The story of the Good Samaritan is not first and foremost a story that teaches us as Christians how to behave. I’ll just say that again. The story of the Good Samaritan is not first and foremost a story about we as Christians should behave. But growing up this is what I thought it was about. I was taught that I was to be like the Samaritan and show mercy. However, by being taught this understanding I believe I have been somewhat betrayed. I know that this is a big call but I say this because I believe that without listening to the interaction between Jesus and the lawyer we totally lose the plot and reason for the story and we lose the message of grace.
The story from Luke of Jesus’ interaction with the lawyer is about that interaction and the story of the Good Samaritan is a lesson for the lawyer himself. Whilst the Samaritan remains the focal character it is the lawyer and the man who is robbed that we need to pay a little more attention to in order that we might understand who we are, who God is and what God has done for us.
So, let’s start by thinking about the lawyer. The lawyer is probably a Pharisee, one who studied the law of Israel. He is a Biblical scholar and when he comes to Jesus he comes as an adversary. The lawyer came to ask questions because he wanted to test Jesus. This man was there to try to show Jesus up. The heart of his question is not about how he will inherit eternal life but whether or not he can trap Jesus. Notice though that there is an assumption made in the question which is that he has to do something to inherit eternal life.
But Jesus isn’t keen to play the game that the lawyer is setting him up for. Jesus’ responds to the question with his own question, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” Jesus asks the question probably knowing full well that the lawyer will have a good answer and he does. “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 niehbour as yourself.”
No problems here the lawyer is right, this is what the law teaches. The lawyer answered Jesus using the scriptures Deuteronomy 6:5 “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” Combined with Leviticus 19:18: “Love your neighbour as yourself.”
Now we need to be careful here because some interpretations of the interaction automatically go ‘Aha!’ the laws that the lawyer point to are relational. So then it is more about the relationship than the law. There is some truth in this but we need to understand that the lawyer is answering Jesus’ from his perspective. He sees these things as laws, and they are, and he is right, to inherit eternal life one must obey these laws and perfectly!
This of course is a hitch because no one obeys the law perfectly but the lawyer must think that he does because he then seeks to justify himself by asking another question. His first question was a tester for Jesus, could he trap Jesus? That hadn’t really worked. So the lawyer’s second question is about confirming his own goodness. One might wonder if he thought, ‘I can’t trap Jesus but at least I can make myself look good’.
From his perspective the lawyer knew whom his neighbours were - Israelites. In Leviticus 19:18 the term used for neighbour is a synonym for brother. And who is my brother - none other than those who share my blood - other Jews. The development of the Jewish laws that arose around the Torah reflected this ideal. The neighbour is my fellow Jew, and to a lesser extent those ‘aliens’ who live among us and with us.
This is the context of Jesus’ telling the parable. The lawyer isn’t really asking about how to inherit eternal life. Rather he is asking Jesus’ to confirm his goodness. As we have already seen he has already failed to trap Jesus. And now the lawyer is trying to save face.
Jesus responds with a parable. Now a parable in the Jewish tradition, from which Jesus’ spoke, is a mystery story that reveals something of God. In the context of Jesus’ life, Jesus parables are a part of the revelation of who he is and how he comes among us bringing God’s grace. The concept that a parable is simply a story that has a moral at the end of it is a more naïve interpretation of Jesus’ parables. Jesus parables are more often about revealing something about his presence.
So what happens in the story? Remembering the key question is ‘who is the neighbour of the lawyer’?
A man, undoubtedly a Jew, is travelling the road from Jericho to Jerusalem and is attacked. He is left broken and bleeding beside the road. A man comes travelling past, he is a priest, and seeing a fellow Jew on the ground he skirts by on the other side. We can make all sorts of assumptions and judgements as to why we think that he passed by but in the end we do not really know. Jesus is probably playing with his audience a little bit here for they would have assumed all sorts of reasons. For example touching the man would have made the priest unclean. Even though the priest is a neighbour by the lawyer’s standards the priest walks by.
Likewise a Levite, also a holy man, travels by and when he came to the place the man was he passed by on the other side too. Remember this man will die if he doesn’t get help. The very laws that Jesus affirmed at the beginning may in fact also be the laws that are holding back these fellow Jews, these brothers, these so-called neighbours from helping the man.
