September 23, 2020

Sunday’s Gospel: Sometimes the Samaritans Shame Us

By Chaplain Mike

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Lectionary Readings
• Deuteronomy 30:9-14
• Psalm 25:1-10
• Colossians 1:1-14
• Luke 10:25-37

Today’s Gospel
We can get tripped up by the most familiar passages of Scripture. We just assume their meaning because they are more a part of atmosphere we breathe than texts we have carefully considered before God. Today’s Gospel reading is one of those passages.

This parable of Jesus is so familiar that it has changed our language over the years. When our Lord first spoke these words, a fellow Israelite would have cringed (or punched you out!) if you called him a “Samaritan.” If Jesus were speaking this parable today, he might talk about the “Good Palestinian,” and he would get the same negative reaction from the Jewish folks. But over the years, our understanding of the hostility that the word “Samaritan” once elicited has faded, and that word is no longer an epithet. Now, in fact, it is a designation of honor!

If I call you a “good Samaritan” today, it is a compliment. We have entire “Samaritan” societies founded to assist people in need. Our church used to have a “Good Samaritan Fund” to help the poor. Many hospitals bear the name as a way of saying they are there to heal the sick and injured. Good Samaritan laws have been drafted to protect bystanders who witness a person in distress and try to help. Any one of us would be proud to be called a “Samaritan.” It means we are sensitive to the needs around us and always willing to help.

‘Twasn’t so in Israel when Jesus gave this story.

Jesus’ Parable of the “Good Samaritan”—

10:25 – Then one of the experts in the Law stood up to test him and said, “Master, what must I do to be sure of eternal life?”

10:26 – “What does the Law say and what has your reading taught you?” said Jesus.

10:27 – “The Law says, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind’, and ‘your neighbour as yourself’,” he replied.

10:28 – “Quite right,” said Jesus. “Do that and you will live.”

10:29 – But the man, wanting to justify himself, continued, “But who is my ‘neighbour’?”

10:30-36 – And Jesus gave him the following reply:

“A man was once on his way down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He fell into the hands of bandits who stripped off his clothes, beat him up, and left him half dead. It so happened that a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. A Levite also came on the scene and when he saw him, he too passed by on the other side. But then a Samaritan traveller came along to the place where the man was lying, and at the sight of him he was touched with pity. He went across to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put him on his own mule, brought him to an inn and did what he could for him. Next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the inn-keeper with the words, ‘Look after him, will you? I will pay you back whatever more you spend, when I come through here on my return.’ Which of these three seems to you to have been a neighbour to the bandits’ victim?”

10:37 – “The man who gave him practical sympathy,” he replied. “Then you go and give the same,” returned Jesus.

(JB Phillips Translation)

Who Is a True Israelite?
Let’s start with a little background. In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he wrote these words: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love” (NASB).

The Message paraphrases it this way: “For in Christ, neither our most conscientious religion nor disregard of religion amounts to anything. What matters is something far more interior: faith expressed in love.”

Circumcision was the sign by which young Jewish male babies were marked to show that they belonged to God’s covenant people. If a man converted to Judaism later in life, he was expected to be circumcised as an entrance ritual. It was similar to Christian baptism in that way. It was applied only to males because, in a patriarchal society, the man stood as the representative of his entire household. Circumcision was the act that marked him as one of God’s chosen. He and his family were true Israelites.

But that is not all. People who bore the mark of being a true Israelite were expected to live and act according to God’s commandments, which he gave to them through Moses. Each day in their prayers they recited the greatest commandment in the prayer known as the “Shema” from Deuteronomy 6: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (NRSV).

In addition, God gave Israel the Ten Commandments, outlining in summary fashion their duties toward God and one another. The Torah (the Law of Moses) includes a total of 613 mitzvot, or commandments, by which they were to order their lives, their diets, their religious practices, the way they treated their neighbors, and their community life. In the traditional count, there are 365 negative commandments about acts from which one must abstain (one for each day of the year), and 248 positive commandments about acts one must perform.

I am sure many of you are asking, “What does all this have to do with the parable of the Good Samaritan?” Actually, it has a lot to do with it.

The lawyer’s question to Jesus on this occasion was, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”, or literally, “What must I do to inherit the life of the age to come?” He was asking Jesus what he needed to do to be included among God’s people when the Messiah came to usher in the new age of righteousness and peace in the world. He and his people believed that the true Israelites would be the ones God would welcome into his kingdom. So, he asked the Lord, “What is it that will qualify me as a true Israelite on that day?”

This lawyer knew the standard answers, and he and Jesus agreed on those. True Israelites, God’s chosen ones, respond to God’s grace by loving God and loving our neighbors. God’s people are known by a faith in the true and living God that exhibits itself in love toward others. Fair enough. This Jewish man had his theological definitions straight.

