love in all the wrong places? #GoodSamaritan

This week there was a story about a Good Samaritan in Windsor, Ontario. A house was on fire, and one of the residents couldn’t make it out through the front door. He had to break out a window on the second floor and then climb onto the roof. But from there, as the fire spread he didn’t know how he was going to get down. At that moment, some guy in a pickup truck was driving by – he happened to have a ladder on his truck. The driver stopped, set up the ladder to the roof, and the man stuck on the burning house was able to get down. The story concludes: “Then the Good Samaritan disappeared.”

This is how the phrase Good Samaritan is understood in our culture, isn’t it? Someone does a good deed completely out of the blue. The Good Samaritan is a stranger who stops to help in a situation of crisis, even though they don’t know the person in need and even though they won’t get anything in return. Often the Good Samaritan remains anonymous – they do their thing and then just fade away into the woodwork.

This general idea of a Good Samaritan certainly gets at part of what is happening in our passage from the Luke this morning. At the centre of this parable is someone who offered support to another in need – care to someone who was beaten and left for dead. At the centre of this parable is someone who helped a stranger, expecting nothing in return, and then disappeared anonymously into the woodwork.

But of course there is more going on in this story. As we get into this passage the first thing we should remember is that this parable arises out of an encounter between Jesus and a lawyer. And more importantly, perhaps, this lawyer wants to trip Jesus up. What this lawyer really wants to do is to prove that Jesus is dangerous to Jewish life and faith – that Jesus’ teachings depart from the tradition. Like many of the religious leaders of his day, this lawyer sees Jesus’ teachings as a threat to their understanding of what it means to be the people of God. He wants to expose this Jesus.

The test comes in the form of a question: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life.” It’s a good question, really. And just to clarify we should know that this lawyer isn’t asking what he has to do in order to get into heaven when he dies. Rather, he is asking about the kingdom of God that will come at the end of time – he’s talking about God’s rule that will revealed at the end of the age. It’s a question of what the lawyer has to do in order to participate in that new life with God. “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

As Jesus so often does in the gospels, however, he pushes the question back onto the questioner. “Well my friend, you know our tradition. You don’t need me to tell you how you must live. You know how to live in anticipation of God’s coming rule in the world. So you tell me. What does God’s law say?

The lawyer answers Jesus: “Well, the law says ‘you shall 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 your neighbour as yourself’.” Jesus answers him: “That’s right. I told you that you didn’t need me to answer the question. You know the law. Do as you’ve said, follow this command, and you will live.”

Now the lawyer feels a bit awkward and embarrassed, perhaps. The text says that following this little exchange with Jesus, the lawyer wants to justify himself. Perhaps it means that the man wants to prove that he’s not a simpleton. “It’s not that simple Jesus, and you shouldn’t pretend it is.” Or maybe when Luke says that the lawyer wanted to justify himself he means the lawyer really wanted to know more about what he had to do earn God’s approval and favour. And so the lawyer pushes Jesus further. He seeks clarification: “But Jesus, who is my neighbour?”

If the command of God says that I must love my neighbour as myself – if the command of God says that I must treat my neighbour in the way that I want to be treated – with grace and compassion – then I need to know who my neighbour is. Who is my neighbour? Who is included in this category of ‘neighbour?’ Jesus, you need to narrow this down a little bit. Who do I have to love?”

Perhaps we are more like the lawyer than we would want to admit. Very often we also want to narrow down the definition of neighbour. We want to narrow down the scope of who is our neighbour. In our minds and in our hearts and in our calculating and in our loving that’s so often what we try to do: we try to narrow down the definition of neighbour. And we can be quite successful at this. In the end, we very often think of our neighbour as someone who is a lot like us. Our neighbour ends up being someone we are generally happy to be around. Our neighbours are those we are happy enough to live near. That’s probably what the lawyer was hoping for, of course, a sufficiently narrowed definition of neighbour that he could be comfortable with the people who ended up in that category of neighgour. Jesus, who is my neighbour?

Now in reply to the lawyer, Jesus is as unhelpful as ever. Jesus simply doesn’t answer his questions. The lawyer had asked: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said, “I’m not going to answer that. You know the answer to your question.” The lawyer asks another question, “But who is my neighbour?” And Jesus goes on to tell him a story that does absolutely nothing to answer his question. Jesus goes on to tell a parable that answers a question the lawyer didn’t even ask.

We are reminded again that Jesus just isn’t this pleasant figure who answers our questions on our terms. Jesus simply isn’t this easy-going figure who lets us think we know which questions matter and which questions don’t matter. He pushes us beyond where we are, according to his sense of what is true to the kingdom of God.

Of course we are familiar with this parable that Jesus tells in not answering the lawyer’s question – it is the story of a man who was on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho. In a wilderness area that was notorious for attacks on travelers, this man happens to have been attacked – he is beaten and robbed. And a priest, one who served in the worship of God’s people at the temple, a priest going down that same road came upon the man lying there, but he passed by on the other side of the road and continued on his way. Later a Levite, one who also served at the temple, though not as a priest, also came by – but he too passed by on the other side of the road.

