St John’s Episcopal Church, Kirkland
Jesus’ story today might be the most cliched and familiar in the whole of Christian Scripture. The “good Samaritan” has become so part of our language that it’s lost most of its meaning. In English it’s widely used to mean the person who stops to help you change your flat in the rain. It’s associated with niceness, helpfulness, politeness. Which is fine I suppose, except that’s not actually what Jesus meant by it at all.
Jesus is teaching and one of his listeners, who happens to be an expert on religious law asks him a question. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Whether he’s testing Jesus because he really wants to know if Jesus is the sort of person he should follow or if he’s testing him to trip him up we don’t know. I actually happen to think in this case it’s the former. Jesus pulls a Jesus and turns the question back around on this learned man, asking him what the law said. Our friend the lawyer responds with the classic summation of Jewish law that was well known and popular in his day: Love God, love your neighbor. Rarely has any human justice system been able to be summed up so easily, just try it with ours! Jesus gives him a nod, they’ve both passed the test, they’re both on the same page. That’s what eternal life looks like. If you want to be really alive, love God, love your neighbor, simple as that.
But we’re human so the lawyer has to push things a bit. So he asks perhaps the most human question of all time: who is my neighbor? In other words: who do I have to love and who can I get away with not loving. How wide must the net of my compassion be? Jesus responds with a story, as Jesus often does. And being human beings every line and detail of that story has been picked apart and given heavy and weighty meaning down through history. And doing so is a fun theological exercise, but by doing so we sometimes lose the real point. But don’t get distracted!
It doesn’t matter why the man in question was headed fro Jerusalem down to Jericho. Neither does it matter why the religious leaders didn’t stop. What matters is that these were respected people that Jesus’ audience would have immediately identified as good, upstanding moral members of society.
And the second thing that matters is that the Samaritan stopped and helped. The Samaritan was moved with compassion for a Jew. Because we don’t know any Samaritans and we’re not first century Jews that statement doesn’t have the kind of impact it had for Jesus’ listeners. The lawyer in question couldn’t even say “the Samaritan” in response to Jesus’ question: who was a neighbor to the man. He got the answer right, but he couldn’t make himself say the name Samaritan.
Amy Jill Levine is a respected Jewish scholar who specializes in Christian scripture. It’s an odd niche but she does it well and she’s a great boon to we Christians who want to understand the Jewishness of Jesus and his followers. Amy puts this parable this way: the Samaritan to a first century Jew is the people group you would rather die than have help you, it is the people group you would rather die than help. In her case, a Jew living in Israel, she says her Samaritans would be Hamas. Let that sink in.
For a person of color in the United States the Samaritan would probably be a member of the KKK or a racist cop. Early in my life I got a strong image for the Good Samaritan from a famous photo. A white supremacist group was in a town near me (Ann Arbor) demonstrating, and lots and lots of people who really disagreed with them showed up as well. Somehow one man got separated, off into the crowd of people. Someone shouted, someone pushed, he went to the ground. People began kicking him, hitting him with sticks and hands until a young black woman threw herself across his head and shoulders, hands held up, shouting “Stop! Stop!” (See the photo and story here.)
For just about every peaceful person in the world the Samaritan today would be a member of ISIS. Think about that. Who in the world do you find so other and repugnant that you could not imagine spending time with those sort of people, or risking your neck for them: or them risking their neck for you. Every one of us has something, or some group for whom we viscerally recoil at the idea of admitting they could do something right. That they could be our neighbor. Think about that a second for yourself, and be honest. Jesus looks us in the heart and says: a militant member of the Taliban was traveling down that road: he looked and saw a woman beaten and lying on the side of the road and he had compassion for her.
Jesus looks into our heart and says: a member of the Westboro Baptist Church was beaten and left for dead by robbers. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson were going up to Washington and hurried by; but a drag queen on her way to a nightclub saw him, took pity on him and cared for him.
We could go on. A black motorist with a busted tail light and a racist cop. Or as actually happened this week: a jailor who collapsed from a heart attack and the group of prisoners who risked their lives breaking out of their jail cell to save his life.
Jesus goes for the gut. He takes no prisoners in this mission of mercy and love of his. He hears our human waffling, our desire to divide humanity into friends and enemies and he says: nope. He looks us straight in the eye and he answers the question that is hiding behind the question of “who is my neighbor,” he hears what we’re really asking: who is my enemy and he says: no one. No one. We get to hate no one, we get to skip compassion for no one, we get to harm no one, we get to withhold compassion from no one.
That’s hard y’all. There are people in this world for whom I don’t want to practice love. But Jesus doesn’t give the lawyer, or his listeners, or us an option. It’s all or nothing for Jesus. We are all of us loved by God. We are all of us children of God. You’re either in the Kingdom in which case every single person every single person is your neighbor. Or you aren’t living. Living in God’s kingdom means living in love and compassion. Jesus isn’t concerned with nice, he’s concerned with life and death. We are all neighbors on a planet that grows smaller by the minute. There is no room for other, or outsider, or enemy.
For Jesus, for God, and therefore for us there is one law: Love. And there are no exceptions to that law.