Texts: Deuteronomy 30:9-14; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37
We all know the game twenty questions, right? People have been playing it since the 1800s. Someone gets to think of an object and the other players get to ask twenty questions for clues to figure out what the object might be. There are variations of course, but this is the basic idea.
In our gospel today Jesus and a lawyer (a scribe actually, and expert in biblical law) play a game with just five questions. The lawyer was not questioning Jesus out of interest in becoming a follower. This was a test with very high stakes. If Jesus failed to give the correct answer it would prove that he was a fake, and destroy his growing reputation as an exceptional teacher.
It becomes clear very quickly that if you go toe to toe with Jesus, you’d better be pretty light on your feet. The lawyer fired off question number one: “…what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
And Jesus parried with questions two and three in rapid fire: “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” The lawyer knew this was a check mate so he answered his own question citing the proper Torah verse in Deuteronomy: “You shall love the Lord your God…and your neighbor as yourself”. Well do it then, and live, said Jesus. Disaster averted for both players.
Now the lawyer had to save face. It was an honor/shame society after all. To justify himself he followed with question four: “And who is my neighbor?” So now Jesus responded. “A man was going down to Jericho and fell into the hands of robbers…” And you know the whole sad story that follows, right? The parable of the Good Samaritan.
But is this all really about a Samaritan who was good one day? And are we to take away from this story the notion that one day we too might be called upon to dial 911 for some poor victim? And the message of the gospel is that accidents happen and we just ought to be ready to respond?
Well…think about it. Jesus was up to more than the lawyer expected that day. So we’d be pretty safe to guess that there’s more here for us to hear also.
One of the most common things to do with this parable is to critique the players. The priest who went by on the other side of the road. Boo hiss! The Levite who did the same thing. For shame! Easy for us to say, especially with the way some parts of the church have protected some predatory priests and ministers over the years.
But it’s unlikely that the people who heard Jesus tell the story, and those who heard it in Luke’s gospel some years later thought anything like this. They might not have identified with the priest and Levite, but neither would they have condemned them. They knew that the priest and Levite were constrained from touching the injured man out of concern for becoming unclean, preventing them from performing their duties. It was unfortunate that they couldn’t help, but not a social or spiritual failure.
But the next character is a whole different ball game. Enter the Samaritan. A huge problem for Jews. There is a lot of history between these peoples. Suffice it to say that the level of enmity between some of the peoples of the Holy Land today is not substantially different than what was going down in the story that day about the road to Jericho.
The Samaritan did the right thing. Of course he did. He personally tended to the man’s injuries and took care of him for some time at a nearby inn. The Samaritan might well have been a regular traveler because the innkeeper agreed to take in the injured man, and trusted the Samaritan to return to settle any outstanding bills later.
So now comes the fifth and final question. It is Jesus who asked the lawyer: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” And of course the lawyer responded, “The one who showed him mercy.”
Aha! Ah hah! Do you see what Jesus did? He didn’t just tell the story, he placed himself entirely within the parable. He was the man who was attacked. You see, Jesus was on the road himself. He had real enemies. Who was out to get him? The lawyer, certainly. The Temple priests and Levites too. Even the Samaritans had refused to shelter Jesus and the disciples when they were on the way to Jerusalem.
And yet. As Jesus told this story he did not criticize the priest or Levite. And astonishingly Jesus made the Samaritan into the superhero of the story. Why? Why did Jesus do that?
He did it because his point was not just to tell the lawyer something important, but to show him. The lawyer got it. See, Jesus had pity on every person who failed in being a neighbor to him, and showed mercy to one and all. Even to the lawyer. Jesus only said, “Go and do likewise”.
This neighbor thing. Is this too hard? Deuteronomy says it’s not. It’s not outrageous. It’s not beyond our capability. The knowledge of how to do this is no further than the depth of our hearts. The words of God’s rule of love are: I care. How are you? Are you okay? Can I help? What do you need? This is not a foreign language. We know how to speak these words, right?
Besides, as the people of Colossae were told, we have a lot going for us, as people of faith. First, we know that through Christ we are forgiven. That unburdens us so we’ve got room to forgive others. If we can forgive, we can have pity, and care, even for the most unlovable neighbors we know both within this community and beyond it.
Second we don’t have to do anything else to please God. This seems to have been an issue among at least some Christians at Colossae. They were imagining that grace has somehow got to be a lot harder to come by - a scare commodity doled out by a fierce and judging God.
But the Colossians were reminded of how, in hearing the story of Jesus, they learned to hope in a different vision of God, one who knows us deeply; loves us flaws and all. This is our God who, through Jesus, gave us a new hope for heaven and earth.
No one knows what became of the lawyer. The story ends without saying. But you have to wonder if he just stood there for a moment before turning away. He had some real thinking to do. And probably so do we. Amen.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.