But then, he had to ask another question. “Teacher,” he said, “who is my neighbor?” This question shows that the man probably wasn’t really concerned about his own spiritual condition as much as we was about winning an argument with Jesus. He wanted to stay on the level of definitions. He wanted to have a theological discussion about who his neighbor was, so that he could have it clear in his head who he had to love and who he could avoid.

There is a background to this. In the apocryphal wisdom Book of Sirach, it says:

Give to the devout, but do not help the sinner.
Do good to the humble, but do not give to the ungodly;
hold back their bread, and do not give it to them,
for by means of it they might subdue you;
then you will receive twice as much evil
for all the good you have done to them.
For the Most High also hates sinners
and will inflict punishment on the ungodly.
Give to one who is good, but do not help the sinner.

From this religious point of view, there were neighbors one must love, and there are sinners one doesn’t have to love. People are put in neat theological categories, and that’s that. A true Israelite, a true child of God, loves God and loves his neighbor, but he also knows how to discern who is real neighbors are, and therefore who he is truly required to love. By defining his neighbor he gets to be in control of his religious obligations and how he has to act.

These are the religious games we play. None of us is immune. The fact that we are sinners means we are always tempted to avoid God’s way of faith and love and substitute our own religious practices. It’s a whole lot easier that way. The story Jesus tells this religious man is a masterful rebuttal to this approach that’s always wanting to define and control things.

You know it well. A man is overtaken by thieves on the Jericho Road, stripped, beaten, and robbed. He lies critically injured by the side of the road. Two religious leaders come upon the scene. Deciding not to get involved, probably because they think he might be dead and any contact with him would make them ceremonially unclean, they cross to the other side and walk on. Then a Samaritan man comes down the road, finds the man, tends to his wounds, takes him to an inn, pays the innkeeper to take care of him, and promises to take care of any further costs.

The key to this parable is that it was the Samaritan who did this. The contrast could not be wider—you have the priest and the Levite on the one hand, and this despised Samaritan on the other hand. The religious leaders were certainly true Israelites, right? There’s no way the Samaritan could be the good guy in this story, right?

Wrong. In the end, Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which of these three seems to you to have been a neighbour to the bandits’ victim?” Did you notice how Jesus changed the question?

  • The lawyer had asked, “Who is my neighbor?”
  • Jesus asked, “Who was a neighbor to the man?”

When God says his people are to love their neighbors, he is not asking us to define who our neighbors are. He is asking us to consider how we can BE good neighbors to anyone around us who has needs.

Remarkably, the one who demonstrated this in the story was the Samaritan, and not the religious leaders of Israel. He is the one who proved himself to be faithful and loving, not the folks who had their theological ducks in a row. He exhibited the spirit of God’s law—faith working through love—they exhibited only the kind of religious dogmatism that puts God and people in categories and tries to define and be in control of how we have to behave.

So, who is the true Israelite? Who is the one who will enter the age to come? Who is the one who may be called God’s child, God’s chosen one? Who is the one who truly keeps the Law? Who has truly responded to the grace of God and exhibited that through a changed heart and life?

Listen to Paul’s words again: “For in Christ, neither our most conscientious religion nor disregard of religion amounts to anything. What matters is something far more interior: faith expressed in love.”

This was a shocking parable to those who first heard it. It was a slap in the face. An insult. Jesus was telling this proper, devout, religious man that the very people he despised as blasphemers and enemies sometimes get it right and he doesn’t. Sometimes the “Samaritans” of the world shame us, exhibiting more true religion than those who have their theological definitions right.

Jesus says to him, and to us, “Go and do likewise.”

Comments

  1. This may be my second favorite parable. My favorite is Jesus’ story of the two brothers and the forgiving father…the “Prodigal Son.”

    Thanks, Chaplain Mike. Have a blessed week.

  2. Here is another consideration:

    The priest and the Levite, by upholding the ceremonial law, were doing what they had to do in that situation to remain righteous, both for their own sake and the sake of the people of Israel, whom they represented before God. It would probably have taken a very extraordinary priest or Levite to respond as the Samaritan did.

    In light of that, this story is a poignant illustration of the inadequacy of the Law to bring life and right standing before God.

  3. Jo Ann Peterson says

    This parable flies in the face of “cultural warriorism” and I love it.

  4. The Pharisees would have been familiar with the story in the Talmud of the heathen who asks Hillel to teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot, to which Hillel replied, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah while the rest is commentary; go and learn it.”

    One translation I saw indicates “neighbor” in the Talmud might be better translated “fellow creature”. Either way, the fact that Hillel said this to a “heathen”, I would think that he knew the application was more universal. Even in his response to Jesus, he knew the correct answer was to show compassion. I think the law to him had become a mere game, which he was called upon to make Jesus lose.

