 4:9, 20; Luke 9:52-54).

Judah was the only one to survive the Babylonian captivity. Only the tribe of Judah survived the Babylonian exile. That is why Israelites or Hebrews are referred to as “Jews” or Jewish. But the Samaritans (primarily from an area called Samaria) who claimed to be descended from the “lost tribes of Israel.” The Samaritans had a different version of the Pentateuch or Mosaic Law, were racially mixed and had different religious customs. For example, their religious holy city was Shiloh rather than Jerusalem (John 4:20). Again, if Jesus were telling the story today not only might he use an Episcopal Priest and a Baptist Deacon (a combination humorous but appropriate to established Christianity) but a conventional Christian crowd might be less humored if the moral hero was identified as a Mormon (Salt Lake City rather than Canterbury or Rome, the Book of Mormon as an addendum to the Bible, baptisms of dead ancestors, etc.). But I believe Jesus might well have used such a contemporary twist as a Mormon (or even a Jehovah’s Witness) in place of a Samaritan.

But once the shock was over, the lawyer and the crowd realized that this Samaritan is not distinguished as a moral hero by his race or religion or social class; he is not even parabolicly exalted by his act of kindness. Rather, Jesus venerates the spirit with which the Samaritan is moved to this proverbial act.

Jesus says the Samaritan has pity. Some other versions translated the Greek word eu-splanch-nos as compassion rather than pity. I prefer compassion because in English pity has a condescending tone to it, a feeling sorry for a less fortunate. Eu-splanch-nos, however, makes it clear that this Samaritan response is not condescension or moral duty, nor just a feeling sorry for. Rather this is a response emanating from the Samaritan’s character of spirit, from the very quality of his being. Jesus’ makes it clear that this is a person with a compassionate heart that effects the way he sees the world and others. It is not what he does that distinguishes him but the eyes thorough which he sees the beaten man.

The popular biblical scholar and teacher Marcus Borg says that the Hebrew root of the word compassion is womb, denoting a common human kinship. To use this maternal reference to God is to suggest that the one possessing this virtue sees others as kinspersons, as sisters and brothers; to see beyond race, social standing, religion or condition. The Samaritan was a member of the community of God because he saw a part of himself lying there on the road, he saw a neighbor and kinsman. We must remember that if it is God’s community then God determines our neighbors, those who share in the Kingdom. Membership in that larger divine fellowship is not determined by denomination, religious traditions, moral codes or race and social status. Rather anyone who allows God to change their hearts is a member in the mission of God: to heal, to reconcile, to nurture the spark of faith and bring others in to the Kingdom of God’s love

Sadly, we live in a world in which kinship is the last thing we see in one another (if we see it at all). We see differences and distinctions—race, gender, culture, social standing and condition. Seldom do we see or even look for the common spark of our humanity, that divine gene that binds us to one another. Whether in a Brooks Brothers suit or Ann Taylor dress or in panhandlers rags; whether gray hair rinsed blue or blond hair dyed orange, there is a common spark, a divine gene, souls created lovingly from the womb of God. God longs for us to reach out to others because we share this divine vision.

A few years ago I was in the food court at the 30th Train Station in Philadelphia. It had been a day of meetings with a National Cathedral Association chapter in that region, and I met with a few Cathedral donors and spent the evening representing the Cathedral at a convention in the civic center. I arrived at the train station exhausted and all I wanted was a quiet corner and something to eat. I bought a sandwich, found a secluded corner table. While eating a vagrant came in, wondered a bit, looking around the court.

Like everybody else I avoided making eye contact or acknowledging him. I even pulled up my coat around my neck so he would not see my clergy collar. After meandering through a few tables he came up to me and said loudly, “Reverend, I need money for my wife.” Everybody was watching. I wanted to ignore him. I told him I would buy him something to eat but I don’t give out money. He said to me more loudly, “What, you don’t trust me?” Embarrassed and anxious, I repeated, “I’ll buy you something to eat, but I won’t give you money.”

“Okay!” he said with surprising and cheerful resolve. We hurried to the closest concession stand, I quickly gave the clerk my spending limit, accepted the panhandler’s thanks and rushed back to my sandwich, table and solitude, relieved that it was over.

A few minutes later, the man reappeared at my table with his food. He put out his grubby white hand and gently said, “My name’s Bill. What’s yours?” Reluctantly I shook his hand. And then to my horror, he sat down at my table to dine with me. After a few moments of starring at the table we looked up and both started to laugh.

I laughed because realized that the Christ who ate with sinners and outcast, who reached out to lepers and beggars was speaking to me. I could not get off as cheap as the price of a sandwich. Yes, in the language of Matthew 25:35, I gave a hungry man a sandwich. But in my spirit he was not my neighbor, not my kinsman, not my brother, not my equal before God. Christ was telling me that this man was as much my kinsman as the Cathedral friends and donors and the fine convention-goers with whom I had earlier shared my day. “Nathan,” God says to me, “can you see the common spark of humanity, the divine gene that binds you to this man?”

So there we sat, just two children of the same womb and equally loved by God: the dean of the National Cathedral and an old panhandler sharing table together. Sharing a communion as holy as any we will share here in this Cathedral today, because Christ was present, broken and resurrected. Present to remind us both of God’s everlasting love for all God’s children. And before I left for my train I reminded him of God’s love for him and we prayed together even as our eyes were filled with tears. I hope that he was changed. I know that I was.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu says, “More important than being my brother’s keeper is knowing that I am my brother’s brother.” This is the end of Christian religion. Not the ritual or the doctrine or discipline. The end of our religion is to guide us into a daily experience of conversion that causes a change in essence of our being, in our hearts.

True religion nurtures us into a life pilgrimage with God where we see more and more through the eyes of God and not the eyes of the world. This is what St. James meant regarding true and charitable religion being undefiled by the world (James 1:27). The answer to the question answered in the parable is not “Who is a member of the people of God” but “How do people of God see and act in the world?”

In a moment we will share the body of Lord Jesus whose love and compassion knew no boundaries. As we leave this Cathedral and go out into the world that “God so loved…” this holy sacrament nourishes us to see the world through the eyes of God, as did he. </P