Main Text: Luke 10: 25-37
Last week, I traveled up to Indiana to spend time with my family over the 4th of July. Now, to many, Indiana is in that blur of midwestern states, not quite big enough to know exactly where it is, but well known enough that it doesn’t stick out too much. To me, having spent the first 23 years of my life there, I know exactly where it is. 15 hours, driving, in fact, up 1-35, around Dallas, onto 1-40 East through Little Rock and Memphis, then onto I-24 towards Nashville until you turn onto I-69 which becomes Pennyrile Parkway through Kentucky, and finally merges with Highway 41 after you cross the Ohio River into Evansville. It’s approximately 930 miles, or 15 hours with stops for gas and food. Spending 30 total hours on interstates let us see a number of interesting billboards, strange-looking cars, mildly amusing bumper stickers, and more unfortunately, wrecks. At one point, as traffic slowed to a halt, we saw a truck laying upside-down in the median. A crowd of people had gathered, most on phones, and some sitting. It appeared no one was particularly injured, though the truck was of course a twisted mess. As we slowly crept by, I thought perhaps I should stop and see if there was anything I could do. My CPR certification has expired and I’m not trained in first aid, but I’m usually calm in intense situations and don’t mind the sight of blood. Additionally, I have worked as a chaplain in an ER, and while that’s not my forte by any means, I could have potentially offered comfort to those in shock.
Of course, I did not stop. I justified it by saying that I didn’t want to pull off and make traffic any slower, plus it looked like things were being handled well enough without me. Now, logically that is probably true and there’s little reason I should feel guilty. But the scene sticks with me not from guilt, but from how it illustrates an important facet of the parAble of the Good Samaritan. Namely, that being a Good Samaritan as Jesus defines it involves traveling, not being.
A bit of backstory might be helpful when looking at this famous story. There are two main players in the discussion, a Pharisee and Jesus. The Pharisee asks a theological question, and Jesus responds with a story. This is a very common practice for teaching, especially in the time of Jesus’ ministry. And the story contains 4 more important characters: A man who gets robbed and beaten, and then a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan. Now, according to Biblical scholar Brad Young, both the priest and the Levite play important roles in the Temple. They would be assumed to be linked to not just the Temple, but to the sect of Jews known as the Sadducees. Sadducees were, by in large, a wealthy ruling class, the formal leaders of the Temple and the one who acted as intercessors between the Jews and the Romans. Importantly, they also focused on ritual and purity, and did not believe in a messiah or resurrection. This would be common knowledge to any Jews at the time, especially a Pharisee. Pharisees were a separate religio-political group, with less formal power but with perhaps more influence in the community. A major difference in the two sects was that the Pharisees accepted the oral tradition as part of their religious life, while the Sadducees did not. In using a parable that casts the priest and Levite as negative, Jesus is also making a point that his ministry is not aligned with them – likely, this is a statement that shows Jesus held a similar belief about the oral traditions as being valid. As Jesus continues his teaching, with the priest and the Levite passing by the man, the Pharisee and crowd would likely expect that the person who rescues the man is going to be a Pharisee. Pharisees, despite the bad rap they tend to get in the New Testament, cared for the preservation of life over the concept of ritual purity. In a tricky situation, where becoming unclean is pitted again helping someone, they were trained to accept that uncleanliness. That is the expected outcome. What would not be expected, though, would be the introduction of a Samaritan.
Samaritans, to those outside of the Jewish world, were considered to be another form of Jew. But to those inside, they were wildly, offensively different. They did not hold to the oral law, but only the written law, like the Sadducees. They believed that they had a city that was designed for God’s glory, rather than the Jew’s Jerusalem, and they believed that Mt. Zion wasn’t particularly holy, but rather nearby Mt. Gizim. Perhaps a modern equivalent would be Protestants and Mormons. Mormons accept a good deal of basic Christian theology, and to many outside of Christianity they are merely one sect. But to many within the traditions, the fact that Mormons hold to different Scriptures and have a different version of sacred history involving different holy sites makes them dangerous outsiders.
A Samaritan traveling on this road might be risking his life just to help – always viewed as suspicious, being with a wounded and robbed man is a fast way to get yourself killed for being the robber yourself. Not only that, but unlike the Pharisees who had an oral law that commanded them to help this man on the side of the road, the Samaritan was more like the priest and Levite – none of his religious teachings commanded him to help. But he did. He willingly cared for the man, took care of his wounds, paid for his treatment, and made a commitment to come back and help.