    I think if one thinks Jesus was talking to the cultural warriors of his day, one is going to miss the point. He is also talking to all of us, who would make religion a sport or debate topic, to prove that all Catholics/Calvinists/Arminians/non-Lutherans/emergents/cultural warriors et al are wrong and we are right. Jesus wants to give us all a reality check, that we really are supposed to go do likewise, rather than debating or talking about it.

    • Jo Ann Peterson says

      It was just a thought after watching the ranting that was occuring on one of the “political news channels” this morning. Believe me, I get the point and I don’t feel like I am “right” and others are wrong. Like I said it was just a thought…not trying to debate something. Sorry if it came across that way.

      • Just a general comment. Wasn’t directed at your comment. It crossed my mind after posting it that there it could lead to confusion. Sorry about that.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      He is also talking to all of us, who would make religion a sport or debate topic, to prove that all Catholics/Calvinists/Arminians/non-Lutherans/emergents/cultural warriors et al are wrong and we are right.

      Notice how every time this blog turns to a Culture War Issue, all the theology starts getting parsed not only word-by-word but letter-by-letter? And while they’re parsing their precious Theological Theory, the rest of us are suffering and dying.

  5. The movie “The Book of Eli” dramatizes this quite well. When he sees the travelers attacked, he says to himself, “Stay on the path; this is no concern of yours”. Later, he laments that he was so busy protecting the book that he had failed to do what it was telling him to do. That was chilling. We can all find ourselves on a righteous crusade which diverts us away from being righteous.

  6. There is a background to this. In the apocryphal wisdom Book of Sirach, it says:

    I think it’s a shame more Evangelicals/lay low-church Protestants aren’t familiar with the writings of the so-called “Apocrypha,” as well as 1 Enoch (Ethiopian Enoch), for their influence on the NT and its background are not insignificant. It would be of great benefit if more Protestant Bibles included the Apocrypha with cross-references to the relevant OT and NT verses, though probably in its own separate section of the Bible.

  7. What if we substituted “illegal” for “Samaritan” and looked at how they subsidize our society?

    We have humans living among us who work hard and pay more in taxes than they receive in public benefits. Yet we label them the demeaning term Illegal (as if we’re all so perfect in that regard ) and search for more better ways to bring them down.

    Seeing the local anti-immigrant group state their explicit goal was “punitive legislation” this morning just prompted this thought. Sorry if it offends anyone.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Seeing the local anti-immigrant group state their explicit goal was “punitive legislation” this morning just prompted this thought.

      If you’re in SoCal or one of the other border states, I’d just chalk that up as a symptom of how high the feelings are running among Anglos. And it’s just gonna get worse as the race card gets played around and laws such as Arizona’s get passed by Anglos only to be overturned in the courts with Race Cards played with Wagging Fingers. After all legal recourses are blocked, the Skinheads can just waltz in and say “We Told You So! Now will you do it our way? Us or Them — RAHOWA-88!”

      • Actually, I’m in the deep Bible belt. I didn’t mention it, but that anti-immigrant group partnered with a Christian organization to put tables out in church narthexes for signatures on their petition for “punitive legislation.” They wanted to partner with the Christian group due to that organization’s success with work to outlaw gay or unmarried parents from adopting foster children. That is how we define Good Samaritan around here.

  8. Some time back I wrote an updated version of this parable, set on a highway outside Selma, Alabama in the mid 1950’s. A traveling salesman has a flat tire, and while he’s changing the tire some thugs pull up, jump out of their car, and beat and rob him, leaving him there by the side of the road. And of course, the salesman is white.

    Two men, an elder and a deacon from area churches, drive right on by, not wanting to get involved. My Samaritan, the one who ultimately stops and helps, was the son of a black father and a white mother. I could think of no better way to portray just how hated the Samaritans were in Jesus’ time than this product of a union between an arrogant (“uppity,” in the language of the day) black man and a degraded white woman. Didn’t address the issue of ritual cleanliness that Joe mentions, nor the Jewish belief that the Samaritans had bastardized their religion, but I thought it portrayed the racial aspect fairly well.

  9. “Take it easy on me now
    I’d be there if I could
    I’m so full of what is right
    I can’t see what is good.”
    – Neil Peart

  10. The key to “go and do likewise” is found in that old tent revival song, that Jesus is the Good Samaritan who found us bleeding and dying on the Jericho road. This is what the moralism of Hillel and the Pharisees lacked.

  11. In the book “How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth,” the author speaks of how he retold this parable in modern times, and said that it was an atheist who stopped and helped. He said he believed the congregation’s reaction was pretty similar to the reaction Jesus must have gotten.

  12. Michael A says

    Jesus is the Good Samaritan. He had every right to pass by me as I lay dying. Instead, he took on himself all of the expense of my restoration.

    Praise God.