Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ 27He answered, ‘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.’ 28And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’
29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ 30Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” 36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ 37He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’
Encountering Jesus along Jericho Road, or Your Neighbor is an Event
My uncle is a lawyer—not a man prone to giving free advice, but there’s one thing he’ll tell anybody: never ask a question you don’t already know the answer to. There’s a reason witnesses rehearse—surprises are never good. An unexpected reversal can ruin a case.
So Jesus is moving towards Jerusalem. And all along the way he’s teaching and healing and garnering attention. And this lawyer—he’d of been an expert in the Jewish legal system—he heard that Jesus sent out 70 folks to exorcise demons and to “tread on snakes and scorpions”, whatever that means, and now, just before this passage, he’s hearing that these 70 were successful in their strange mission. And to be frank, Jesus is getting a bit preachy for the lawyer’s liking.. He’s talking about how the Father has given him all things and woe to this and that. And the lawyer, seeing his chance to trip up this wandering madmen, stands up among the 70 and he starts asking questions he already knows the answer to.
I imagine Sam Waterston as D. A. McCoy, because I’ve watched more Law & Order than I ought to. There’s a look McCoy gets when he knows he’s trapped a witness, when he’s leading this poor duped fellow on the stand to a conclusion whose implications the witness has not yet worked out. McCoy’s genius is his ability to trap witnesses in their own logical systems, forcing them to admit to some lie or inaccuracy, some piece of incriminating evidence or a fundamental misunderstanding of the law. I’m going to call our young lawyer Ancient McCoy. Now Ancient McCoy is testing Jesus. Ancient McCoy knows well the answer to the question “what must I do”, for it is the clearest message of the Law: “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.”
Jesus agrees and dismisses Ancient McCoy with an admonition to act accordingly. There’s of yet no misunderstanding of the law on either man’s part.
But Ancient McCoy wants a rise out of Jesus. He wants Jesus to admit that he’s right, that he knows. So he presses Jesus further. He doesn’t ask about God or love, maybe because he doesn’t know that set of answers. Ancient McCoy goes for another easy one: and who is my neighbor? Luke tells us that this is his attempt to justify himself. In the face of this wild teacher, his disciples and his odd cadre of followers, Ancient McCoy needs to establish a sense of authority and inquiring about neighborhood regulations will provide him the opportunity to do so. He prepares his answer, and it is, strictly speaking, right according to law and “morality”:
Neighbors are your people. Jewish folks who can trace their roots back to the Babylonian Captivity; who, those many years ago, were carried away by foreign rulers to a foreign land. Neighbors are the ones with whom I share DNA markers—with whom I share customs and language and preference and skin tone. And, lest we forget the simplest answer, neighbors are the folks who live next door.
At the bottom of it neighbors are “near” (the words are related), they are assigned by proximity to your home and by likeness to your way of life. Non-Jews are not “neighbors” in the traditional sense. They are aliens. Strangers. Illegal immigrants. They are never to be despised, but neither are they invited over for the annual Fourth of July party.
It’s a good, safe, understandable position. For the way of the world is inward. It’s self-preservation. It’s looking after your own. Binding up your children’s wounds, feeding the neighborhood kid when he comes over to sweep your front porch. The world is self-sustained and self-sustaining and if you want to get ahead, nay, if you want to survive, you’ve got to prioritize you. Because God knows no one else will. That’s the world. The lawyer knows it. The religious leaders know it. The crowds know it. Everybody knows it.
Except, it seems, for Jesus. Ancient McCoy must’ve been totally blindsided, because Jesus doesn’t simply answer, oh: your neighbor is this or that or everyone or no-one. And neither does he turn the microphone back to the young questioner, as he had previously done. Jesus decides to tell a story.
Now Jerusalem is 2500 feet above sea level. And it can be cold. And Jericho’s is warm. 700 feet below sea level. Balmy. Israel’s #1 vacation getaway, especially for church leadership, folks like the Priest and the theologian-Levite who need to get away from all the holy hubbub every now and again.
“Imagine that you could get from West Chester to Key West in just under four hours. Travel Jericho Road!”
But robbers got wise to all of these priests and Levites and rich folks always passing through. And the Highway became a hotbed for criminal activity. Somebody was always getting robbed or beaten up—best not to make eye contact, best to just hurry along, hope the sun’ll stay out for a bit longer, tuck away your money in a secure fanny pack, safe from pickpockets, safe from whatever criminal tomfoolery all these other naïve schmucks are finding themselves caught up in.
You gotta look after #1, after all.
Perhaps the lawyer thought that Jesus had forgotten the question. Because “Jericho” is most certainly not a part of the neighborhood. But Ancient McCoy knows better than to stop a rambling witness—better to let him talk himself in circles till everybody realizes just what a fool he is.
There’s a man who’s severely beaten. He is stripped of his possessions, left for dead. Unsurprisingly, a priest comes by. He sees the man, tightens his fanny pack and picks up the pace. After all, this could well be a trap. Go help that man and soon find yourself in his position! And what kind of man is he?! I’d help him I’d get sued! No good deed goes unpunished, after all. He’d likely claim my horse gave him whiplash. I’ll be left with nothing. Better to get on to Jericho, I’ve got dinner reservations, after all.
Then there’s a levite, a learnéd man. A good, holy man, he, too, sees the fellow in the ditch. But like the priest he’s got somewhere to go to. On top of that he doesn’t much like the sight of blood, it makes him faint, and it’s certainly unclean. Better to walk on than to risk some infection, some nasty thing which would leave him impaired, unable to complete his duties in the temple and therefore unable to provide an invaluable service to the community. Why it might even kill him! Better get on to Jericho, have a swim in the refreshing salt water pool before the sun goes down.
