Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Good Samaritan

The story of the Good Samaritan is one of those biblical stories that has been interpreted so many ways that it is kind of like tofu – you can make it into whatever you want it to be. That is a dangerous thing to do with Scripture. Interpreting scripture is one of those things that can be done well or it can be done in ways that do violence to what the text actually means. I learned that in hours of hermeneutics lectures, where Dr. Hahn pounded the thought that we have to begin with this question: What did this mean to the original readers or hearers? None of the authors of the Gospels or any other bit of scripture were writing to us in the 21st Century. They were writing to the audience of their day, and anything in the text has to make sense to the readers of the day. Our task is to try to understand the hearers of that day and as best we can put ourselves into their situation as we read the text.

That is really more difficult than you might think. When the adult life group was studying Revelation, one of the points the author made was that for a white American, Revelation makes little sense. But for someone on the underside of power, someone in an oppressed minority, someone who might live in fear of the law such as undocumented aliens or escaped slaves, Revelation makes much more sense. It was written to an oppressed people being hunted by the government. We, who enjoy the top side of power and protected rights, have a hard time understanding the message of hope that John put in that letter. The same can be true of the Good Samaritan.

To give you some background, Jews hated Samaritans, whom they considered heretics. Does anyone know what the basis of their disagreement is? {ask the congregation for input}. Their main issue was over the temple. The Samaritans had built their own temple on Mount Gerazim, and counted the Pentateuch as scripture, but not the other Old Testament books. To say that there was a lot of built up hostility would be understating the issue by an enormous amount. Jews viewed Samaritans as “half-Jews” and would not allow them to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem. This hostility went all the way back to the Assyrian exile in the Old Testament, when the Samaritans were placed there by the Assyrian king and intermarried with the Assyrians and Babylonians. This is the setting in which we find ourselves today.

Turn in your Bibles to Luke 10: 25-37. Hear the word of the Lord:

25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.j “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 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.” 28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 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. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 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. 35 The next day he took out two denarii,k gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

This story should be familiar to many of us. It is so familiar, in fact, that Samaritan has become a common noun like Kleenex, Xerox, Coke (in the south). It stands for an entire category or genre of things, not just the thing it originally stood for. But if we stopped at reading this as a prescription for how to be a person willing to help others, we would be missing so much in this story. Also, if we, as so many have done, make this into a giant allegory where everything stands for something else, we will shortchanging the text. This is a fascinating look at Jesus taking the religious rules and conventions of the day and giving them the Alice in Wonderland – up is down and down is up- treatment.

Let’s dive into this thing.

Our story opens with Jesus being confronted by a lawyer. It seems that in the past 2000 years, the stereotype of a lawyer hasn’t changed much. J This lawyer is trying to pin Jesus down on some matters of faith. So he asks him a somewhat loaded question “What must I DO to inherit eternal life? Has anyone here ever received an inheritance from an earthly relative? Did you have to do anything to receive it? Wash the car? Clip toenails? Seriously, you don’t have to do anything to inherit. You typically inherit because of who you are not because of your works. Jesus, sensing the trap, throws the question back and asks “What does the Law say?” The Lawyer, then starts looking for a loophole. So he drops in the question “Who is my neighbor?” He seems to be saying “who do I have to be nice to in order to merit favor from God? You could look at it as him asking what the minimum is. He could be viewed as self-righteous “I did this therefore I deserve eternal life.” Or you could look at it as him trying to trap Jesus, this guy who has a habit of eating with tax collectors, sinners, talking to Samaritan women at wells, and other unsavory types. Regardless, I don’t think we can say that the lawyer was honestly looking for some religious guidance that would make him a better human being.

‘Who is my neighbor?’ the lawyer wants to vindicate himself to the teacher, wants to show his cleverness, he wants to manage his responsibility. And who is my neighbor? The way the lawyer asks this question puts him in the driver’s seat. He is in control. He is the one who loves. He is the one who decides if another person is truly his neighbor or not. This is his game. With his question to Jesus, he’s just trying to estimate the size of the pitch and identify his teammates.

In answer to this question, then, Jesus’ story becomes quite odd indeed. One of the two main characters, the man set upon by robbers, is passive and unconscious for virtually all of the story, left half dead in a ditch. He doesn’t even have a speaking part. We know almost nothing about him other than that he is most likely an Israelite, like the lawyer. And we know that throughout this story he is passive, exposed, vulnerable. In answering the lawyer’s question, Jesus effectively turns it on its head: who is my neighbor? Is not a question that we answer out of our own power, by our own decision, through our own control. Determining who our neighbor is not a matter of carefully vetting likely candidates and finding some who are really worth bothering with. No; in the event, our neighbor is who we are given.

And what a neighbor this man is given. A priest and a Levite both see the man, half-dead, and pass by on the other side of the road. These fellow Israelites are most likely afraid that this man is not half dead but all dead, and in that case coming into contact with him would render them unclean. So his countrymen and co-religionists pass him by. Instead, a Samaritan comes upon him and helps.

But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 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. 35 The next day he took out two denarii,k gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

This is where Jesus’ story starts to get really dicey with his audience. As we said before, Samaritans were looked down upon in that society. But Jesus makes the Samaritan the hero in the story. The Samaritan pays the equivalent of 2 days wages to the innkeeper, which would have been enough for several days in an inn of the era. The Samaritan bandaged his wounds, put him on his animal, took him to the inn and paid for his care with the promise to pay for any more care that the man may incur.

