25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
27 He answered, “‘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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
Recently a representative from a Mennonite organization sat down with me and our church’s finance committee to introduce us to a program that they have to assist people that are in need of healthcare and cannot afford it. I think that it is a wonderful program and I hope that we as a church can contribute to that program in the upcoming fiscal year.
However, I think that this program might be misnamed. They call it “The Good Samaritan Fund,” obviously, named after the story from our text for this morning. On one level this makes sense as we are being asked to give toward the medical needs of others, just as the Samaritan man from Jesus’ parable gave to help this fallen stranger. But the organization that we were asked to give to is a Mennonite organization seeking to pair Mennonite churches with Mennonites in need. Again, I think that is a beautiful thing, but it misses an important aspect of the story of the Good Samaritan. It misses the fact that the Samaritan was not a Jewish man helping out a fellow brother in the faith. He was helping out a man that was considered an outsider, a person of a different tribe, nation, and family. The program where Mennonites help other Mennonites is a wonderful thing, but it fails to ask an important question that we are going to consider today: “And who is my neighbor?”
We pick up where we left off last week with Jesus sending the 72 and them returning joyfully claiming that even the demons submit to them. Jesus’ ministry is gaining traction and more people are taking notice.
In today’s text Jesus is approached by what some versions call a “lawyer.” I think that term is a bit misleading, and I am glad that the newest version of the NIV refers to him as an expert in the law. To me the word “lawyer” brings to mind Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson arguing back and forth, “I want the truth/ You can’t handle the truth!”
This expert in the law is someone who studied the Torah or “law,” the first five books of what we call the Old Testament. The expert in the law was what we might call a bible scholar. This guy would have been like what Walter Brueggemann or Terence Fretheim are today.
So this bible scholar comes to Jesus and asks him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus then turns the question back on this scholar in verse 26, “‘What is written in the Law?’ he replied. ‘How do you read it?’”
When Jesus asks “How do you read it?” he is not asking if the scholar reads it standing up or sitting down, in the morning or the evening. What Jesus is asking here is a question of interpretation. How do you interpret the Torah? So for those who think that the Bible is a simple book of answers that does not require interpretation, just remember this passage. Jesus is asking this scholar for his interpretation on a series of difficult teachings. And if that isn’t enough to show you that the Bible does indeed require interpretation, just read how the man answers and note that Jesus tells him that he has answered correctly. This is surely a passage that requires some interpretation! But I digress.
The scholar then replies by giving what Jesus calls elsewhere the greatest and the second greatest commandment. The scholar says “‘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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (v. 27).
To this, Jesus says, “You got it correct. Do this and you will live.”
But the scholar wanted more information. Verse 29 says that he wanted to “justify himself” so he asked “who is my neighbor?”
That seems like a pretty good question to me. Who is my neighbor? Obviously the people living on either side of my house are my neighbors. The people across the street are my neighbors. But what about the people on the next street over or on the other side of town? Surely the people in Waynesboro or Stuarts Draft are not my neighbor, are they?
In saying that he wanted to justify himself, Luke seems to be suggesting that this scholar does not love indiscriminately. He loves the people right around him. But he wants to know how far away can someone live and still be called a neighbor? He knows the law says to love your neighbor as yourself, but this scholar seems to want to justify only loving those right around him while being able to neglect and perhaps despise those who live a little further away. He was mostly interested in the letter of the law, and not the spirit of the law. It is kind of like he is asking Jesus, “What is the bare minimum number of people that I have to love to enter into eternal life?”
See if this sounds familiar. In the first century, people often formed groups or tribes. If you were from our tribe, group, or city, you were okay. You were a part of “us.” Perhaps you were someone I would be able to “love.” But even within Judaism there was division. There were people who were in and people who were out; those groups we call “them.” There were people worthy of our love and people who were not. We love the “us” group, but do we really need to love “them?”
Just look at the first chapter of the book of John where we find Jesus calling his first disciples. We find this interesting interaction in John 1:45-46: “Philip found Nathanael and told him, ‘We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’
‘Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?’ Nathanael asked.”
The thing that makes this text even more interesting is that it took place in Galilee, the home of Nathanael and Philip. Many people believe that Galileans were looked down upon by their friends to the south, the Judeans. The Galileans were the dirty, blue collar fishermen. The Judeans were the upper class, educated professionals.
So Philip and Nathanael were saying, “Yeah, we are Galileans, but at least we aren’t from Nazareth. We might be ‘us,’ but at least we are not ‘them.’”
It is a good thing that we no longer do this, right! No, we continue to make categories of “us” and “them.” We are tribal, national, and familial. If you are a part of our tribe, nation, or family, you are okay. If you are a part of our tribe, nation, or family, we can love you. If you are not, you are suspect or worse, guilty until proven innocent. Far too often we are like this Old Testament scholar. We are willing to love those who are on the inside. But we want to know just how much we really need to be loving those on the outside of our tribe, nation, or family.
So Jesus, as he often does, choses to answer the question of this scholar by telling a story because sometimes what is true is too big for a simple and direct answer.
We know the story, so I will just outline it here. A man is traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho when he is attacked, beaten, robbed, stripped, and left for dead. He is just lying on the side of the road, waiting for help to come in the form of either another human being or the Grim Reaper.
