Friday, May 14, 2010

The Story of the Good Samaritan

"Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.... [and] wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ Jesus 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. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He 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. The 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.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise’" (Luke 10: 24-37).

There’s a story in Luke 9 that is a must read when trying to understand the passage you just read. We’re told that when Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem he decided to enter a village of the Samaritans on his way north, even though Jews and Samaritans hated each other, “but they did not receive him” (53). In response to this rejection, James & John give us a good idea of how Jews felt about Samaritans, “Master, do you want us to call a bolt of lightening down out of the sky and incinerate them?” (That's Eugene Peterson's translation, by the way!) Then, we're told, Jesus turned and rebuked them (Luke 9: 55). Wouldn’t you like to know what Jesus actually said to them? Perhaps Luke didn't want to print it. In any case, they failed to see that his ministry was a ministry without borders....

Perhaps you’ve heard of Doctors Without Borders…an organization that received the Nobel Peace Prize for their pioneering humanitarian aid to victims of natural and man-made disasters around the world. Currently, they’re treating malnourished children in Bihar, India, they’ve vaccinated 400,000 people against meningitis in Niger; they’re treating gunshot victims in S. Sudan, and they’re doing around the clock surgeries in remote areas of Iraq. Well, Jesus' ministry is really the template for all such efforts...though many objected.

Take the lawyer, an expert in the law who asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life? Jesus asked him what the law of Moses said, and he gives a textbook answer; “Love the Lord your God…and your neighbor as yourself.” “Well said” Jesus replies. “Do this, and you will live.” At this point, if the lawyer had been more honest, he would have admitted his unease and said, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner,” but instead he tried to justify himself, confident that God could not possibly be asking him to love just any neighbor and especially not sinners, tax collectors, or even Samaritans (as Jesus seemed to do). So, looking for a loophole, he asks Jesus; “And just who IS my neighbor?” By way of answering this final question, Jesus tells a brilliant parable. Let’s look at the scene of the Parable, the characters and Jesus’ challenge.

The scene: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho....” (30). Anyone listening to Jesus tell this story would instantly know the road that Jesus was talking about. It was very dangerous for several reasons. The 17 mile road went from Jerusalem, which is 2300 feet above sea-level, down to Jericho which is near the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth at 1300 feet below sea level. So, in less than 20 miles the road drops 3,600 feet! It was a narrow road through desolate and craggy limestone hills – the ideal place for bandits and robbers. No one in his or her right mind traveled that road alone… and everyone tried to get off that road before dark. The very thing Jesus describes in this story is the very thing everyone feared might happen on that road.

One of the keys to understanding this story is the fact that in Luke 9:51 Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem which means that he himself was about to travel, or had already traveled on this road. In other words, Jesus knew this road and is more than qualified to point out the risks, the divine opportunities, the real and imagined dangers, if only we will listen and follow his steps. Now, let's look at each of the characters in Jesus' story in turn....

There was the traveler: "A man was going down the road from Jerusalem" and Jesus tells us that “robbers stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead” (30). This means the man was un-identifiable. There were only two ways a traveler could identify a stranger on the open road. One was by clothing, and the other was by speech. Physical features alone were not enough in this region. Now a Judean was bound to help a member of his own community, but Jesus tells us that this man had no identifying clothing, and he could not talk because he was beaten senseless. If he had been clearly identifiable as a Judean, a fellow countryman would have been bound to help him…but he is not, and so the tension is established. He is simply a man, a human being in need.

Next, Jesus says that “by chance a priest was going down that road” (31) which means he was returning home from Jerusalem, having served in the temple for his 2-week shift. In fact, many priests who served in the Jerusalem temple lived in Jericho, and would frequent this road. How fortunate for this wounded man! Kenneth Bailey reminds us that priests came from the upper crust of society which means he was riding a horse. (K. Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes, 43) No one with any status took 17 mile walks through the desert. This was someone who could really help the wounded man, while someone on foot would be unable to bring him down this long and dangerous road. The point is that he had the means to help him but, shockingly, Jesus says he passed him by on the other side. What could possibly excuse such behavior? Well, the man could have been dead, and if he touched him, he would be ritually unclean for 7 days. His livelihood as a priest would be affected and he would not be able to touch the portion of the ceremonial offerings that are given to the priest to feed his family. On the other hand, the priest may have supposed that this was a gentile “sinner” (he couldn't be sure) – someone he was not bound to help anyway -- according to some rabbinic traditions.

Notice the first word used to describe the Priest’s arrival: it’s the word “CHANCE” (The Greek word is sugkuria which can mean chance or coincidence, a word that occurs only here in the New Testament). By chance," Jesus says, "a priest was going down that road….” I think Jesus winked as he used this word, because biblically speaking, even random chance is under God’s sovereignty. Every day we find ourselves in seemingly “accidental” or “random” situations that are in fact divine opportunities. Prov. 16:33 says, “The lot is cast…but the decision is the Lord’s alone.” Speaking of lots, the most recent winners of the 226 million dollar California lottery, Gilbert & Jacki Cisneros, had some interesting things to say about their “luck.” Gilbert Cisneros, who recently lost his job and bought the ticket said “The first thing we need to do is go to church and pray.” (http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/36982755/ns/today-today_people/ ) When asked how they would spend the money he said: “We’ll buy a house [but] we’ll also give back to those who need it, including our church.” For them, winning was not random chance…it was a divine opportunity. When you take a risk and get involved in what God is doing, you help determine what kind of day it is…a meaningless day or a meaningful day…a random day or a kingdom day…an accidental day…or a providential day.