The story could have got predictable then. What we need to come over the hill is an ordinary Jew, and this would make Jesus’ story an attack on the Pharisees and the legalism of Judaism. But who comes over the hill - a Samaritan, technically a dire enemy to the Jewish people.
Just stop for a moment and consider who you may have been taught to hate as a child. Where were told not to go and who were told not to hang around? Maybe it was based on religion? Catholics? Muslims? Maybe it was ethnic or racial? Maybe Poms or New Zealanders? Greeks? Vietnamese? Chinese? Aboriginals? Negros? Maybe it was based on behaviour or life choices. Prostitutes? Drug Users? This is a little confronting but many of us are taught prejudices and racism early on in life. Whoever you have a secret hatred or dislike for, people whom your deepest fears and loathing are about, that is who is coming over the hill.
And, as we know, the Samaritan helped the man. He was moved with pity. He bandaged the man. He put oil on his wounds. He placed him on a donkey. He took him to an inn. He placed him there and paid for him. And not only that! He also promised to pay whatever it cost so that the man would be fully healed. He promised to pay whatever it cost so that the man could be fully healed.
“Who is the neighbour?” Jesus asks the lawyer. The answer is obvious, the answer is the Samaritan. It is the one who is the adversary of the man who was robbed. But the story is not just about who the neighbour is; it is about who needed the neighbour. The man who was robbed, the one who was helpless, the one who needed mercy and could not save himself is the lawyer. Jesus is pointing out that the lawyer is not justified by his actions but is in need of mercy. And moreover, the one whom the lawyer saw as his adversary is the one who brings him that mercy.
Jesus is the Good Samaritan. Jesus is the one who is able to come and bring help to this broken and battered and bruised man who cannot help himself. What can the lawyer do to inherit eternal life? Jesus parable reveals that the lawyer can do nothing to save himself but that he can rely on God’s mercy. Jesus reveals that the lawyer despite his knowledge of the law, of loving God and loving the neighbour, still stands in need of mercy. This is the heart of the story that we cannot earn our way into eternal life it is a gift of God’s grace. As Christians the only person that we can fully identify with in the story is the lawyer, the one who sees Jesus as his adversary.
We behave like the Pharisee. We ask the same questions for our own ends. How will I get into heaven? Am I doing the right things? Do I help the right people? Can I do it myself? Who is my neighbour? We walk past people in great need everyday. All of us do. As much as we think we are friends of Jesus’ and that we love God our love is marred by our inability to see this and we cannot alter that situation through what we do.
And like the lawyer because we can’t do it ourselves we too see Jesus as our adversary, although I would suggest that most of the time we are ignorant of this. Jesus prayer from the cross reflects this as he says, “Father forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Even though we are unaware of our own sinfulness God’s will for us revealed in Jesus Christ is forgiveness. The promise of God is that the Samaritan has come down to us and helped us, that Jesus brings healing and that God was prepared to help us whatever the cost.
This is God’s mercy and it is because of this mercy that we can come into God’s presence giving thanks and praise. Today when we gather around the table we do that. You can never be good enough by what you do to share at the table. We come not because we love God so much as that God has loved us from all eternity. Today we will pray a prayer that reminds us of this, “We do not presume to come to your table merciful Lord trusting in our own righteousness but in your great and manifold mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table. But you Lord are the same Lord whose nature is always to have mercy.”
The story of the lawyer and his question shows to us that despite our perceived goodness we are in desperate need of God’s love and mercy. When Jesus says go and do likewise, I believe that he is saying to the lawyer “Go realising your own need of mercy and use that as the yardstick for whom you recognise as your neighbour. Not because that will save you but because I have brought you salvation.” We love because God first loved us! Only when we see our own need of mercy and God’s grace for us can we stretch out in fellowship to others, accepting them as fellow pilgrims on the road in need of God’s mercy.
We cannot ‘do’ something to inherit the kingdom but we have been invited to enter into God’s eternity and live by what has been done for us. As the Church in the world our role is to reflect God’s mercy shown to us by sharing that with others so that they too may know the joy of salvation, the wonder of grace, and that God loves us even though we treat God so often as our enemy.