Of all the stories that Jesus told, the one in today’s Gospel is surely the most famous. Politicians regularly refer to it, and I was particularly struck to read the account of someone caught up in the mass shooting incident in Highland Park, Illinois last week, who explained that he and his family fled in fear and found refuge “in the apartment of a Good Samaritan.” It’s a story that has become a shorthand for what all that we value in the kindness of strangers.
The odd thing is that everyone refers to “the Good Samaritan”, though at no point in the Gospel is he actually described as good, even though his actions clearly are. We naturally assume that the Samaritan is the hero of the story, the good guy who is a good neighbour, and that the Priest and the Levite who pass by on the other side are the villains. The danger in that is that it has, in the past, led to an anti-semitic reading of the parable – and that cannot be what Jesus, himself a Jew, meant. And the very phrase “Good Samaritan” is, of course, offensive because it implies a prejudice (widespread among Jewish contemporaries of Jesus) that the majority of Samaritans were not good. For that reason, I’m going to refer to Jesus’ story as the parable of the mugging on the road to Jericho.
So what did Jesus mean when he told this parable? There are clues to that to be found if we focus not on the Samaritan, but on the lawyer whose questioning prompts Jesus to tell the story. The Gospel writer clearly does not approve of the lawyer. We are told that the point of the lawyer’s question is to test Jesus – in other words the lawyer (not a solicitor or an advocate, but an expert in the Law of Moses) is trying to catch Jesus out. Even his way of addressing Jesus – “Teacher” – isn’t respectful. The people who address Jesus as “Teacher” in Luke’s Gospel are critics and opponents, rather than supporters of Jesus. And when we look at the question itself, we find that the lawyer’s thinking is deeply flawed. That isn’t clear in our translation. A more accurate translation would be “Tell me the one thing I need to do to inherit eternal life.”
So the parable of the mugging on the road to Jericho is Jesus’ response to a fellow Jew who just didn’t get what Judaism was about – for the lawyer was selfishly focusing on the question “how can I inherit eternal life?” and the Law of Moses focuses not on individuals, but on the things which build strong and stable communities – loving God and your neighbour, honouring your father and mother, and not indulging in the habits of mind and the actions which undermine community. So the parable of the mugging on the road to Jericho is Jesus response to a trick question by someone who simply didn’t understand the values of the religion which he claimed to profess.
Jesus handles the lawyer’s trick question very skillfully. “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” And the word read is important – Jesus is reminding everyone that the lawyer is educated, literate – he’s supposed to be an expert. And the lawyer doesn’t offer a reading – an interpretation – in response, he just quotes the summary of the Law of Moses that all his hearers would have learned by heart as children:
“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 here’s the irony – in testing Jesus, in focusing on his own personal salvation, the lawyer had shown that he was very far from understanding the meaning of the law from which he could quote so fluently.
Jesus’ response is very important. Jesus does not say “You’re right – and that’s how you achieve eternal life”. Instead he says:
“You have given the right answer, do this and you will live.”
Meaning “If you do this, then you will live well in the here and now, and living well in the here and now is what really matters.” Jesus is implying that being over-concerned with whether you will get to heaven is selfish.
The sensible thing for the lawyer to have done at this point would have been to walk away. Instead, having dug himself into a hole, he chooses to go on digging and asks a question even less sensible than his first one.
“But who is my neighbour?”
In asking the question he is seeking to draw a boundary – he is saying “OK, tell me whom I need to love and whom I don’t have to bother loving?”
The Hebrew word for neighbour has many meanings – ranging from “the other person” to “friend” and even “lover”. And in the book of Leviticus we find the teaching that the foreigner who lives among Jews should be treated as a neighbour. Those verses are worth quoting because they have an obvious contemporary resonance.
“When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizens among you; you shall love the alien as yourself.”
And Jesus tells the story of the mugging on the road to Jericho to make one big, simple point – that the answer to the lawyer’s question is that love knows no limits, and your neighbour is “everyone”.
The story itself is interesting. We aren’t told anything about the victim other than what happened to him – we don’t know his race, his religion or his socio-economic status. And that’s part of Jesus’ point – the victim is our neighbour whatever his or her race, religion or socio-economic status. And we certainly shouldn’t take the fact that the Priest and the Levite passed by on the other side as a pretext for any kind of criticism of the Jewish faith.
When he specified a Priest and a Levite, Jesus was setting up an expectation in the minds of his hearers. If I began a joke with the words “An Englishmen, an Irishman and a……” you would all expect the third person in the story to be…a Scotsman. In Jesus’ time, if you began a story with a Priest and a Levite, then everyone expected the third person to be an Israelite – an ordinary Jewish person. Instead, Jesus makes the good neighbour in the story a Samaritan – a member of a group whom the lawyer and the other people listening to the story would have regarded as beyond the pale. So we need to see this story as part of Jesus’ teaching that practical love reaches across the boundaries of prejudice. And that’s a teaching as fresh and as relevant today as it was two thousand years ago when the story was first told.
I’m going to finish with an acknowledgement and a quotation. Much of the material for this sermon came from a book the American-Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine. The book is called Short Stories by Jesus. Amy-Jill Levine concludes her chapter on the parable of the mugging on the road to Jericho with these words:
“Will we be able to care for our enemies who are also our neighbours? Will we be able to bind up their wounds rather than blow up their cities? And can we imagine that they might do the same for us?...the Biblical text and concern for humanity’s future tell us that we must.”