Often we hear the story of the Good Samaritan referenced on the news without even realizing its source (or the source noted). The news may be about an accident and the reporter comments, “A Good Samaritan stopped to offer assistance.” And we’ve probably seen more than one “Good Samaritan Hospital” in our travels. You may be, or know someone who is, involved in “Samaritan” ministry. Who knows how many trillions of dollars in charitable giving this one story from Jesus has inspired over the years? More than that, it has inspired countless acts of human kindness that has made our world a more livable place.
Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan in response to a question posed by an expert—a scholar of the Law – who had been brought in to “test” Jesus.
In Luke’s Gospel we read of an escalating tension between him and the religious establishment of his day. Jesus was offering an alternative to their social ethic and they could not help but notice that he seemed to be very confused about who was in and who was out.
In Chapter Five, Jesus invited a tax collector to be one of his disciples. He then proceeded to attend a party attended by several tax collectors and sinners.
In Chapter Six, Jesus healed a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath in the synagogue.
In Chapter Seven, Jesus healed the servant of a Roman Centurion.
He attended a dinner party in the home of a prominent Pharisee. That was fine. But at the party Jesus allowed a sinful woman to weep at his feet, and then proceeded to indicate that she was behaving more appropriately than his host!
In Sunday’s Gospel from Luke, Chapter 10, a legal expert comes to ask a critical question in the hope of getting Jesus to incriminate himself. He asks: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Luke tells us this question is a test, not a personal inquiry. The expert wants to see if Jesus provides a response that agrees with the teachings of the Pharisees.
Annoyingly, Jesus answers the question with another question: “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?”
There are a number of ways the expert might have responded, but, to his credit, he goes right to the heart of things. He quotes a passage of scripture that is the very heart of Jewish devotion: the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. “ (Deuteronomy 6:4,5). Of course, faith in the One God also has ethical dimensions so the scholar is wise to add “and love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18). Jesus says, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.” Thus far the expert and Jesus seems to be on the same page. Nothing was ever this easy with the Pharisees!
But, wishing to “justify himself”, the Pharisee asks, “Who is my neighbor?”
Jesus does not answer with a definition but instead answers by telling a story– the story of the Good Samaritan. This beautiful passage shows how the answer must come from the heart, not the head.
After sharing the story of extravagant mercy from an unexpected source, Jesus asks the expert, “Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?”
The Jewish legal scholar could not bring himself to use the “S” word (Samaritan) and so replied, “The one who treated him with mercy.” Jesus responds, “Go and do likewise.”
Jesus defined neighbor based on need, not on kinship. In doing so, he provided a definition of love that was broader than anything previously considered by the Pharisees.
Jesus showed us what love looks like. It jumps over what is fair to give what is needed. It costs us more than we were planning to spend. It keeps us longer than we were planning to stay. It is risky, self-sacrificial, and does not stop to ask if the person is worthy.
In telling this story, Jesus is pointing toward the very kind of love he would exemplify on the Cross; while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
Lord, give us hands that help as well as lips that pray!