A lawyer stood up to test Jesus, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus answered, “What do you think? You tell me. You know the law, tell me what you read.” The lawyer 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 neighbour as yourself.” And Jesus said to the lawyer, “You have answered rightly, do this, and you will live.”
But the lawyer, wanting to justify himself asked, “Who is my neighbour?” so Jesus told him what we call the Parable of the Good Samaritan. It is read and discussed in every Christian church and even many people who do not go to church know the Parable of the Good Samaritan. It is the story of three men who came across someone who had been left half dead by robbers. Two passed by on the other side and one stopped and helped the wounded man. Jesus asks “Which of these three proved neighbour to the one who fell among thieves?” The answer, “The one who showed mercy.” is correct and Jesus replies, “Go and do the same.”
The lawyer asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbour?” and Jesus told him. And as well Jesus said, “Go and be a good neighbour in the same way.” I could stop right now and say, “You’ve heard the parable; you’ve heard Jesus’ words; now it’s your turn to go out and help those who need it.” That’s a good message and one that we need to hear, but I would like to dig a little deeper.
Let’s start with the lawyer. He stood up to test Jesus by asking him a question to which he already knew the answer. And Jesus took the question seriously, asking the lawyer for the answer. The right answer is that to inherit eternal life one must love God and love your neighbour. Jesus has passed the lawyer’s test – they agree.
But the lawyer had another question. He wanted to make sure that he was doing the right thing – he wanted to justify himself – so he asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbour?”
That is a really good question. If God says, “Love.” I need to know who God is talking about and I need to know how to do it. The lawyer wanted an explanation. I need an explanation. You and I are human beings and we are not perfect, we need some help with this loving business.
So Jesus has given us this parable. We call it the Good Samaritan, but there are other characters – the man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, the robbers, the Priest and the Levite, the Samaritan and the innkeeper. We call the story the Good Samaritan but we could call it Good and Bad Neighbours.
Obviously we can dismiss the robbers as bad neighbours. Robbery with violence is a crime in most communities. Jesus does not tell us why the robbers were so violent, but we might ask, why did they rob and wound? Why were they bad neighbours? Could they have been good neighbours? Are robbers always bad neighbours? Were they kind to each other? Did they have families to feed? Perhaps we should not write them off so quickly.
The next two actors are the Priest and the Levite who saw the man and passed by on the other side. Jesus does not tell us why, but even if they did not help the wounded man, they did have reasons. The body by the roadside could have been put there by the robbers as a trap for travellers. And if the man was dead and priest or the Levite had touched the body, they would have been made unclean and disqualified from their temple duties. The priest and the levite had a hard choice. They had to choose between their duty to the temple congregation and their duty to help the needy. If the man was dead, then they couldn’t have helped him and they couldn’t have done their duty at the temple. Can we blame them for making that choice? Haven’t we all had to choose between one duty and another? If a beggar rings my doorbell when I’m halfway through writing a sermon, is it sinful to ignore the bell and write the sermon instead?
I’ll leave the Samaritan for a moment and look at the innkeeper. His instructions were, Take care of him, and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Now I think it was very generous of the innkeeper to agree to do that. True, the bible does not say that he was faithful, but the Samaritan trusted him and Jesus mentions him as one of the people who cared for the wounded and robbed man. The innkeeper kept a house for people to sleep in safety and comfort, a place where animals could be fed and sheltered, and if we think of another innkeeper, they sometimes provided mangers for babies to sleep in. Innkeepers provided hospitality for a price. Caring for a wounded and penniless man was not part of their job description. Sure, the Samaritan left his credit card at the inn, but the innkeeper was neighbourly enough to care for the man above and beyond the call of duty. I think we can identify with the innkeeper. I am sure we have been generous in our life and our work, doing a little extra out of the goodness of our hearts. It is a good neighbourly thing to do.
The Samaritan is of course the neighbour from heaven. As a Samaritan he was unacceptable to the Jews, ceremonially unclean, socially and outcast and religiously heretical. But this man delayed his own journey, expended great energy, risked danger to himself, spent two days’ wages with the promise of more and promised to follow up on his activity. My commentary says that such a profile is not easily matched.
I can imagine that the lawyer who wanted to make sure that he was being a good neighbour would have been absolutely aghast, bowled over, struck dumb by such an example. Jesus provides him and us with a perfect example of neighbourliness, and example of eternal life. That Samaritan has eternal life welling up within him like and ever-flowing stream. I do not think that I could ever match his example, any more than I could match Christ’s love shown on the cross. God alone knows what I could do if God asked me, but at least the parable has made me think of the possibilities.