by Leslie Scoopmire
Our gospel story this coming Sunday begins with a lawyer—one learned in the Law, and thus one of those who have just been criticized for not being able to see what Jesus’s message is about—questioning Jesus. Thus this story is used to reinforce the point that those who follow the gospel are judged to be fools or child-like, in a time when neither was respected.
Luke carefully constructs this pericope. The lawyer (his motive to test Jesus and possibly trap him) asks Jesus a question: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Remember, in Luke, those who call Jesus “Teacher” are those who resist Jesus’s teachings and status as the Messiah. Possibly sensing that the lawyer is being manipulative, given that as a lawyer he should know the Law, Jesus answers the questions with a question. The fact that the lawyer answers immediately is telling. The answer has a two part requirement: Love God with all of your being, and love your neighbor as you love yourself.
We have seen a similar questioning from a lawyer in Matthew 22.34-40: When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ 37He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ Notice in Matthew’s version, Jesus straightforwardly answers the lawyer’s question and explains the significance.
In Mark 12.28-34, a scribe asks the question and engages in conversation with Jesus about it: One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ 29Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” 31The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ 32Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; 33and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbor as oneself”,—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’ 34When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question. In this case, the scribe’s question and Jesus’s answer brings the scribe into willingness to consider the truth of Jesus’s message.
But in Luke, the lawyer then immediately follows up with another question: Who is my neighbor? Now, normally that question could be defined rather narrowly in the cultural context of the time of Jesus. Your neighbor would be those in actual physical proximity to your home, or perhaps it could be extended to your tribe, or at the very most your nation—Israel. Jesus is going to extend this boundary, and in Luke the person who is depicted well is, once again, NOT the Jewish authorities but an outsider. But once again, Jesus does not answer directly but uses a teaching story, which has become known to as “The Good Samaritan.”
There are two Samaritans mentioned specifically in the Gospels. One is the Samaritan man who was the good neighbor in this story. The other is the Samaritan woman in John 4.7-42, to whom Jesus speaks at the well. We will hear the story of that second Samaritan in this Sunday’s gospel.
Let’s remember that after we get familiar with most stories, we sometimes forget what was meant by the words in them at the time they were being used, just as we now forget that “the Prodigal Son” doesn’t mean “lost son,” but “spendthrift son.” “Good Samaritan” would have sounded strange indeed to the original hearers of Jesus’s story. The two words were not considered to go together, and were oxymoronic to good Jews. It would be like “honest politician” or “trustworthy liar.” Samaritans were those had intermarried with non-Jews during the Assyrian conquest and who had begun following practices that were considered heretical, such as worshipping on their own mountain, Mount Gerazim, rather than the Temple in Jerusalem. Good Jews considered them to be outside the Law. That’s what makes the Samaritan’s action all the more striking. He is outside the Law, a follower of unclean practices, and yet he follows the intent of the Law better than the priest or the Levite, with no hope of compensation. He does what is right for its own sake.
Yet, we are letting ourselves off the hook if we do not realize that the impulses of the priest and Levite certainly live within us as much as the impulse of the Samaritan. We have all been each of the four people in the story—including the man who had been beaten, robbed, and left for dead by robbers and by the passersby. The man lying beside the road could have been a robber himself pretending to be hurt so that he could ensnare someone trying to help him. If he had been dead, the priest and the Levite would have been ritually unclean and unable to perform their duties according to the Law, and they would not have been able to help him. Also, remember that a denarius was a day’s full wage. The Samaritan spent TWO of them, and promised to pay more if necessary.
Further, if the man who had fallen among thieves was a Jew, the Samaritan has done his deed for someone who could be considered his enemy. Thus this story makes it clear that we owe kindness and concern for everyone—even, or maybe especially, those we consider to be outsiders or even enemies. The boundaries of blood, race, religion, tribe—Jesus calls us to transcend all of these and to treat others as we would want to be treated—with mercy and kindness—even if we think they are outside of our own group, even if our first impulse is to blame them for their misfortune. This is an important story for this, the day after Independence Day, a day in which some of us may have been tempted to believe that our country is especially favored by God. It is good to be reminded that we are to love our neighbors, especially when they are NOT just like us. Our refugee neighbors. Our LGBTQ neighbors. Our Muslim neighbors. Our Jewish neighbors. Our homeless neighbors. Our “huddled masses, yearning to breathe free” neighbors, as the words on the Statue of Liberty reminds us.
This is truly a parable for our own times, as our society argues over who deserves rights and who deserves asylum and who deserves justice and who deserves mercy. I myself live in a city that has law enforcement officials who criticize those who feed the hungry.
The joining together of the two commands—to love God and love others—is a command not for what we need to understand but what we need to do. This is the perfect summary of the Law and Prophets. That is why Jesus tells the lawyer, “Go, and do likewise.”
It’s that simple.
It’s that difficult.
Leslie Scoopmire is a retired teacher and postulant for the priesthood in the Diocese of Missouri. She attends Eden Theological Seminary in Webster Groves, MO. She is seminarian-intern at Church of the Good Shepherd , Town and Country, Missouri, in the Diocese of Missouri, and tweets daily prayers and news of note @Scoopexplainsit. Her blog is Abiding in Hope.
Image: by Leslie Scoopmire