The lawyer starts to recognize in Jesus’ story a rhetorical pattern frequented in his own arguments, though he must’ve still wondered if Jesus had forgotten the original question. Because this story, it seemed, was shaping up to be about hypocritical church leaders, not an unfamiliar topic in those days. Ancient McCoy would have expected the next traveler along the road to be a simple Jew whose bold assistance to the man would shame the priest and the levite and expose their hypocrisy. That’s how the pattern went: a corrupt priest, an insensitive levite and a good Israelite.
How shocked, then, must Ancient McCoy’ve been when Jesus sends a Samaritan down the road. Now we’re used to hearing “good” alongside “Samaritan”, but it would’ve been a mighty shock to just about every good Israelite listening to Jesus that day. Samaritans were not good. They were unclean, threatening foreigners. Jesus may as well have sent a good member of the Taliban down that road. The two terms were thought to be mutually exclusive.
This awful Samaritan came near that dangerous body in the road and what he saw moved him to mercy. Without the slightest hesitation, without even a trace of doubt this Samaritan—this hated man—acts. And his action is generous beyond imagination: he dresses the injured man’s wounds with expensive, fine medicines, he bandages him and carries him to his horse. And then he walks the horse to the nearest inn where he takes care of the man. He misses his dinner reservations. And later, in the inn, he notices that he’s covered by the same mud and dirt and blood that once caked the poor fellow. But he doesn’t seem to care.
And the poor lawyer hasn’t even recovered from this nonsense story when Jesus turns the table once more. For the question is no longer who is my neighbor?, but rather who was a neighbor to this man?. It’s a simple reversal with profound consequences, for Jesus has taken a question of legal obligation—i.e. what are the fixed boundaries to the entity “neighborhood”?—and transformed it into an opportunity for hospitality, an event of mercy that breaks open the tidy, self-contained boundaries of the world.
The poor lawyer is reeling and we should be too. This is an overwhelming task! An impossible demand! Because we can never be as good as the Good Samaritan. We cannot save the world. We cannot bind up every wound when we barely have ointment enough for ourselves.
Today is the first Sunday of Lent, a time when we turn our attention to Jesus’ atoning work for us and for the world. This is an unusual reading to begin our season but I think it’s particularly appropriate, because who is the Good Samaritan if not Jesus Christ? God’s love for us is not saccharine sentiment. It’s not a “feeling”. God’s love for us is the concrete reality of the Good Samaritan: it is free movement of mercy that in Jesus Christ picks up we broken humans and carries us alongside Jericho Highway. Jesus Christ is the despised outsider. In the midst of all our posturing, all of our assurances that we only need ourselves, that, despite our bruises and broken bones, we can carry ourselves through this life, Jesus Christ comes and breaks open our small, self-contained world and heals us. In violation of the our personal space, in violation of our selfish autonomy, of our self-reliance; in Jesus Christ God has encountered our brokenness, lavished us with the finest medicines of mercy, and taken us down Jericho’s dark road. Not out of some necessity, certainly not because it was owed us, but out of freedom, out of the always outward-moving and abundant grace that brims over from the divine life onto every Highway and Street Corner. God has not asked repayment, only that, until he returns to the inn along side the road we go and do likewise.
Go and do likewise. For Jesus has indeed called us to this impossible thing. We, the church, even these many years later cannot respond to Jesus’ overflowing abundance with neutral ambivalence. We have been called by the Good Samaritan to be good for the world so that the world, in knowing mercy, might know God. We have been called to love, and it is better to fail in our attempts to bind up this broken world than to pass by on the other side of the road, afraid of what damage the wounded world might do to us, or how much worse we may make it if we try.
There will likely be days when, despite our best intentions, we pass by the other side, we lower the bills of our hats, avert our eyes, grab our purses and quicken our pace. It’s human instinct to want to protect ourselves. But Jesus Christ has not called us to safety.
He’s called us to Jericho Road. Not in some metaphorical sense, not as a thought-project, but in reality. Here and now. In this world today. Jesus acted in love. He came to this world and lived as one of us. And he walked alongside the road healing and exorcising demons and preaching the good news. And he died for it. Go and do likewise. In our worship and our prayer, we must always look beyond ourselves. And when we leave these pews, it must be with eyes wide open and a heart truly ready to encounter the other. Truly ready to preach and teach and bind up the world’s wounds.
The church has too often passed by the other side (we are rightly called Levites for our silence in civil rights debates across the country, for our failure to call for prison reform and social conservatism). In an attempt to justify ourselves, we have asked of God’s gospel that it limit mercy, that it contain its wild, unruly movements outwards. That’s the lawyer in us. The worried Priest. The jealous Levite. That’s the way of a world that doesn’t recognize its redemption. But we’re called to be Samaritans, to identify with the dregs, the hated of society, and we have that very Good Samaritan as our guide. We’re called to the Kingdom, the on-the-move world ruled by Love. And Mercy. And when we turn our heads, embarrassed of God’s lavish mercy toward all these riffraff and hoi polloi and rabble rousers, we will be forgiven our temporary failure. But we will not be excused from future encounters. We will not be excused from the neighbor forever. Jesus walks to the cross and we walk behind him. Binding up wounds. Praying. Preaching. All that he asks? Go and do likewise.