Jesus isn’t flipping the script to try and prove that it was actually the Samaritans who were right all along. After all, Jesus was a Jew, and Jesus lifted up the prophets and writings that the Samaritans did not affirm. The purpose is not to demonize certain groups or lift others up as righteous, the purpose was to deconstruct the notion that our human labels can save us. Listen to the answer given by the Pharisee at the end of the teaching – “who was a neighbor to this man,” Jesus asks. “The one who showed him mercy,” said the teacher of the law. By changing the expected person at the end of his parable, Jesus shows us that the label attached to your person amounts to exactly nothing. The priest and Levite were not doing the wrong thing because they were categorically bad people. They were doing the wrong thing because they failed to act in the face of injustice and brokenness. The Samaritan, with at least as much reason to pass by the man himself, stops to help – not because he is a categorically good person, but because he chooses do the right thing.
Humans are all flawed. The most perfect among us is still a broken, sinful person who makes terrible decisions and lives for themselves instead of living under God’s authority. The concept of being perfect, though it is commanded multiple times in Scripture, is something out of reach, an impossibility for us as we balance our individual needs with our communities and neighbors. The Bible does call us to perfection, but is also quick to remind us that we are not inherently righteous, we are not holy, we are not unstained. The Bible sets one standard: Holy, or not holy. There is no inbetween. And most certainly, none of us can lay claim to being holier than another based on our race, our skin color, our social standing, or anything else so superficial. We by nature cannot be holy. No one. As Romans reminds us, “All have fallen short of the glory of God,” though at least perhaps, in this fallenness we can find a sense of equity. If all humans are sinners, at least we have something profound in common, something that connects and unites us into a bond which cannot be severed by pigment, wealth, education, or even actions. Viewed more positively, this sense of equality lets to see that there is no more Greek or Jew, no male or female, no slave or free, but we are all one under Christ.
From this starting point, however, Jesus offers us a reminder of what is set before us. In Deuteronomy 30, God sets before us life and death, blessings and curses. We have the choice to exercise our free will, to the benefit of ourselves and our communities, or to their detriment. These choices are not dependent on how we are as people, but rather, on how we act. It is easy to look at religion and claim that we have internalized the teachings. It is easy to show up when we are supposed to and say the right things and change our facebook pictures to the French flag, the Nigerian flag, a rainbow, a crossed-out gun, whatever. It’s easy to make religion work for us. After all, we’re the good ones, and we like to remind ourselves that. But the whole point of this parable is that our internalization of faith, our claims, and our labels are, to quote Ecclesiastes, “vanity of vanities! All is meaningless.” Rather, it is by our fruits we shall be known. It is by the love we hold for others, for our willingness to attend to their needs, and for our ability to journey with those around us, that we will be known. It is the actions, like the Samaritan’s, which prove our faith, not the labels we cling to. Over and over in the Gospels, Jesus pushes those who make strong claims into actual action. The rich man who is willing to follow Jesus, but won’t sell all of his possessions. The disciple who offers his own life, but won’t fess up to the authorities when it actually becomes dangerous.
The Samaritan of this parable reminds us today to not rest. To not let our notions of being ‘good people’ get in the way of actually being good to people. All too often, we are confronted by injustice and brokenness in the world, and our first move is the question whether we are still good people. I assure you, we are not. But I also assure you, that’s ok. We need not be good people. We need not give into the lie that there are some good people and other bad people. What we must do instead is throw out those labels and start living in a way that brings tangible relief to those in need. When Jesus asks, “who was the neighbor,” the answer was not a label. The answer was an action.
It’s easy to look at the police killed Dallas and say, “I was saddened by this. I cried. I felt like it was wrong.” It’s easy, too, to say the same things about the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. These aren’t the wrong words, and maybe they are necessary for you to say right now. But the way to be a neighbor isn’t to cry with them from afar. It takes the willingness to go out to the wrong part of town, to look for where the robbers are, to seek out those who are lying bruised and broken on the sides of the roads, giving our own money and time and love to those who are lacking. It takes getting messy with them, even to the point of getting their blood on our hands as we carry them to safety. It takes making a meal for someone crushed by a cancer diagnosis. It takes calling our police to see how they train in de-escalation and racial sensitivity. It takes speaking up when something rooted in hatred or fear is being said. It takes changing our plans to stay and serve. It takes less thinking about whether we are good and more doing good things.
Perhaps today, we might rephrase this question asked of Jesus. In the wake of BlackLivesMatter and Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and in light of Dallas and BlueLivesMatter and Brent Thompson and Lorne Ahrens and Michael Smith and Michael Krol and Patrick Zamarippa, in the dark shadow of all this, what must we do to inherit eternal life?
I dare not respond on behalf of Christ, but are we prepared to accept his answer? Amen.