Throughout July, we’re going to be taking a look at Jesus’ parables from the gospel of Luke – paying specific attention to how those parables would’ve been heard by their original audience. So I’ll be drawing heavily on a book titled Short Stories by Jesus, by Dr. Amy-Jill Levine. Dr. Levine is a New Testament scholar, and she’s also Jewish—so she has a very unique perspective that’s going to be incredibly helpful to us as we look at these stories in their original context.

Today, the piece of Scripture we’ll hear is very, very familiar to us: the parable of the Good Samaritan.

But because it’s so familiar, as we listen, I want us to listen for a couple of specific things:

First, what are the questions that the lawyer asks, and why does he ask those questions?
Second, what questions does Jesus ask, and why?

Scripture: Luke 10:25-37

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 neighbour 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 neighbour?’ 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 travelling 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.’

The Parable of the Good Samaritan is ubiquitous in modern western culture. It’s everywhere. We have Good Samaritan hospitals, Good Samaritan laws to protect those who try to help in emergencies, Good Samaritan charities and programs and all sorts of other things. I actually think we’ve heard this story, and so many versions of it, so many times that it’s lost any ability to surprise us. It’s like when your grandmother tells you the same story to make the same point for the 400th time, and you kind of want to say “yes, yes, I know, I get it.”

But even though it appears on the surface to be pretty straightforward, there are many, many layers to this story—and a profound mystery in what Jesus asks of us here.

So let’s take a look at what’s going on:

Jesus is hanging out in a crowd, teaching and doing his thing, when a lawyer comes up and asks “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

He’s looking for a checklist answer: a few tasks to cross off, and he’ll be good to go. Jesus, sensing his attitude, says “you’re the lawyer, so you know the law—what do you find there?”

No one is surprised when the man comes back with the Shema—what we know as the greatest commandment, which was (and still is) part of the daily Jewish prayers, recited at least twice a day. This is the right answer.

But this lawyer takes it one step further, because he wants to make sure he’s already right—that nothing more will be asked of him.

“Who is my neighbor?”

The question is valid from a legal standpoint—who is in and who is out? Who is bound by these same laws, and who is not?
But from a theological standpoint, he’s asking precisely the wrong question: “who can I not care about?”

And that’s what gets him in trouble. Because if you read the Old Testament, any time there is a parable like this directed at one person, they’re definitely in trouble.

Without saying anything else, Jesus begins his story.

Among the things no one is surprised about: that this anonymous man was attacked on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. It was a road known to be dangerous, especially to solo travelers.

They’re also not surprised that a priest and a Levite came by—likely on their way home from serving their turn at the Temple in Jerusalem.

What the crowd would have absolutely been surprised at, and horrified by, is that both the priest and the Levite saw the man who’d been attacked and just walked on by.

Scholars, for nearly 2000 years, have tried to find any excuse for why they would’ve crossed the road and refused to help. Some argue that they were more concerned about ritual purity than compassion—because they were afraid he was dead, and touching a dead body would have made them unclean. But those excuses are all hot air: first of all, both were headed away from Jerusalem—which meant that even if they were ‘unclean,’ it wouldn’t have mattered anyway, because they weren’t performing any priestly duties.

And secondly, according to Jewish scholars, the laws at the time would have mandated that they not only check on someone who’s injured and care for them, but care for a body after death. Dr. Levine points out that the Babylonian Talmud, a commentary on Jewish law, says: “As long as there are no other people to look after the burial of a corpse, the duty is incumbent on the first Jew that passes by, without exception, to perform the burial.”[1]

So these two knew what they were required to do, and both of them failed to do it.

They get another surprise, though, as the story continues. The next person to come by should have been an Israelite! That was a familiar grouping for them—in the same way that some of us at least would know what comes after Moe, Larry, and (Curly), or we would know what comes after Father, Son, and (Holy Spirit.)

The trope went: Priests, Levites, and the people of Israel.

But Jesus throws that out the window and pulls a Samaritan into the story. Samaritans and Jews hated one another—each one thought that they were the true followers of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the other group had abandoned the faith. They had disputes over territory and theology, and at one point, Jesus himself was run out of Samaria after being refused food and lodging because he was a Jewish rabbi.

