July 10, 2022
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?” He 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.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 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 traveling 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 neighbor 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.” ***
“Who is my neighbor?”
It was meant to be a trick question. The lawyer, professionally trained in the Old Testament law first asked, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” This really was not his concern\ for he felt he had eternal life settled. Rather he hoped Jesus would indict himself.
Knowing this man was a great student of the law, Jesus asked, “What is written in the law?”
The lawyer had not anticipated such a response. However, like any good Jew he knew the answer.
Quoting Deuteronomy, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all your strength, and with all you mind” and added words from Leviticus, “And the neighbor as yourself.”
What Jesus does next, after commending the lawyer for giving the proper answer, is masterful. “Do this and you shall live.” But the guy can’t leave this alone, and asks “And just who is my neighbor.”
Jesus can’t hold himself back. His answer is the story many know so well.
A Jewish man is left for dead in a ditch. Two reputable Jews walked by, one of them a priest and the other a Levite and neither of them stopped to render aid. The third man, a Samaritan stopped to help. “Now which of these men do you think, Jesus asks, was neighbor to the man in need?”
The lawyer must have nearly needed the paddles to shock his heart back into rhythm. Jesus had just commended the enemy. To Jews, Samaritans were the enemy. They believed Samaritans were pagan, idol-worshippers. But the truth was they worshiped the God of Abraham, too. The animosity between the groups arose in the 4th century BC when the Samaritans built a temple on Mount Gerizim that rivaled the Jerusalem temple. It had been bad apples ever since.
Jesus, by making a hero of the Samaritan in this story, blows a controversial wind over the Jews. It was scandalous.
It is impossible to grasp the shock of this story, unless we retell it in contemporary terms. Jacqueline Bussie, in her book “Love Without Limits” provides this retelling.
A 21st century Christian approached Jesus and asked, “Who is my neighbor?” And Jesus answered: “There was a Christian man on his way across the city of Detroit to feed the homeless. On his way there, a street gang mugged him and beat him senseless, leaving him in the gutter to die.
A pastor walked by on the street and, seeing the bloodied man in the gutter, crossed to the other side, thinking, please don’t let that homeless guy make eye contact with me. A few minutes later, a Christian woman who was the president of her congregation walked past. She too crossed to the other side of the street thinking, look at that guy, probably a crack addict or a drunk.
And then a Muslim man walked by, saw the man lying in the gutter, and stopped. Moved with compassion he said ‘My friend, let me take you to the ER.’ Once at the hospital, the Muslim man realized the beat-up guy didn’t have health insurance. “That’s okay, I’ll pay,’ he told the nurse at check-in and paid two days of his entire salary for the care of this man whose name he didn’t even know. Even though he had to go to work the next day, the Muslim man decided to sit at the man’s bedside all night, so he wouldn’t feel alone or afraid if he woke up.
In the morning, when the Muslim left, he gave the hospital his cell number and said, ‘If the man in room 109 incurs any more charges, call me and I’ll cover those as well.’ 1
Jesus: “Who, then was a neighbor to the man in need?
To those who have ears to hear, go and do likewise.”
Bussie accomplishes the contemporary shock value of what Jesus had to say to that smart lawyer. He was looking for a way to be blessed for excluding some as the neighbor to whom he was called to love.
Let’s back up for a moment. Jesus does not give reasons for why the two who passed the beaten man refused to help, because their reasons do not matter. All that matters in this story is what they do, which is to see the man and pass by him.
In telling this story, Jesus carefully reveals a hidden truth about the priest and the Levite. Barbara Brown Taylor helps us find it by taking us back to the story and pointing out the verbs which describe each passerby. Count the verbs yourself — “see, and pass by” — two verbs each for the priest and Levite. Whatever else they think, say, have faith in or believe, this is what they actually do.”2
However, the Samaritan is overflowing with neighborly verbs. He “comes near the man, sees him, is moved by him, goes to him, and bandages his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. He puts the man on his animal, brings him to an inn, takes care of him, takes money out of his pocket and gives it to the innkeeper, and asks the innkeeper to take care of the nearly dead man, saying that he will come back and repay whatever more the innkeeper spends.” That’s a whopping fourteen verbs for the Samaritan!
Taylor suggests that the key verb is the first one. Without it, nothing else follows. The Samaritan “comes near.”
To truly be a neighbor we need to “come near” enough to see beyond the stereotype — see beyond the turban or the hijab, see beyond the political party label, see beyond the sagging shorts, nose rings and tattoos, see beyond the confused conversation of the person with Alzheimer’s, see beyond the rigidity and fear of the fundamentalist of any and every religion, see beyond the homemade sign of the panhandler at the exit ramp of the freeway, look into his eyes, and see a human being. Behind every label, even that of “terrorist,” is a human being, a child of God. Every one.
Yes, we believe in salvation by grace through faith, and what we DO for every other person shows whether we are truly following Jesus.
At the end of the day, Jesus didn’t actually answer the question about eternal life. He talked about the here and now. He said, “Come near…come near…so you can see…this child of God. Provide the compassionate care that is needed…love your neighbor (and your enemy) as much as you love yourself.
Do this… and live.”
1 Jacqueline A. Bussie, “Love Without Limits” (Fortress Press 2018) pp. 102–103
2 Barbara Brown Taylor (in a sermon entitled Do This and Live, ©Barbara Brown Taylor, Peachtree Road United Methodist Church Atlanta, GA, May 15, 2006);
Image: Cooperative Baptist Fellowship blog