Year C, Pentecost 5
We all know the story of the Good Samaritan. Hospitals, churches, and even laws are named after it. The story has become so well known, so secularized, that it has lost much of its power. It is easy to interpret it as a simple morality tale, but there is more to this story. Our Gospel reading begins with a question posed to Jesus. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” It’s a good question. It’s kind of like asking, “What do I need to do to get to heaven?” Jesus volleyed the question back to the lawyer. The lawyer was an expert in the law, so Jesus asked him, “Well, what’s written in the law?” (By the way, in referring to the law, Jesus was referring to scripture—specifically the first 5 books of the Old Testament.) The lawyer provided the right answer (“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 Jesus encouraged him to follow that law so that he might live.
Now our text says that the lawyer was trying to test Jesus. Maybe he was at the beginning. But I think his next question indicated that he really was searching for answers. Part of the law that he quoted was loving your neighbor as yourself. Had he merely been testing Jesus, it would have been wise for him to leave it at that. But he asked a follow up question: who is my neighbor.
Jesus could have given a straightforward answer. He could have said, “Anyone and everyone.” But instead, he told a story, because it’s easy to dismiss an answer like “anyone and everyone.” In the story, 2 religious leaders pass by a man lying on the side of the road. Neither stops to help. Now, there are a dozen good reasons why they would have passed without helping. It was an infamously dangerous road. They could have been afraid that it was a set up as this was a fairly common technique that thieves used. They could have assumed that the man was dead and had they gotten even close to a dead man, they would have broken one of their holiness codes and become unclean—which means they would not have been able to perform their jobs. Their intentions or lack of intentions isn’t the point. We like to focus on them because it’s always easy to point out the hypocrisy of others.
But Jesus was not interested in their motives. The star of the story is of course the Samaritan. Jesus never referred to him as the good Samaritan. He didn’t have to. His deeds proved that he was good. Jesus did specify that he was a Samaritan. This was important because Samaritans were loathed by the Jews. It wasn’t just that they didn’t like them. They were enemies. In the story right before this one in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus and his disciples were rejected in a Samaritan village. No one would have expected the hero to be a Samaritan, but that was part of what made this such an intriguing story. Often when we hear this story, especially in secular environments, the focus is on the person lying in the ditch, the person in need. The moral of the story is that the person in need is our neighbor. But after the parable, when Jesus asked the question of the lawyer, he didn’t ask who was the neighbor. He asked who acted like a neighbor. It wasn’t the man in the ditch. It was the person who showed mercy—the Samaritan.
The reason this distinction matter—the reason this specific question that Jesus asks matters— is that it is so easy for us to argue about who is and who is not worthy of our mercy and compassion. It is easy to judge people who we think aren’t helping enough or are helping too much, perhaps enabling. Right now in our society, we spend a lot of time blaming anything and everything on different categories of people. It’s the ultra right. It’s the unpatriotic left. It’s the lazy millienials. It’s the entitled boomers. Humans love to put people in categories. Yet we get really irritated when someone tries to categorize us because we don’t want to be put in a box. It’s so much easier to judge others.
Who is our neighbor? That’s not the question Jesus was asking. Because the answer really is everyone, but that’s way too hard to wrap our heads around. So Jesus made it more concrete. Instead of challenging us to identify our neighbor, he asked, how can you be a neighbor? The answer is to show mercy to those who are suffering. There are no qualifications, quantifications or specifications on who we are helping. Show mercy. This parable isn’t about the poor soul lying in the ditch. It’s about our actions as the brothers and sisters of that person lying in the ditch.
This conversation between the lawyer and Jesus started out as a debate. This lawyer wanted a debate. It’s so much easier to debate what we believe rather than act on what we believe. The longer we debate and argue, the less we actually have to do. Let’s stop talking about who our neighbor is and focus instead on how to be a neighbor, a good neighbor.
We are about to baptize a baby. There are few things we do in church that are more uplifting than welcoming a child into the household of God. Right before the baptism, we all affirm our baptismal vows together. One of the questions we ask is: Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? The people respond, “I will with God’s help.” I get it. Being a neighbor, showing mercy…it’s a challenge. We might wonder how to start. The answer is in the question of our baptismal covenant. Seek and serve Christ in all persons. That’s how we start. We seek out Christ in people. We seek out the good and then we find a way to reflect that good. Look at Wyatt. How can you not love a baby like that? That baby deserves our love and compassion. Remember that’s how we all start. We are all born into the world as children of God, deserving love and compassion. We don’t usually stay that cute and fragile, but we never stop being beloved children of God who deserve love and compassion. Don’t worry about who your neighbor is. Instead practice being a neighbor. Seek and serve Christ in all person’s with God’s help.