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.” –Luke 10:25-37
There has been a lot of talk about “social distancing” these days, and rightfully so. The health experts tell us that the best way to deal with the virus is to keep a healthy distance between ourselves and others. I think that is most important advice. But, then again, there are those who are called to put themselves in harm’s way, as it were, to minister to those who are ill and to the basic life-needs of those trying to remain healthy.
In some ways, today’s parable can easily serve as an illustration of the “good Samaritans” working in hospitals, mass transit, fire or police stations, and other service-related occupations which have called for being on the forefronts to combat this illness. Without hesitation, our hats are off and our hearts are grateful for all of those working so diligently for humankind’s health and safety.
But what if this parable raises even more questions for those of us hearing it in the 21st century? What if the question is individually personal for all of us, requiring second looks at ourselves? Perhaps, to begin, it will be helpful to take a brief view of how those in the first century would have heard it.
First of all, the parable was told in response to a question, a question posed by a lawyer. Actually, the Greek term, nomikós, wasn’t a lawyer in the sense that we know it. Rather, a lawyer in that day and time was a learned teacher of the religious law. However, the text tells us that he wasn’t coming to discuss theology with Jesus; he came like a political pundit, to ask questions that would expose Jesus’ weakness in understanding the law. His question is: “What should I do to inherit eternal life?”
Secondly, for Jesus’ listeners, the elephant in the room would have been the fact that the person who actually showed mercy was not a respected member of their own community, but instead was the despised “other”, their enemy, a Samaritan! For 21st-century Americans, Jesus might substitute another generally-maligned nationality or ethnicity in order to get our attention and to remind us, as we hear so often these days, that “we’re all in this together.”
Thirdly, Fred Craddock would have us pay attention to the parable’s intriguing symmetry. In the first part of the text, verses 25 through 28, the lawyer asks a question and so does Jesus. In the second part, verses 29-37, the lawyer asks a question and after an intervening story, so does Jesus; the lawyer answers, and so does Jesus. The questions and answers are most important. The lawyer knew the answers to his own questions, and in both cases Jesus expressed full agreement. So then, what is wrong with this conversation? We have two good questions, two good answers, and two men who agree. What else could one ask? Well, a number of things are wrong. Asking a question for the purpose of gaining an advantage over another is not a spiritual exercise. The goal of witnessing or of theological conversation is not to outwit another. Having the right answers does not mean one knows God. Someone can make a 4.0 in Bible and still miss the point. Note this – Jesus did not say to the lawyer, “Great answer! You are brilliant!!” Rather, Jesus said, “Go and do.”
Now, there is the rub – the doing. How do we do in a time of pandemic? Perhaps, a helpful way of looking at this parable is how we see ourselves in the characters of the story. At some times in my life, I have understood this parable in terms of Jesus being the “Good Samaritan,” and I am the one in need. It’s not a bad read on things. But what if the story’s focus is on Jesus being the man on the road, the one who was beaten and left for dead? After all, in one of Jesus’ most powerful teachings, delivered the week before his crucifixion, he talks about salvation as related to how we care for one another.
“Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
There once was a young seminary student who spent his summer working at a Jesuit home for the poor in the center of one of our nation’s most blighted cities. They worked every day, all day, handing out food, ministering to the human need as best they could. One particularly difficult, long day was drawing to a close. The student and an old Jesuit priest finally took care of the last person in need and were pushing the big oak door closed for the night when they looked out and saw yet one more forlorn soul shuffling his way toward the center. The student looked out at the man shuffling toward them, thought of how tired he was and muttered, “Jesus Christ . . .” The old Jesuit priest looked up and said, “Could be, could be. We had better open the door.”
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
For me personally, one of the most powerfully convicting realizations and burdens of this time has been acknowledging my own relatively safe existence in comparison to those who do not have access to a secure livelihood; nutritious food; a clean, comfortable home environment; and trusted caregivers and doctors. While my age may define me as “more” vulnerable, as a follower of Christ I am called to serve the “most” vulnerable. The parable reminds me that I have no excuse for avoiding that call. This is where the value of prayer and community make themselves known.
Let us lift up the Good Samaritans of this day by praying for all of those putting themselves at risk for the sake of others. Pray for their wisdom, knowledge, energy and good health.
Can you remember someone who has come to your aid in a time of crisis, perhaps even recently? Thank God for them. Thank them for God.
How might you minister to Jesus during this time? What specific shape might that take? Ask God for the wisdom, opportunity and courage to do so.
A Musical Guide for Prayer: Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me”
(Bill Withers was an African-American musician who was an inspiration for people all over the world. He passed away recently, but his music lives on.)
Sometimes in our lives we all have pain We all have sorrow But if we are wise We know that there’s always tomorrow Lean on me, when you’re not strong And I’ll be your friend I’ll help you carry on For it won’t be long ‘Til I’m gonna need Somebody to lean on
Please swallow your pride If I have things you need to borrow For no one can fill those of your needs That you won’t let show You just call on me brother, when you need a hand We all need somebody to lean on I just might have a problem that you’ll understand We all need somebody to lean on
If there is a load you have to bear That you can’t carry I’m right up the road I’ll share your load If you just call me