The Good Samaritan
A wise man once said: “Hate has a reason for everything. But love is unreasonable.”
The expert in the law that we meet in the text for today, was concerned with reasons and definitions. He knew that the Bible told him to love his neighbor as himself. “But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ (v. 29).
The expert in the law wanted an interpretation. Not that the biblical commandments needed an interpretation. They were as clear as they can be: “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, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Our problem is not that we don’t understand what this means. Our problem is that we don’t do it. And it was not like the expert in the law asked Jesus to help him understand the commandment better, or how he could actually keep it.
He wanted to justify himself, the text says, so he asked Jesus: and who is my neighbor? The words of the law were as clear as daylight, but he wanted to quibble. He was going to be nit picky. He was convicted by God’s law and he wanted to get off the hook. Yeah, he was probably thinking, we should all love one another, but how far should we go? How far is it reasonable to take it? Who is it I need to love? He wanted to justify himself. He was trying to get away with something.
Implicit in this question is the assumption that there clearly are some people I just cannot love. I mean, there are millions of people in the world. I cannot love all of them. There simply isn’t enough time. I see hundreds of people every day. I can’t love all of them, either. It just isn’t practicable. So where do you draw the line? Of course I love my family and I love my friends, so if that’s what you mean by this vague, imprecise, for legal purposes completely useless by the way, commandment, love your neighbor, then I’m all for it. But what do you think, Jesus? Where do you draw the line? He was trying to argue that the commandment had to be interpreted. It had to be interpreted in a way that was reasonable. He wanted to justify himself. He was trying to get away with something.
We are all like this expert in the law. Take Jesus’ commandments in the Sermon on the Mount for example: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (Matt 5:38-42).
The Sermon on the Mount is perhaps the passage in Scripture that has generated most discussion among theologians. Some have argued that it was not meant to be taken seriously. That it was an ideal that never could come to realization, except perhaps for a few weeks before Jesus’ second coming. In my own Lutheran tradition, it has been argued that these commandments were simply given to show us how we don’t measure up to God’s standard. God knows that none of us can do this anyway, so he never expected us even to try, he simply wanted us to learn the lesson that we are sinners. These views have been rejected by the majority of scholars, but oftentimes people seem to agree that even though the exhortations in the Sermon on the Mount are somehow intended as real commandments, they cannot be taken literally. That’s the explanation, I think, for why so many people like the Sermon on the Mount so much. It is such a beautiful ideal. Beautiful it is indeed, until you are actually trying to do it.
The expert in the law correctly identified the two chief commandments in the Old Testament. Love God and love your neighbor. In the Old Testament, the implication is that we should love everybody, and the book of Leviticus specifies explicitly that the love that we should have for our neighbor is the love that we should also have for the foreigner that lives as a stranger in our land. “The foreigners residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God” (Lev 19:34).
Among the Jews of Jesus’ day, however, there were different opinions about how far the love command had to be stretched. How do we define “neighbor”? Who is that we need to love? Many of the answers correspond to the natural human tendency that we want to love those with whom we have something in common. So even though the Bible commands that we love foreigners, to many Jews it was pretty clear that this can only mean foreigners who have converted to the Jewish religion. One might ask how a Jewish foreigner can still be a foreigner. The original commandment has pretty much lost its meaning when it means to love foreigners who have become just like us.
We have the same tendency to restrict our love to those with whom we have something in common.
Because it is the only thing that makes sense. No one can have the same kind of compassion and empathy for starving people that we see on TV as we have for our own family. In James 2:15-17 the Bible says: “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”
But how far can you really apply that in the modern media world in which we live? It’s just impossible to help everybody. So when God tells us to love our neighbor, what does he mean? What’s reasonable? Who do we need to love?
When Jesus is challenged to answer the question, who is my neighbor, he does not offer a definition. Instead, he tells a story. A man travels from Jerusalem to Jericho. That was a hazardous undertaking. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho descends from 2500 feet above sea level to 800 feet below in just about 17 miles. A man alone was an easy target for robbers who could hide out almost anywhere along the steep, rocky, and winding road down to Jericho. So he gets what’s coming to him, he is assaulted and mugged and left on the verge of death. A priest and later a Levite come by, but what are they going to do? They see the poor fellow who obviously needs immediate attention if he is going to make it. As religious people, they know that their highest ethical responsibility, which takes precedence over everything else, is to save lives. But, you’ve got to be reasonable. The robbers may still be around. If the priest or the Levite were to linger around this evidently very dangerous area, they might easily end up falling victim to the same robbers themselves. Better to hurry up and get away while they can.
