You know I don’t think the lawyer in this story from Luke chapter 10 is a bad bloke. I don’t think he is very much different from any of us. Most of us at some point have asked the question that the lawyer asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” We are all worried about what happens after we die and we all want a sense that we are in control of the outcome.
In this sense the lawyer is not a lot different to you or me. And the lawyer is not doing anything abnormal in entering into debate with Jesus. Part of the ancient culture of the Jewish people was for teachers and religious people to test each other through debating their ideas. We still this do this in academic circles today. When the lawyer gets up to test Jesus the lawyer is behaving normally as a religious leader of his day.
The nuance for us to remember is that in the Old Testament the word for a legal adversary in a debate is the word Satan. This means that when the lawyer, or for that matter you and I, enter into debate with Jesus we become the legal adversary, we become Satan.
This little matter aside, the lawyer’s question is about him being in control of the outcome “what must I do?” Now Jesus answer to the lawyers question follows what is often referred to as the Socratic Method. He answers a question by asking a question. And the question he ask directs the lawyer to the Torah, the law.
The biblical scholar Amy-Jill Levine points out the twofold subtlety of Jesus questions. Firstly, Jesus does not simply ask the lawyer what is written in the Torah but how he reads it. This implies that Jesus’ understands the lawyer will give preference to particular texts. And secondly, and possibly more importantly, as Levine points out “the Torah is not much interested in eternal life or life after death. It is much more interested in how to live in the present.” Jesus shifts the conversation away from life after death to life now.
The lawyer’s choice of Deuteronomy 6:5, part of what is commonly known as the Shema Yisrael. This is placed alongside Leviticus 18:18. These are possibly some of the best know Biblical passages and Jesus affirms his choice. “You have given the right answers.” The lawyer’s understanding of the belief system in which he is embedded appears to be without fault.
Yet the lawyer is not finished because having answered rightly we are told he wants to justify himself as he asks “Who is my neighbour?” Levine points out this a more subtle way of asking, ‘Who is not my neighbour?’ The lawyer is interested in a question that most of us would want to ask who can I ignore, who can I not offer help to?
This is a difficult matter for all of us who recognise the limits of our personal resources and have probably unconsciously been seduced into the lifestyle of wealth and prosperity of the Western world. Sometimes our acts of charity are dominated by similar questions: ‘Who is my neighbour?’ ‘Who is more deserving of my help?’ ‘How much can I spare to give?’
Jesus response is the well-known parable which is often read is isolation from debate between Jesus and lawyer. When read in isolation it is often turned into a moral tale that suggests that we should be like the Samaritan – that we should help others in need regardless of their culture, race or religion. And, in itself this is not a bad lesson and has spawned many Christian societies and groups who use the name as inspiration for their charitable activities.
However, there is more to the parable than this somewhat obvious and simplistic reading of Jesus’ story. The parables always have an edge to them and this parable is told as a way of leading the lawyer and, no doubt, Jesus listeners into a new understanding of God, themselves and the world in which they live.
Now at the beginning of the sermon I suggest that the lawyer is in many ways just like any of us and as Jesus begins the parable he speaks of a person, in Greek anthropos, travelling down from Jerusalem to Jericho. This person once again is a generic figure. I appreciate Levine’s description of this person: “The person lacks identification; he could be rich or poor, free or slave, priest or lay, naughty or nice… The man is ‘some man’ or everyone.” It could be anyone amongst Jesus listeners: his disciples; the lawyer; other religious leaders; the crowd gathered; and, it could be any of us.
The randomness of the attack the person is disturbing and we might pause to wonder at why this has occurred – it appears senseless and Jesus does not seek to explain the violent act. He simply names that it occurs.
However, I would want to point out that such an act potentially robbed the person of far more than any money or goods that he was carrying. So often when we encounter suffering, whether it is at the hands of violence, or through illness, we ask the question, “What have I done to deserve this?” We make a correlation, and probably an unhelpful one, between the suffering we are encountering and our perceived goodness as a person. We are robbed of our sense of being a person of worth and value, and we are also robbed of our sense of invulnerability, and safety in the world. Our very identity and sense of worth and purpose is put into question.
The person is left helpless and vulnerable by the side of the road robbed of his goods, his dignity, his self-perception and even his hope.
Now I do not want to dwell too long on the Priest and Levite who pass by yet a couple of points need noting.
First, is that often the behaviour of these two men is explained by the need for ritual purity. In her excellent reflection on this Amy-Jill Levine points out the imperative contained within the ancient Jewish tradition that would have required these men to act and absolved them from the ramifications. Levine points out that after the 9/11 attack in New York Jewish people stood vigil until such a stage that all the dead and wounded had been removed such is their respect for those who are injured and have died. Levine goes on to described the sermon by Dr Martin Luther King who suggested that these two men passed by on the other side because they were afraid. They possibly simply wondered would the same thing happen to them if they hung around.
During the week after the shootings that occurred in the US. I saw people interviewed who had been part of the rally at Dallas where 5 police were shot. One was asked what they did when they heard the shots fired. His answer reflected his incredulity at the question “I ran”. Not many of us will run towards a place where we think there is danger and it may simply be that these two mean were fearful.
