Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “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 neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
My brother and I got into a Facebook fight the other day. Ok, so it wasn’t really a fight exactly. In fact, it was a pretty riveting argument. He’s what you might call a “secular humanist.” For my brother, everything comes down to science and genetic make up. He doesn’t believe in a soul or a spirit, but believes that we are genetically made to help those who are less-fortunate. My brother would probably deny it, but he has a huge heart, and cares deeply for people. But he sure doesn’t want to have anything to do with organized religion. So we were going back and forth via Facebook messaging, in this heavy theological and scientific discussion about humanity.
As many of you know, getting into a “discussion” like this can get pretty heated, pretty fast. At one point, my brother said, “look, calm down, this is just what I think; I don’t mean to offend.” And I replied, in all honesty, “no, no, I’m having fun!” But we did try our hardest to “trap” each other in our respective lines of reasoning. We’d have moments of sudden glory, virtually shouting “AHA!” at each other when we felt that we’d caught the other in a logical fallacy or reasoned misstep.
This is the dynamic of our relationship, though. And, my brother would be embarrassed to know that I adore him. Soon after we get into this heated theological debate, we’re joking about the new casting changes on Trueblood and our toddlers’ similar fascination with running naked in the backyard.
This is sort of like our context between Jesus and this lawyer. Or at least it’s the context from the lawyer’s perspective. He’s ready for a theological debate, an academic discussion, and a oneupmanship of intellect. This lawyer has come to Jesus loaded with his academic credentials and his commentaries, and with his systematic theology muscles flexed. He is ready to be right.
If we were there, my brother and I would be leaning in, making bets, waiting for the intellectual boxing match to begin.
But this isn’t how Jesus works, of course. In response to the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?,” Jesus tells him a story, a story, in fact, that doesn’t directly answer his question at all.
He starts with “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho...”
He might as well have said, “It was a dark and stormy night.” Or, begun with one of those scenes from those crime dramas - you know the ones that start with the woman clutching tightly to her purse while she walks alone through the dark alley in the middle of the night. No one in their right mind would have gone from Jerusalem to Jericho by themselves. You just know that they’re going to find trouble. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was full of caves - perfect places for robbers and bandits to hide, and people travelled the road in caravans, big groups, in order to protect themselves and their goods. Everybody knew this. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was notorious for bad people, bad situations, bad news. So what the heck is wrong with this guy who decides to travel this road alone? What a moron! He should know better!
So they’re all crowded around Jesus, waiting for the hero to swoop in and save the day. They want Batman or Spiderman or Wonder Woman and her gold bracelets to fall from the sky and rescue this poor idiot.
But nope. No one comes.
There is no superhero. No batmobile. No Cyclops death rays. No swift costume changes in phone booths. Jack Bauer doesn’t even land his helicopter on the roof and come down to at least kick the snot out of the robbers and avert nuclear annihilation.
The poor knucklehead gets beat up, robbed, and is left for dead.
No one is there to stop it.
Nope. The only ones to come around - too late to prevent anything if they wanted to - are those who can’t or won’t get involved. First there’s a priest - high in the hierarchy of Jewish culture. And he passes by. Next in the hierarchy is the Levite, who also just passes by. So the crowd around Jesus is ready to have a devout, but average, Jewish “Joe” come and save the day.
But no. That guy doesn’t even show up.
Nope. There’s just a Samaritan.
We may want to see ourselves in the Samaritan. But if we’re honest with ourselves, don’t you think we’re more like the Levite or the Priest? What do we think when we see the equivalent of a guy in trouble in a ditch? The panhandler on the side of the road, or the woman in tears on the bus. We think, “if we help him, he’s just going to manipulate or take advantage of me.” Or we think, “What can I do? There’s no helping this woman. She’s a lost cause.” Or, “well, if I help him now, he’s just going to become dependent and keep comin’ back for more.” Or maybe, we think, “What if I make him angry, or offend him, or help him and just make things worse in the long run?” So we just pass by on the other side.
We aren’t the hero of this story.
It’s the Samaritan.
But we could be.
The relationship between the Samaritans and the Jews was antagonistic at best. After the northern kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians, the Assyrians settled non-Jews in that region, so the Jews saw the Samaritans as half-breeds or foreigners.
And here Jesus uses a Samaritan as the hero of the story. This is a Samaritan who symbolizes the destruction of their homeland. The Samaritan who has tainted the pure Jewish line. The one who doesn’t believe any of the “right” things. The immigrant. The illegal alien.
And to top it all off, just one chapter earlier, Luke describes an incident where Jesus and his disciples are kicked out of a Samaritan village. This makes the disciples so mad that they ask Jesus if they can “command fire to come down from heaven and consume them.”
And here, with all that background baggage, Jesus makes a Samaritan the hero of the story.
It’s not just a nobody who is lauded as the hero. It’s the hated nobody. In our time, it’s the guy who cheats on his taxes or the woman who mails monthly contributions to Rush Limbaugh. It’s that rich kid who drinks and drives and habitually wrecks his parents’ car. Or the deadbeat dad who won’t pay for child support, or the person who makes those signs for Westboro Baptist Church.
This isn’t the kind of savior we want. In fact, if we were the guy in the ditch, we’d seriously consider lying there in our pool of blood to wait for a more attractive savior to come by and rescue us.
But that’s not how the story works. That’s not how God works.
We’re invited to be the Samaritan.
Jesus says, “Go, do what he does. Be that guy.”
It’s an invitation. And it’s a command.
Be that guy.
We can be what God is doing in the world.
Go and be what God is doing in the world.
Be that guy. The Samaritan.
And that means we’ll be rejected in the world just like God is. Just like Jesus was.
And we’ll have to keep saving the same bonehead from the ditch over and over again. And because we need the savior just as much as the next guy, we’ll realize that we’re the bonehead who gets saved from the ditch over and over again.
But that’s what’s so amazing about the Gospel story. We get to be the morons, the ones writhing in the ditch, the ones who make stupid choices, the ones who fail, the ones who make poor judgments and live by prejudices and even try to help and end up making an even bigger mess. And yet. God redeems it all. God embraces us all. And when we choose to be the Samaritan - to do what the Samaritan does - to care for the least of these, to realize, at the same time, that we are the least of these - we are what God is doing in the world.
It doesn’t matter if we know the right answers. It doesn’t matter if we can hold our own in a theological debate, or if we know how to spell “Ezekiel” or “Philippians” or can rattle off all the books of the Bible. It doesn’t even matter if we know how to help. What matters is that we’re here to help. We’re trying. We’re stepping up. We’re willing to get our hands dirty. Willing to waste some time listening to the ramblings of a drunk guy, or standing in line with a woman at the county service office. Or trust that the five bucks we hand to the charity or the church or the homeless man will be used well. What matters is that we’re willing to get in the ditch. Willing to see that we’ve been in that ditch all along.
We can be what God is doing in the world.
Thanks be to God.