The people of Israel could be divided into three categories, priests, who were officiating at the temple worship, Levites, who were assisting them, and then everybody else, ordinary people who were not directly involved in the regular temple worship. When Jesus has introduced the first two categories, the priest and the Levite, we expect that he will conclude his story by mentioning the third category, ordinary people. It is like he is telling a story about a rabbi, a priest, and a minister, and you think you know what’s coming when he has mentioned the rabbi and the priest, but then the punch line is about a used-car salesman. It just doesn’t belong there.
The Samaritans certainly did not belong. Anywhere. Their origin is for a large part a mystery to scholars. We have records from the Samaritans themselves about how the Jews fell away from the true worship of God and moved the temple from Mount Gerizim to Shilo. We also have the Jewish version of the story, of how the Samaritans originated as a mixed people group with a syncretistic religion after Assyria conquered the northern tribes of Israel. The only thing scholars agree on is that neither of these stories has any credibility whatsoever. They are both propaganda, used to smear the other group. It is somewhat like studying the history of Christians and Muslims in the Middle East. Read the Christian sources and you will find out how the Muslims massacred the Christians. Read the Muslim sources and you will learn how the Christians massacred the Muslims. They have a history of not getting along. As for the Jews and the Samaritans, the Bible sums it up with an understatement: “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans” (John 4:9).
When Jesus introduces the Samaritan, he is overstepping the boundaries of his own story. Priests and Levites belong in a Jewish story. A Samaritan does not. So inappropriate is Jesus’ mention of the Samaritan, that when the expert in the law is asked about him, he refuses to refer to him as a Samaritan. The correct answer to Jesus question in the end, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” is of course “the Samaritan.” But the expert in the law avoids even taking this word in his mouth, answering instead: “The one who had mercy on him.”
The behavior of the Samaritan is equally boundary breaking. He has compassion for the victim, heartfelt compassion. The kind of compassion Jesus talks about here, is the compassion the father also is said to have for the prodigal son. It refers to God’s compassionate heart and to the compassion of those who share God’s heart.
Regardless of the dangers involved, the Samaritan acts on his compassion. How could he do anything else? His feeling of love and empathy overwhelms him and he has to help. He bandages the wounds and takes the victim to a place where he can be cared for. Instead of leaving a note, saying, you can thank me later, he pays for the expenses in advance, even promising that he will come back later and pay whatever is necessary.
Now Jesus finally returns to the original question. But he still doesn’t address it directly. The question concerned who my neighbor is, in other words, who do I need to love? But Jesus turns it around: who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers? Now, the commandment under discussion was to love your neighbor. So is Jesus’ point that the victim should love the Samaritan? No, of course not. Jesus is saying: can’t you see your question is all wrong? You want to define your neighbor. You want to know who the object of your love should be. Worry about yourself. Don’t worry about defining your neighbor. Worry about defining yourself. The question is not about defining your neighbor but about defining yourself.
We should not ask: who is it we need to love? Who is it reasonable that we should love?
It is to love in a way that is quite beyond anything that is reasonable. Love your neighbor as yourself.
God’s commandments are unreasonable. They go beyond anything that anyone would dream of.
Imagine that you could argue with God about how unreasonable his commandments are. I think it would go something like this. God, what you are asking is so unthinkable. It just cannot be done. Let’s for a moment, for the sake of argument, consider what it would look like if people did what you are saying. For one thing, if we were supposed to pay the hospital bills for all the suffering people we met, we would be bankrupt in a matter of days. Do you know what the cost of health care is nowadays? And what about all that non-retaliation stuff? If we were supposed to accept wrongdoing without retaliation, we would end up in the hospital pretty soon, too. So, all Christians bankrupt and hospitalized, with no one to pay their bills, by the way, is that how you envision Christian love working itself out in the world? Don’t you see how unreasonable this is? Let me tell you how absurd it is, God. Sooner would you abdicate your throne, step down from heaven, become destitute and seriously endanger your health, before people would put that kind of excessive, gratuitous, and ultimately senseless love into practice. Interesting idea, God says, I’ll consider that.
Throughout the history of the church, many great interpreters of the Bible have suggested that the good Samaritan is really Jesus himself. This story is not intended to show us what we are supposed to do, but to show us what Jesus has done for us. I think these interpreters are wrong, for the simple reason that Jesus concludes the story by commanding: “Go and do likewise.”
But I can see how many good people have thought that the good Samaritan has to be Jesus. For he is really the only one who has showed the kind of love that the good Samaritan demonstrates. That’s why he can say with integrity: “Go and do likewise.”
To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’ When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. ‘He himself bore our sins’ in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; ‘by his wounds you have been healed’” (1 Pet 2:21-24).