Now here is where we ought to be careful and try to bracket out our contemporary notions about Samaritans. To an Israelite of Jesus’ day, a Samaritan would have been repugnant. There had been hatred and animosity between the Jews and Samaritans for centuries, as the Israelites held the Samaritans to be idolaters and betrayers of the faith. And the Samaritans gave as good as they got. Roughly 25 years before Jesus would have told this parable, a group of Samaritans entered the Temple in Jerusalem and scattered human bones around, desecrating the place. In our story today, once the Samaritan comes on the scene, the lawyer most likely would have thought that he would come upon the half-dead Israelite and finish the job. To the lawyer, the Samaritan’s help would have been shocking, even scandalous. And that, of course, is just why Jesus used him in the story in the first place.

What’s more, the help that the Samaritan gives is extravagantly over the top. He doesn’t just give first aid, but takes him to an inn. He gives the innkeeper an amount of money that, at that time, would have sustained a person for three weeks. And he doesn’t even stick around for a thank you. In fact, there is no sense at all that this half-dead Israelite ever even knows who saved his life.

Jesus, in one story, has just offended the religious sensibilities of all of his hearers. He has constructed a scenario that none of them would have even considered, and he took a group of people that may have been as hated as the Romans, and made them the hero. During Frog Club this summer, the kids took a stab at recontextualizing this story in terms they could understand. We rewrote the story using characters from TV shows and movies familiar to them and switching the roles around. In one of them Darth Vader was the Samaritan. In another, Squidward was the Samaritan. I think you get the idea of how this story is so important

How might that look for us today? I’ve take a stab at rewriting the story for a 21st century conservative, evangelical audience.

A man was driving from Auburn Hills to Toledo through the inner city of Detroit, and fell into the hands of a gang of thugs, who carjacked him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead in the street. 31 Now by chance a minister was going down that same road; and when he saw him, he drove by went home, and called 911. 32 So likewise a church board member, when he came to the place and saw him, drove by, went home and also called 911. 33 But a Mormon church member, while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and administered first aid, bandaged his wounds, having treated him with Neosporin. Then he put him in his car, drove him to the hospital, and checked him in. 35 After ensuring the man was being cared for, he took out his credit card,k paid the hospital finance officer, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the gang members?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Who is our neighbor? Suddenly, in the logic of the parable, we’re not calling the shots; we are not so sure just who our neighbor is. Suddenly we’re not so sure just who our self is. If I’m to love another as my ‘self’ then the upshot is that I’m not even totally familiar with who I am, as I seem constantly to find that self facing me in others. And here we find the most radical challenge, for in this we see that no boundary will finally stand in the way of us and our neighbor, if we are to love them as our self. There are certainly distinctions: yes; love doesn’t seek to make everything else the same. But boundaries? No. There are no boundaries to our neighbors, no limits to whom we are to find our very selves in, no restrictions to whom we are to love unstintingly in God.

Sisters and brothers, in this day of the internet, international travel, and globalization the world seems to grow smaller; it is clearer now more than ever that any line we draw to limit our neighbors will simply be arbitrary. And so we discover that we have neighbors far and near: your family who sits at the dinner table with you, the young woman across the counter at the Coffee Beanery, the Baptist or the Muslim or the atheist who lives down the street, the unemployed young man who lives across town, the politician we disagree with so ardently, even the worker in a different country who picked the fruit you ate with breakfast or who sewed the shirt you’re wearing right now. Who is my neighbor, who I am to love? Who isn’t my neighbor?

We might even be surprised to find, in fact, that God is our neighbor. That’s not to parrot the words of that song from the nineties that God might be ‘one of us’. What I mean is that the story of the Good Samaritan is also a parable of God’s grace. The man who is half-dead and abandoned, who is unable to do anything on his own encounters a freely given and extravagant healing love from a surprising source, without conditions. This love gives him back his life and allows him to be a neighbor to others. This is the mercy and love of God that we meet through Christ, and that empowers us to love our neighbor. And so here we find that love of God and love of neighbor meet.

We don’t love God because it is a commandment. It is ‘written in the Law’ because God loves us first. God’s love elicits love from us. We respond to that love with love; and we find that even the love we respond with is a gift from God. This responding love is then worked out in loving our neighbor. Loving God and loving neighbor are not two different projects, for love begets love. The love we receive is the love that we love those around us with; and it is with that same love that we graciously receive from our neighbor, who is also beloved of God.

We know how the lawyer in today’s story answered Jesus’ question, but we don’t know what he did after that. Was his life changed? Did he ‘go and do likewise’? Or was he so turned off that he went and looked for a different venue to plead his case in? Or did he, perhaps like most of us, walk away convinced that Jesus was right, yet also knowing how far he was from it, nevertheless trying to love others with the love that he had found in Christ? Of course, we can only speculate about him. But I hope that as we go out in the wake of this story we will be both challenged and comforted by what we find here: by the surprising Samaritan, by the neighbor in our life we do not choose but are given by God, and most of all by the extravagant love and grace of God. In that way, may we better grasp this story, better love this story, and above all, be better grasped by the love we find in it.

Folks, we have neighbors we didn’t choose right here by the church. Some of you have noticed them, others may not have. I don’t want to focus on the neighbors and their various needs, misdeeds and the like. I would rather focus on Jesus’ admonition to the lawyer to go and do likewise. What kind of neighbors do we want to be to these people? What kind of neighbor do we want to be to the people who live near our homes? To the people we work with, come in contact with at Kroger, the gas station, at high school sporting events, in school? In many ways the point of this story is about the lawyer. How do we take the extravagant love that has been given to us and share it with the world around us? That is the question we as a congregation need to wrestle with. There is no easy answer that I can give you other than to love extravagantly .

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