Why did these two pass by on the other side of the road? Why didn’t they stop and help? We don’t know exactly why. Whatever the reason, they chose not to worry about this bleeding and beaten man. We don’t know exactly why, but for some reason the priest and the Levite decide that they just don’t want to get involved.

But along comes a Samaritan, and although the Jews and the Samaritans live in hostility with one another, although the Jews and the Samaritans are in a way enemies, this Samaritan stops to help the man left for dead. In this parable of Jesus, recounted only in Luke’s gospel, there is a rich description of the care that is offered. We read that the Samaritan poured wine and oil on the man’s wounds to clean them – he bandaged the man’s wounds – he put the man on his own animal, and brought him to an inn. And he didn’t just dump him there at the inn – no, he also left financial resources so the man could be nursed back to full strength. He promised the inn keeper that he would be back and would repay whatever was needed to care for this man. Luke offers a rich and full story of loving care offered by the Samaritan traveler, offered to this Jewish man beaten and left for dead.

With this story, Jesus turns everything on its head. The Lawyer wanted to know – “Who is my neighbour?” He wanted to have a clear set of guidelines so he would know who exactly he had to love. But instead of answer that question, Jesus tells this story. And at the end of the story Jesus asks: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

For Jesus the most important thing is not to clarify who exactly is my neighbour. The important thing isn’t to set out clear guidelines about who is my neighbour and who is not my neighbour. No, the most important question for Jesus is whether I will be a neighbour. Instead of asking whether he is someone I should help. Instead of asking whether she is someone I should care for. Instead of asking whether he is someone who I should love as I love myself. Instead of asking any of those questions, I should rather ask myself: “Will I be a neighbour?”

Will I be a neighbour?

Will I live in the mercy and grace of Christ?

Will I extend his healing and friendship?

Will I be a neighbour?

Something very interesting happens at the end of this story. Jesus has asked the lawyer that question: “Who was a neighbour to the man left for dead?” And in reply to the question, the Lawyer says this: “The one who showed him mercy.” The lawyer understands. It was not the priest who was a neighbour to the man in need. It was not the Levite who was a neighbour to the man in need. No, it was the ‘other guy’ who was a neighbour to the man in need.

What’s interesting here, is that Jesus has clearly identified the third character as a Samaritan. Jesus has clearly said in his parable that it was a Samaritan who poured wine on the wounds, a Samaritan who bandaged the wounds, a Samaritan who put the man on his animal, a Samaritan who provided all of the care that the beaten man needed. But we remember the deep hostility and animosity between the Jews and the Samaritans. In that particular context, there was no respect for Samaritans, to put it mildly.

When the Lawyer says, “It was that other guy who was the neighbour,” it’s almost as if he can’t quite bring himself to say it was a Samaritan who acted as a neighbour. It’s almost as if he can’t bring himself to acknowledge that a Samaritan would be capable of offering such loving care – it’s like he can’t bring himself to acknowledge that a despised Samaritan could live according to the way of God’s kingdom.

Almost certainly, when Jesus said that the lawyer must love his neighbour as himself – almost certainly when the lawyer asked: “But who is my neighbour?” – almost certainly the lawyer would have excluded the Samaritan from that category of neighbour. No, the lawyer was looking for a more comfortable set of neighbours that he could love. Not those foreigners. Not those people who make me uncomfortable. Not those people who are so different. Not those people who behave like that. Not those people hold to those beliefs. I don’t want to love them as I love myself. They are not my neighbour.

But with this parable Jesus is saying: The one you don’t want for a neighbour; the one you want to exclude; the one you don’t want to waste time speaking with; the one you would rather not live next to; the one you despise and mock – that one is more truly a neighbour than you are. In fact, you can learn from him or her, how to be a neighbour.

That’s very often the way it is with the kingdom that Jesus is bringing to our world. The kingdom of Jesus, the way of the risen Jesus, springs up in the most unexpected of places – where we don’t think it can possibly appear – and sometimes where we don’t really want it to appear.

It can appear in the life of a Samaritan, of all people.

It can appear in the life of a family member we despise.

It can appear in the midst of a culture that we’d prefer to keep at a distance.

It can appear in the life of someone we consider an enemy.

It is, after all, the kingdom of God – it is not our kingdom. The mercy and compassion and forgiveness and joy of Christ can appear in the most unlikely of places, because God is at work drawing all people to himself – even those we might despise, and those we might prefer to marginalize in our lives. Our task is to see and to celebrate and to embrace this appearing of Christ’s kingdom. Our task is to open ourselves to all people, for in them and through them the grace of God may appear in our world and our neighbourhood and our lives.

This parable of Jesus is not about figuring out who is our neighbour and who is not our neighbour. This parable of Jesus is not even a call for us to become a Good Samaritan – it is not a call to offer help in a moment of crisis, expecting nothing in return. This parable of Jesus is a reminder that the kingdom of Jesus is coming to our world – his compassion, his grace, his joy, his forgiveness, his love – and that it may appear even in the lives of those we despise or dislike or would marginalize. We open to them, and to his kingdom. And with them, we must learn to be a neighbour.

And now to the one God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus, now and always. Amen.

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