After the Priest, Jesus says that another religious man came down the road, a Levite (32). Now those who have traveled this road say that you can see a considerable distance ahead most of the way. Because it was a dangerous road, you can bet that anyone traveling on it would keep an eye out for the other people who were also on the road (Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes, 46). The point is that this Levite was keeping an eye on that priest. He knew that the priest had passed by. Levites also worked in the temple, but they were of a lower class. Perhaps he thought. “If the priest didn’t get involved, why should I?”

Last month on April 18th, a homeless man in New York City lay face down, unmoving, on the sidewalk outside an apartment building, blood from knife wounds pooling underneath his body. An AP article says that “One person passed by in the early morning. Then another, and another. Video footage from a surveillance camera shows at least seven people going by, some turning their heads to look, others stopping to gawk. One even lifted the homeless man's body, exposing what appeared to be blood on the sidewalk underneath him, before walking away. It wasn't until after the 31-year-old Guatemalan immigrant had been lying there for nearly an hour that emergency workers arrived, and by then, it was too late. Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax had died.” Apparently a couple was having a fight that became violent. When this homeless man tried to be a good Samaritan and protect the woman, her boyfriend turned and stabbed him several times. “What’s wrong with humanity?” a woman visiting her grandmother at a nearby apartment asked. A teacher at a school across the street said this: "I think people are just afraid to step in; they don't want to get involved” (http://www.nypost.com/).

Notice that the first word used to describe the Levite is “LIKEWISE (homoios) Likewise, a Levite when he came…passed by on the other side.” The sin of the Levite is that he was a “likewiser.” He likewised himself into behavior that couldn’t have been more unwise. He was following the crowd and failing to think for himself. Nothing moves us in the wrong direction faster than the desperate need to be accepted by the “right” people, the popular and the supposedly powerful. The need for community, or spiritual power, status or acceptance can become an idol. We have to beware of the “us four and no more” attitude that quick freezes our hearts, closes us off from the outside world, and creates a private club which is ours to enjoy at the expense of the lost and hurting people outside.

Now Jesus catches his listeners off guard. For he says that a Samaritan happened to pass by, and when seeing the man “was moved with pity, went to him, bandaged his wounds…put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn and took care of him” (33-35). “Good Samaritan” is such a stock phrase now for one who helps others; it’s hard to appreciate what a shock this detail would have been to his Judean listeners. Listen, the only good Samaritan was a dead Samaritan. They were considered heretics, and half-breeds who intermarried with foreigners. They were publicly cursed in the synagogues. Jews hated Samaritans, and vice versa. Given all this, the actions of the Samaritan are amazing!

Here was a Samaritan, traveling through Judea, who helps a man that was probably his enemy. Here was a man who took the time to bandage a stranger’s wounds, and put him on his own animal, despite the fact that taking the time to do so could mean risking a similar fate by waiting robbers. Here was a man who takes his enemy to an inn and personally cares for him…not leaving him on the doorstep of someone’s house and quietly leaving, but staying over night with him in hostile territory – probably Jericho. Here was a man who promises to return to repay whatever more the innkeeper spends to care for him. He knew the wounded man had no money, and if he left without paying, the he would be arrested for the debt. Yes, innkeepers had that kind of reputation. If the Samaritan did not return, this man would have no way of getting out of town! The key phrase in the description of the Samaritan is “HE WENT.” With his mind he saw the seriousness of the situation. With his emotions he felt pity. And with his will he went to him, taking action. Despite the cost in time, effort, money and personal dangerhe went, demonstrating a love without borders.

Jesus ends his story with a challenging question: “Which of these three was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers” (36)? Not the one who missed his chance, his divine opportunity. Not the Likewiser, who followed the crowd. No, the lawyer answers, “It was the one who went, who showed him mercy!” Notice that he can’t even bring himself to say, “The Samaritan!” Jesus says (literally) “Go…and you do likewise.” His point is clear: Those who live in the reality of God’s Kingdom Without Borders are not worrying about who their neighbors are…busily compiling a list in advance of those they can thankfully ignore. No, the question is not “Who is my neighbor?” but “To WHOM will I become a neighbor today?”

“Go and you do likewise” Jesus says. You may be thinking right about now: “I’m not sure that I can go and do likewise.” I believe this is exactly what he wanted the Lawyer to be asking himself. Jesus exposed his spiritual pride, and ours. That lady in New York asked an important question: “What’s wrong with humanity?” When The Times invited several eminent authors to answer the same question years ago, Chesterton wrote back: "Dear Sirs, I am. Sincerely yours, G. K. Chesterton" I AM. That is, I am a sinner in need of rescue. Remember, Jesus has traveled this road and only he perfectly embodies the compassion and sacrifice of the Good Samaritan. It’s his love and compassion working in us that will enable us to do what he does.
His love within us will empower us to love the broken and hurting people of this world without borders, limits, conditions or loopholes.

Father give me eyes to see the wounded all around me, but help me to be blind to the prejudices and hatreds that would keep me from moving toward others with compassion in your name. Give me the desire to approach those who are in need. Give me the desire to love and care for those who are hurting. Oh, Lord, may others see the mark of the Master’s mercy in my life. May they see the incredible love of Jesus who loved his enemies and was willing even to die for them. Finally may those whom I touch in your name, seek to know You, love you and serve you as Lord and Savior… to the glory and praise of our gracious God we pray. Amen.

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