So when a Samaritan comes by and turns out to be the one that helps this dying man, you can imagine the horror and confusion in the crowd. The ones who were supposed to be the most righteous among them turned out to be those who failed, while the one supposedly the most unrighteous was the one to practice compassion, to give selflessly, to care for his neighbor.

And then Jesus asks: “who acted like a neighbor to this man?”

If you were to line up a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan in ancient Israel and ask someone: “who is your neighbor?”, you would get one of two answers, and neither would be “the Samaritan guy!”

The lawyer can’t even say it out loud, so he says “the one who showed him mercy.”

Jesus, then, responds: “go and do likewise.”

Which is to say, there are no boundaries to this commandment. Even the Samaritans know this: your first duty is to protect and nurture life, to care for one another. No matter how vast your theological differences, or how different your political opinions, or how far apart your nationalities, you are to love one another.

I like to think Jesus inserts the Samaritan into this story in order to say: the first commandment, to love God with all of you, can never be used as an excuse to ignore the commandment to love your fellow humans.

Compassion, love, mercy, grace—all of these big things, big church-y words, are just poetic ways to say: “move closer.” Move toward those who are suffering, not looking away, not crossing the street, never saying “he’s not even one of ours.” You don’t have to have a full-blown Savior complex. God does not ask you to save the world—you may not ever encounter a life or death situation like this. But there are two million small ways to move closer, to jump in, to look toward those who need help.

Writer and theologian Sarah Bessey, who is one of my personal favorites, wrote this on Facebook a couple weeks ago:

“I used to think that changing the world would be a lot more sexy than it actually turned out to be. After all, you know how I love what Eugene Peterson calls “the big nouns and the big verbs” – love! justice! peace! shalom! equality! wholeness! mercy! salvation! forgiveness! goodness!

When I was younger and more idealistic perhaps, all I wanted was to save the world and make things right. Even now, I love that instinct and I still want to participate in that sort of work – it’s just that I had this rather wrong idea in my head of how that would look.

Because here’s the hand-to-God truth: the most actual *literal* world changing stuff that I get to participate with is almost always decidedly not [fun]. It is not public. It is behind the scenes. It is thankless. It is monotonous. It is sometimes disheartening.

And it’s the best.

Because it turns out that we only get to those Big Nouns and the Big Verbs with all the little nouns and verbs, all the unseen and uncelebrated work….
Like writing letters.
Showing up prepared for meetings.
Enacting policy.
Making phone calls.
Protesting. Fundraising.
Having hard conversations face-to-face.
Cleaning bathrooms.
Feeding people.
Holding the powerful accountable.
Researching the truth. Listening well.
I could go on….I bet you could, too.

We all want the Big Nouns and Big Verbs.

Yet grand gestures don’t actually change the world anymore than grand gestures make a sustainable healthy marriage or friendship. People who roll up their sleeves and do the consistent steady good work, day after day, have a better shot of seeing at least a small bit of the justice, the peace, the mercy, the equality for which we are all crying out.

Nowadays my heroes are the ones who have their eye on the Big Nouns and Big Verbs, absolutely, but they are living faithful, steady, never-backing-down, never-sitting-down, hopeful, realistic, never-giving-up… lives. 

Paying attention to the details of justice and love and mercy means that it might actually happen for at least one someone. That’s why I always say that radical faith is actually just radical faithfulness. 

Don’t be afraid of getting down in the dirt. Of the hard work. That’s where the seeds for those Big Nouns and Big Verbs take root. I’ve found that the Holy Spirit is often most present there in that [un-fun] daily work of my life than on any stage or any grand gesture. And it’s real lasting change.”

To get up close and personal with those who are hurting; to get down in the dirt and do the work of cultivating life and love–this is what it means to love God and neighbor. Those who love me, Jesus says in John, will keep my commandments.

So let us go, then, and do likewise.

[1] Quoted in Levine, Amy-Jill. Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (p. 101). HarperCollins.