The second point to make about these two passers-by is made in relation to the one who comes next. It is a point I have been making on this passage for about a dozen years now. If Jesus was simply attacking the religious establishment the next person to turn up would have been another ‘regular’ Israelite. But Jesus’ parable has a sharper edge than this for the lawyer because Jesus’ is trying to shift the lawyer’s perception of his own identity and worth.
The next person come down the hill from Jerusalem is a Samaritan. Now the history of the relationship between the Jews and the Samaritans was one littered with animosity and violence. In the previous chapter of Luke Jesus and his disciples were not welcomed into a Samaritan village as the passed through a region. James and John suggested that they could ask God to reign down fire on the village and consume it as punishment. To coin Levine’s phrase Jesus response is that you do not respond with bombs to a refusal of hospitality. There is no doubt though that this person would have been perceived by the lawyer and anyone listening that the broken and bleeding person and the Samaritan were enemies.
As we know the Samaritan sees the person, he comes near to the person, and does everything that he can to restore the person to life. The Samaritan transcends fear with compassion.
If we skip to the end of the story Jesus’ question of the lawyer is “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the person who fell into the hands of robbers?” This question is the great reversal for the lawyer because the lawyer’s question of “Who is my neighbour?” is taken out of his hands. The lawyers neighbour is not the one who he has the power to choose but the one who comes to his aid. What Jesus effectively does is identify the lawyer with the person who had travelled down from Jerusalem.
Now one of the ancient readings of this parable which has survived the test of time is to say that if the lawyer is the person who has attacked then Jesus is the Good Samaritan’. The lawyer cannot do anything to inherit eternal life because he is helpless and bleeding and it is Christ who comes alongside us and picks us up from our broken and bleeding state and does whatever it takes that we might be healed. This is a lesson we can hold on to.
But, today, I want to highlight three important lessons Jesus is teaching the lawyer about his own identity if he is connected to the person who was attacked. The first: the lawyer is like every other person. The generic anthropos, the person who travelled down from Jerusalem, could be anyone and the lawyer is an ‘anyone’ as well. So often, as people, we like to create systems of importance and self-importance. Jesus is saying to the lawyer you are like everybody else.
Second: when the person is attacked Jesus is suggesting to the lawyer that he is not as in control as he might think. The lawyer is in need of mercy and help. The lawyer’s own sense of self-righteousness and identity is challenged as his mortality. At the beginning of the encounter Jesus had shifted the conversation away from life after death and the threat to the person’s mortality in this parable reminds us that life is valuable gift worthy of salvaging from the brink and living.
Third: when the person is helped by a Samaritan there is an interruption to the cycle of violence and the succession of hate and hurt perpetrated between Jewish and Samaritans. In the act of compassion that transcends the ancient prejudices the possibility of reconciliation and renewal appears on earth as it is in heaven.
These three lessons are lessons for all of us: all of us share in a common humanity; every one of us is need of mercy and help as we struggle to find identity in our lives; and, the age old hatreds and prejudices can be overcome when enemies are willing to transcend their fear and help each other and restore each other to life.
When Jesus says to the lawyer go and do likewise we might hear his injunction to go and act with a compassion and mercy similar to that of the Samaritan but we should also hear the challenge for the lawyer to be changed in his self-perception. Eternal life is a gift not his to control. Jesus invitation is for the lawyer to see himself as part of the hoi polloi alongside others, to understand that the lawyer himself is in need of mercy, and that we cannot choose our neighbours but need to come to understand that even our enemies are neighbours.
The truth of Jesus parable especially in terms of our tendency to define who our neighbours are not has played out in the last few days and weeks in terrible and tragic ways.
This last week has been NAIDOC week in Australia and touring the Northern Territory I was reminded again of the ancient aboriginal culture that was robbed of its identity and place when Europeans arrived. We are still on a journey towards reconciliation and reparation with our aboriginal and islander brothers and sisters.
In the US the terrible shooting by police and of police highlight an ongoing cycle of violence that needs to be interrupted. How can people cross the boundaries of race and culture to stand together to bind the wounds of that hurting nation?
In Baghdad, Iraq, 292 Muslims were killed in a suicide bombing. This is on one level a confrontation between different strands of Islam.
In our own election, and in the rhetoric around Brexit, as we see people struggle for identity the language of xenophobia and difference has emerge as a strong aspect of our discourse. The fact that more than 1 in 10 Queenslanders voted for a party that has clearly racist policies is disappointing and reflects the confusion people have when we try to define who we are by saying who are our neighbours and who are not our neighbours.
These complex issues of humanity are contained within the lessons that Jesus is giving the lawyer and to understand the hope of this story means that we have to drive ourselves to read on in the gospel. For it is only in reading on that come to see Jesus not only as the one who comes down to us, as Paul says in Philippians emptying himself to be one of us, but also as one who himself is lifted up on a cross broken and bleeding, fully identifying with the loss of identity and purpose in the helplessness of death.
If we are to be anything like the Samaritan, we must first understand that we are like the lawyer. We learn that we are part of the common people, in need of mercy, and who must learn that even our enemy is our neighbour and as we do so we also learn the lesson from 1 John “We love because God first loved us.”
Yes, the lawyer, Jesus legal adversary, Satan, is not a bad bloke – he is just like you and I. But in the story his enemy saves him and it is in this that we can find worth and identity and purpose and meaning – God’s message is a life-giving, life-restoring message as God offers to each one of us healing and hope.