Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”Luke 10:25
The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) is such a familiar story, isn’t it? We all know it so well. We have acted it out in youth groups, and we have taught it, or heard it taught, at various stages throughout our lives. It’s a story that seems to have a very simple meaning – that we should love our neighbor, no matter who that is. We should all people, even those who are different from us, and even those that we don’t like. And of course that is true, and that is one meaning of this story.
But the truth is also that this is a sneaky story, as many of Jesus’ parables are. It has layers of meaning. Which is why we still read it, and talk about it, and preach about it. So today, I want to look at some of the layers of meaning in this parable. And I want to start with a question that I have had about this story: If this story is told to teach us to love all people, even Samaritans, then why is the person lying in the ditch not the Samaritan? Why is the person helping the one in the ditch the Samaritan?
By telling the story in this way, Jesus is not directly answering the lawyer’s question. He is, but he isn’t. Because clearly this story is about more than loving our neighbor, even if our neighbor is a Samaritan. So, let’s look at this story again today, and ponder all that Jesus is trying to teach us.
What Must I Do to Inherit Eternal Life?
The story begins with a lawyer standing up to test Jesus. Now, remember that a lawyer in biblical times was an expert in religious teaching, not in civil law. So, this religious expert asks Jesus a question about religion, the big question about religion, you might say: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” It’s not the only purpose of religion, but it is certainly one of the main ones. This life is so short. What comes next? And how do we get there?
But the way that the lawyer asks this question suggests that he believes that eternal life is his for the taking. He believes that there is something he can do to get eternal life, otherwise he wouldn’t ask what it is that he must do. So this question is one that most good Lutherans would never even consider asking! What must we do?! There is nothing that we can do! There is only what God can do, and what God has done in Jesus Christ. This lawyer, by his very question, reveals a belief that eternal life is all about what we do, not what God does. Jesus lets that go, for the moment. But we will come back to that.
Who Is My Neighbor?
Now, though, comes the question from the religious expert that directly leads to the Parable of the Good Samaritan. This lawyer knows that what he must do is to love the Lord, and to love his neighbor. But to justify himself, he asks Jesus a followup question: “Who is my neighbor?” Or, to put it another way, “Who must I love?” If I am to love my neighbor, who is that? Who must I love? And who do I not have to love? Who is my neighbor, and who is not? And this is the question which Jesus answers with his story.
The story of a man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, a very dangerous journey in that time. And he is robbed, and left for dead. And by chance a priest and then a Levite passed by, but ignored this poor man. The religious experts did nothing. And then, a Samaritan passed by. It is important to remember that Samaritans and Jews did not get along, and their argument was primarily a religious one. They disagreed over holy sites, among other things. And a Samaritan is the last person that a Jew would expect help from, or vice versa. But this Samaritan not only helps the person left for dead, but goes above and beyond what might have been expected. They proved to be a good neighbor to this man in desperate need.
And again, this story has an obvious meaning, which is that our neighbor is anyone in need. And we should love them no matter who they are, no matter the risk, and no matter how uncomfortable it makes us. We should even love our neighbor regardless of whether we think that person deserves our help. Those are all layers of meaning in this story.
Who Is the Lawyer in This Story? Who Are We?
But today I want us to think about one other meaning, which reveals itself to us when we look at the story from the point of view of the religious expert. Who is he in this story? Who does Jesus want him to identify with? Who does Jesus want us to identify with? The priest or the Levite? The Samaritan? Or the man laying half dead in the ditch?
There is a Lutheran pastor and seminary professor, Mark Allen Powell, who shares an interesting story about teaching this parable. He is a professor at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Ohio. And he points out that whenever he teaches this parable, the students there invariably identify with the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan. They feel challenged by this parable to be a neighbor to those in need, to learn from this Good Samaritan, and to do likewise. Okay.
But Dr. Powell said that he was surprised, when he taught this same parable at a Lutheran seminary in Africa, to discover that the people there did not identify with the priest, the Levite, or the Good Samaritan. They identified, instead, with the man who was beaten and robbed and left for dead on the side of the road. And the way that they understand this parable is that when we need help, we don’t always get to choose who helps us. We don’t get to choose our neighbor. This man on the side of the road was forced to receive help from the Samaritan, because the priest and Levite ignored him. When we are desperate enough, we don’t worry about what our neighbor looks like. We are just grateful to be helped. Who is my neighbor? Maybe it is whoever is willing to help us. That can be a hard lesson for us Americans, of course. We don’t like to think that we need help. We like to think that we are the helper, not the helpless.
So, who is the lawyer in this story? And who are we? Perhaps we are the one walking along who is called to help someone in need. But sometimes, we are the person in the ditch, left for dead. So, imagine for a moment being that person. And a priest comes along. Oh, thank you, Lord! But he passes by. And so does the Levite. And then, finally, a Samaritan comes along. Now, if you’re the man in the ditch, this is the worst possible person to help you. You might prefer to die in the ditch rather than be helped by this man. But you don’t have a choice. You’re half-dead, and there’s no avoiding it. This enemy of yours is moved with pity, and bandages your wounds, and puts you on his own animal and brings you to an inn. And this brings me to the question I began this sermon with: Why isn’t the person lying helpless in the ditch the Samaritan?
Who Is Jesus in this Story?
And to think about that, instead of looking at who the lawyer is in this story, or who we are in this story, think about who Jesus is in this story. If Jesus is anyone in this story, isn’t he the Good Samaritan? Not the priest or the Levite, but the one who actually helps the man left for dead. Who risks his life doing so. Who becomes unclean doing so. And who doesn’t care, because it is the right thing to do. Jesus,when you think about it, is most like the Good Samaritan in this story.
So, circle back to the question that started this whole conversation between Jesus and the lawyer, the question before the question of who is my neighbor, the question about how to inherit eternal life. To a religious expert who thinks that he knows what to do to obtain eternal life, Jesus tells the story of a man who can do absolutely nothing to save himself. A man lying in a ditch who is completely helpless. He can’t do anything to save himself. In fact, he ends up relying not on a priest or a Levite, but on an outsider, a Samaritan, to save him. He never would have accepted this offer of help if he thought that he could do something to save himself. He had to be completely desperate in order to accept the help of a Samaritan.
So what will it take for this religious expert to realize that there is nothing that he can do to save himself, to earn eternal life? What will it take for him to realize that priests and Levites do not offer us eternal life, nor does obeying God’s law? Religion does not offer us eternal life. Religion cannot save us. Only Jesus, the outsider from Nazareth, can do that – can save that religious expert, or can save us, from the ditch in which we find ourselves.
I love this story, not because it is so familiar, but because it is so sneaky. I can imagine that lawyer walking away, thinking about this story, and what it means to love his neighbor. Feeling challenged to expand his notion of who his neighbor is. Feeling challenged to love without regard to the risk, or to who it is that needs his help. But then, sometime later, seeing the deeper meaning in this story. Realizing that he is not just the priest or the Levite or the Samaritan. But he is also the person in the ditch.
And so are we. All of us here today are that person in the ditch. Captive to sin. Helpless. Dying. In need of mercy. And Jesus is the one who alone can help us. This story turns out to be as much about being open to God’s mercy, as it is about helping a neighbor in need. And so, that makes it a very Lutheran story. A story about the grace and mercy of our loving God, and about all the ways that we are called to extend that love to others. But before we can extend it, we need to receive it, from the neighbor who stops to help us. And thanks be to God that our neighbor is none other than Jesus himself. Amen.