Two men pass this man in need. The first was a priest, the second a Levite. Both would have been important men with roles and responsibilities in the synagogues of Jericho. So when Luke emphasizes that these men crossed to the other side of the road, I assume that he is stating that they wished to stay ceremonially clean so that they could participate in temple and synagogue rituals. If this man lying on the ground was in fact dead and they came in contact with him, they would be ceremonially unclean for seven days (Num. 19:11). So really, avoiding this man in need was what was best for the entire Jewish community, right?
Notice again who the hero of this story is. A Samaritan. Samaritans were not Jewish, but they did share common ancestry with the Jews. The Samaritans were descendants of the Northern Tribe of Israel who had intermarried with other people groups.
There were some theological differences between the Samaritans and the Jews, for sure. But some believe that the name “Samaritan” comes from a Hebrew word meaning “Keepers of the Law” (Anchor Bible Dictionary).
So Samaritans and Jews weren’t all that different. But they were different enough to be classified as a “them.” And the Jews hated “them.” And let’s be honest, “they” hated the Jews.
Now let us not read more into what I am saying or what Jesus was saying than is actually there. Jesus is not saying that every religion is “right” or that there is no significant difference between these people groups. The question from the bible scholar had nothing to do with what religion a person was practicing. What Jesus was asked was “Who is my neighbor.” And in order to expand the scholar’s understanding of the neighbor, Jesus chose a people group to whom this Jewish man would likely not choose to be neighborly.
On a recent trip from NoVa, my family and I were traveling good-old 81 S, with all of the trucks and other passenger vehicles, at break-neck speeds. I tend to have a heavy foot and I am of the mind that if you do not keep up with traffic on 81, you are actually more in danger than if you travel at these high speeds.
Many of you surely know that the speed limit on 81 was raised to 70 miles per hour in the last couple of days. That’s fast. But I tend to go just a little over the speed limit. Not so fast that I will get a ticket if I don’t see the police officer sitting in the median before he sees me, but just a little faster to satisfy my inner NASCAR driver. Five MPH over the limit is pretty normal for me.
So I am traveling at about 75 MPH heading south on 81, just north of Harrisonburg when a red car with New York plates flies around me. When this happens I tend to say things like, “Humph, I’m already going too fast. You, sir/madam are out of control.” If I’m going fast, you probably don’t need to be going faster. That’s one of the things that tick me off when driving the interstate.
But then this same guy goes and breaks rule number two: don’t go slow in front of me in the fast lane.
We have a term for people who drive slow in the fast lane, we call them “cruise breakers.” You know how it is when you are driving along the interstate with your cruise control on, your feet relaxing on the floorboard. Then, some guy decides he needs to pass a truck, which is going about 1 MPH slower than him, pulling out in front of you. You tap the brake pedal and the driver is a “cruise breaker.”
So on this particular day, the same red car from NY that flew past me moments earlier was now slowing way down, causing me to unset my cruise control. I know, it doesn’t take much to upset me, and this was more than enough to get the job done. Moments later he floored it and pulled away again.
I don’t know if he was trying to race, if he was distracted, or just what, but this cycle occurred at least two more times. He would fly past me, slow way down until I passed him, and then fly past me again.
As we are getting into the Harrisonburg City Limits this driver passes me again, probably going at least 85 MPH. Now if you travel these roads often you will know that though the interstate speed limit was raised to 70 MPH for most of I-81, when you are in the city limits, the speed limit drops to 60. I knew that, so I dropped my speed to 65. The guy in the red car, however, must not have seen the sign.
Blue lights flash, a police car ensues, and I feel a little bit of satisfaction in knowing that this lawless individual is about to receive a hefty fine. They have a term for driving 85 in a 60 MPH zone. It is called reckless driving.
I honked a friendly honk as I drove past.
I don’t have “enemies.” There are things that bother me and unnerve me from time to time, but I don’t think I would label anyone as an enemy. That’s good. But as I drove past that gentleman from New York, I recall thinking, “He got what he deserved. I hope you’ll drive normal, like me, from now on, instead of driving like a darn New Yorker.”
First of all, I already admitted that I tend to speed. I’m not perfect. But when I compare myself to others I can always find something that I do better or more correctly than they do. And second, I wonder how much my anger and frustration would have been different if the driver of the red car was someone that I knew and cared for personally. Perhaps my brother or a cousin.
If it was my brother or a cousin, I would have been less angry by their actions and instead worried for their safety and the safety of others. When the police pulled this driver over, if it was my cousin or brother, perhaps I would not be saying, “You got what you deserve” and instead would say “I hope this helps you drive more safely.”
The story of the Good Samaritan is not just a story about caring for those in need. Indeed it is that, but it is more. The story of the Good Samaritan is about seeing everyone as your neighbor, not as a member of a different tribe, group, or family. And as Jesus tells us, loving your neighbor as yourself is the second most important commandment that we have been given.
Who is your neighbor? I’ll give you a hint. It has nothing to do with one’s geographical location or relationship to you. Being a neighbor is something that you do. It is your disposition towards another. It is seeing people as Jesus sees them and not as an “us.”