Time: 5 minutes
There’s a pretty common pattern we find in the Gospels when Jesus makes a big, important point: Jesus makes a declaration that appears to be pretty simple and straight forward, and his listeners turn into amateur debaters who want to argue every point, trying to find a loop hole.
One of the most significant of these situations is when a lawyer asked Jesus what he has to do to inherit eternal life.
Jesus said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ The lawyer 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 neighbour as yourself.’ And Jesus said, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’ But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’
What follows is one of the most well known parables in the Bible.
Jesus tells of a man on the dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho who is attacked, beaten, and left for dead. While he was lying there a priest walked by. Seeing the man, he crossed to the other side of the road. Next came a Levite, who also crossed to the other side to avoid the man.
But then came a Samaritan. This good Samaritan, overwhelmed by compassion, tended to the man’s wounds, put him on his animal, and took him to an inn. He gave the innkeeper two days’s worth of wages and told him, when he came back, he would pay more if the innkeeper required it.
Finished with his story, Jesus asked the lawyer who was a neighbor to the man who was attacked. “The one who showed him mercy,” he said. Jesus’ response? “Go and do likewise.”
As of today, more than 30 of our nation’s governors have made some sort of decree that the refugees from Syria will not be allowed into their states, including the states served by the Synod of Mid-America. They say they have good reasons, mostly having to do with national security and the safety and well-being of our citizens.
There’s little debate as to whether the governors can actually do this. Welcoming refugees is a federal matter. But I’m not a politician nor an expert on security, and that’s not what concerning me right now.
My concern is one as a person of faith, specifically one who professes faith in Jesus Christ. As followers of the Gospel, our concern has to be one of care and compassion. Of concern for another’s well-being before our own. This call to self sacrifice in the service of others is a pretty simple, straightforward call we find in our Bible.
You see: Just like our governors, the Priest and the Levite probably had good reasons for avoiding the man on the road, too. The text never says, but I always assume the Priest and the Levite thought the guy was dead. As professionally religious people they knew coming into contact with a dead body would make them “unclean.” Naturally, this Samaritan wouldn’t have those concerns.
But here’s the thing: Contrasting the Good Samaritan with the Priest and the Levite isn’t even the point of the story.
New Testament scholar Amy Jill Levine points out that in telling this parable, Jesus was actually subverting a very common storytelling formula. In the minds of the first listeners, after Jesus said “A Priest and a Levite,” they expected him to say “…and a Jew were walking down the road.” That’s the way the story always went. “A Priest, a Levite, and a Jew.” It’s like how we start jokes with: “A Priest, a Rabbi, and a Preacher walk into a bar.” They thought Jesus was going to say, “The Priest and the Levite have good reasons for avoiding the man. But you, you good Jews, let me tell you how you should behave.”
So when Jesus says, “…and a Samaritan,” they know that something’s up. “Samaritan” was an insult used by Jews. They regularly called Samaritans “dogs” and “half-breeds,” and this opinion easily led to the Jews believing the Samaritans were inherently despicable. They were expecting to hear a story about what GOOD JEWS were supposed to do. Instead they learned a lesson about care and compassion featuring someone they despised.
So when his story was over, and Jesus asked who best fulfilled the Law that God gave the people, I’m sure it was with great frustration that the lawyer had to admit: It was the Samaritan. In fact, he couldn’t even bring himself to say the word. He said: “The one who showed him mercy.”
Bless his heart.
So we can talk and debate and argue all day long as to why the Priest, the Levite, or our governors are doing what they’re doing. But at the end of the day, Good Christians, the question is what OUR response should be. What does it look like for us to tend to the dying man, lying on the side of the road? What does it look like to care for the refugees and victims of attacks all around the world?
Here’s what I hope:
May we be the people who follow our refugee Lord’s command to love our neighbors as ourselves. May we be the people who understand that loving our neighbor is the best way to love God. May we be the people who understand that our neighbor is anyone in need.