Less well known is the meaning of this story as a parable. Jesus’ parables always pull the rug out from under us. They spin us around into another way of looking at things. So here is how this parable goes.
A lawyer asks Jesus “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” In Jesus’ day, when someone talked about eternal life, they were not just talking about a life that waits for us beyond the grave. They also were talking about God’s life, God’s hope, God’s freedom, God’s beauty, God’s peace touching us today. I a world full of chaos and prejudice and danger and grief and pain and rage, how can I be connected with God’s life today?
Jesus asks, What does the law say? How do you read?
The lawyer quotes Deuteronomy and Leviticus. “You will love,” here in a crazy world, “You will love the life, the hope, the beauty, the freedom, the peace. In a world full of rage and fear, you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength and all your mind. And you will love your neighbor as yourself.
Jesus says, “that’s the right answer. You want to be connected with God’s life, there it is.”
If you want a sense of God’s presence in your life, that’s what you do.
But the poor lawyer. He needs some boundaries, some definitions. He needs to know who is in and who is out, who is important and who is not, who is on my side and who is on your side, who is human, and who is enemy. So the lawyer says “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus says, “There was a man who travelled from Jerusalem to Jericho.” This was a very steep journey downhill, with lots of twists and turns. Bandits could easily hide behind rocks and curves, and take you by surprise. Precisely this happened to the man. Bandits beat him and stripped him and left him half alive by the side of the road.
Then, as it happened, a priest comes walking along, a pastor, , a bishop or seminary professor in other words. But instead of helping the man, he walks by on the other side. Then comes a Levite, not ordained like a priest, but sill big in the church, like a Christian education director or a youth pastor. Also walks on by.
Now, if you look at stories across many cultures and centuries, you will find that when things happen in groups of three, the first occurrence sets the pattern. The priest walks by. The second repeats the pattern. The Levite walks by as well. And then when the third occurrence comes, we expect a change. We expect something different to happen. Somebody is going to help this man.
In Jesus’ day, people would probably have expected that person to be an Israelite. A regular person. That would make a good story. Then you start with the lord high muckety-mucks. They don’t do the righ thing. Then you try the second in command. Not them either. In this version it would be the everyday person, the Israelite, the regular working stiff who really understands what God wants us to do. The common man ends up showing compassion. That would be the expectation.
But Jesus thwarts our expectation. Jesus does not say that an Israelite comes up the road. He says a Samaritan comes. “Really, Jesus, a Samaritan?”
You may remember from a couple of weeks ago that Jews and Samaritans did not get along at all.
(You know, Samaritans smell bad. Everything is so much worse because of them.)
At one point the Jews had invaded Samaria and destroyed their capital city. Razed it to the ground. No buildings left. At another point, the Samaritans snuck into the Jerusalem temple, this place where God’s presence on earth was most deeply evident, where the divine met the human, the most holy place in the entire universe, and the Samaritans threw old bones everywhere. This was as if someone had taken a possum, dead by the side of the road for three days in the hot July sun, and set it on our alter for us to find when we came in on Sunday morning.
Samaritans and Jews did not like each other at all. I will let you fill in the blank for who the Samaritan might be for you. Everyone’s got one.
But it was the Samaritan who hauled the beaten man up into the back seat of his or her Chevy, brought him into the emergency room and told the doctor and the hospital administrator to take care of him, and if he needs a treatment that is not covered by his health insurance, here’s my credit t card. I’ll pay.
The Samaritan was neighbor. The Samaritan loved.
In other words, God does not care about who is in or who is out. God does not care about who is more important and who is less important. God does not care about who is human and who is enemy. Neighbor is as neighbor does. God cares about love.
So, it’s been a tough week in the news. There are a lot of things I could say, perhaps should say, but I don’t know how to.
I think we resemble many of the characters in this parable.
For example, we are all Samaritans in a way. No matter who we are, to somebody or other, we probably smell bad. To someone, things are so much worse because of us.
It seems to me that we are also all bandits in a way. We have problems in our world and in our society that grind people up and leave them by the side of the road, dead. That’s not okay.
For example, this last week, there were millions of encounters between police officers and citizens which were appropriate, which helped keep people safe and the streets at peace. But not all the encounters were that way.
This week the Black Lives Matter movement was the first to condemn the shootings of Police officers in Dallas, and thousands of people who shared the concerns of Black Lives Matter expressed their feelings appropriately. But not everyone did.
Those are problems.
Moreover, there seems to be an assumption out there that you can’t express both support for the police and concern for the issues brought up by Black lives matter. You have to pick one or the other. That’s a problem too. That also will leave people dead by the side of the road.
We have work to do.
But I think the character in this story that many of us feel the most like right now, and I know that I feel like right now, is the man who is beaten and left by the side of the road. Just beaten up. It’s hard to love our neighbor when we feel that way.
Here’s some good news. Jesus loves us, right now, today, whatever way we feel. The life and hope and freedom and peace of God is still close, even in a world full of chaos and prejudice and grief and pain and rage. If you want to touch that life and hope and freedom and peace, do something loving for someone else. Do something loving. Because that is God’s hands working through you.
I’m going to go out on a limb here, and you can come talk with me afterward if you want. I know very little about how Louisville works. But at first glance it looks like a really good idea, what Police Chief is doing, hosting walks through the various neighborhoods of the city. He calls the peace walks, where he and police officers seek to make the acquaintance of residents. Because that’s the way we are going to keep peace and address the issues before us, if we work together as teams, neighborhoods and police, people and law enforcement. That’s my statement on Louisville.
But be a good Samaritan. Of course we’re smelly. We’re human beings. Human beings smell. Of course people are going to think things are so much worse because of us. We’re human. They are too. Now, pull the rug out from under everyone. Be a good Samaritan. Love your neighbor. Because, in a world of fear and prejudice and danger and rage, the kingdom of God is still close. It really is.