The Parable of the Good Samaritan
A few years ago in Jerusalem’s famed Hadassh Hospital, an Israeli soldier lay dying. He had contracted AIDS as a result of his gay lifestyle and was now in the last stages of the disease’s terrible course. His father was a famous Jerusalem rabbi, and both he and the rest of his family had disowned him. He was condemned to die in his shame. The nursing staff on his floor knew his story and carefully avoided his room. Everyone was simply waiting for his life to expire.
The soldier happened to be part of a regiment that patrolled the Occupied West Bank, and his unit was known for its ferocity and war-fighting skills. The Palestinians living in occupation hated these troops. They were merciless and could be cruel. Their green berets always gave them away.
One evening the soldier went into cardiac arrest. All the usual alarms went off, but the nursing staff did not respond. Even the doctors looked the other way. Yet on the floor another man was at work—a Palestinian Christian janitor—who knew this story as well and also knew the meaning of the emergency. Incredibly, he was a man whose village had been attacked by this soldier’s unit. When the Palestinian heard the alarm and witnessed the neglect, his heart was filled with compassion. He dropped his broom, entered the soldier’s room, and attempted to resuscitate the man by giving him cardiopulmonary resuscitation. The scene was remarkable: a poor Palestinian man, a victim of this soldier’s violence, now tried to save his enemy while those who should have been doing this stood on the sidelines.[i]
Last week we asked the question, “What do you hear?” Today we’re asking the question, “What do you see?” This spring we are walking through the parables of Jesus in Luke’s gospel in a series called Thy Kingdom Come. We’re calling the series by that name because whenever Jesus opened his mouth to teach, his topic was the same: the coming of the kingdom of God. Today, we’re looking at another familiar parable, the parable of the good Samaritan, a parable that asks the question, “What, or perhaps better, who, do you see?” Look at V. 25.
The guy asking the question was a lawyer, but not in the sense that we think of lawyer. He was an expert in religious law, a religious leader. Not necessarily a priest, but someone trained and very knowledgeable about Jewish religious ceremonies and laws. And he challenges Jesus, trying to get him to contradict himself. And so he asks, “What do I need to do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus throws his question back at him.“What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” You’re a religious leader, an expert in our religious law. What does it say? And the guy answers by quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. Deuteronomy 6:5 was the central verse in what was known as the Shema, the great passage in the Torah, and every Jew knew it. In context, it says “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deut. 6:4-8). In other words, whatever else you learn or don’t learn in the law, learn this. Memorize this. Do this. And with Leviticus 19:18, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD,” they made up the law behind the law for the Jewish people. Even Jesus agreed on that. When asked, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:36-40). Love God and, because you love God and are loved by God, love your neighbor. Everything else in the law is summed up in these two commandments. This is the core. This is what it’s all about. So the guy answered correctly, and Jesus told him as much. “You have answered correctly …” But here’s the kicker. “… do this, and you will live.” Don’t just believe it. Don’t just memorize it. Don’t just think about it or agree that it’s right. DO THIS, and you will live.”
But the guy wasn’t really interested in DOING anything. He didn’t want to live differently. He didn’t want to challenge the status quo. He didn’t want any real life change. He just wanted to get the answer right. That’s all that matters, right? Just get the answer right. Who cares if you can put the answer into practice. Some day when I’m old and decrepit and laying in an operating room, I don’t want the heart surgeon who just got all the answers right on the medical exams. Knowing the right answers is good. It’s half the battle. But I want the surgeon who got the answers right AND who knows how to apply them. Who knows the ins and outs of operating on a heart, right? You can know all of the right answers, know where every part of the heart is and the name of every instrument, and every step of every procedure. But what’s really important is that you have put that knowledge to work and really know how to operate on the heart, right? That’s the surgeon I want. It’s easier to talk about something than it is to actually do something. “Do this, and you will live.”
But the guy doesn’t want to DO this. He just wants to KNOW this. And so he asks another question. You see, he knew very well that he knew the right answer but hadn’t been able to do anything with it. “Alright then. Well, who is my neighbor?” And Jesus uses a common story, a story with which the expert and anyone else listening would be familiar, but he adds a twist, and uses that story to shine a light on the real condition of the man’s heart. You see, his issue wasn’t in knowing the truth. It was in living by the truth. Look at V. 30.
A man is traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he is ambushed, beaten, robbed, and left for dead. The Bible says he was traveling down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and down is right. Jerusalem sits nearly 2,100’ above sea level, and Jericho, less than 20 miles away in the Jordan River valley, was 850’ below sea level. That’s a change in altitude of almost 3,000’ over just 20 miles. It was a windy path through rough terrain lined with rock and caves, perfect for bandits and robbers to lay in wait. It wasn’t at all uncommon for people to be robbed, injured, killed along the road. For centuries the people called it “the bloody way.” Now, like I said, this was a common story. The people knew it well. Look at V. 31. His first hope was a priest, probably returning to his home in Jericho from his term performing his duties at the temple in Jerusalem. Jericho was a popular place for priests to make their homes away from the bustle of Jerusalem. According to Leviticus 1, if the man happened to be dead and the priest touched him, he would become ceremonially unclean. So he crossed to the other side of the road and kept walking.
Throughout the Old Testament, there is a constant tension between the letter and intent of the law. The intricate system of sacrifices had been instituted by God and the people were expected to observe the feasts and festivals and participate in the sacrificial system. And yet God said “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams” (1 Sam. 15:22). And the prophet Hosea said, “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hos. 6:6). Jesus himself quoted that passage in Matthew 9, and made it clear that the Great Commandment to love God and love neighbor served as the foundation for the entire law. The priest new the law. He knew the Shema. He knew what God had said. And yet he averted his eyes, crossed to the other side of the road, and kept walking. He defined his neighbor as someone who wouldn’t make him unclean. Someone who was clean, pure, undefiled, someone like him. Not someone different. Not someone in real trouble. He just kept walking. He wouldn’t risk his ceremonial cleanness. Never mind that Jesus made it clear that he was going DOWN the road. This road had a clear up and a clear down. Up was toward Jerusalem. Down toward Jericho. He was likely returning home. He’d done his duty for the time being. He had plenty of time to go through the cleansing rituals. Not that it mattered. Someone was in trouble, and he walked right on by like he didn’t see the man.
And then a levite came walking by. Levites were religious leaders too. They weren’t as highly ranked as the priests, but they had privileges. They oversaw the temple liturgy and services. He knew the law just as well. And he walked right on by. And he didn’t have to worry as much about ceremonial purity as the priest did. Didn’t matter. He averted his eyes. Refused to see. And walked on. He defined his neighbor as the priest did, as someone who was not an inconvenience. Not even his own countryman.
So up to this point, the story has progressed pretty much as the people expected. It was a popular story. You see, the common people were often upset with and critical of their religious leaders, the priests and the levites. That’s where this story was born. In their criticism of their religious leaders. A good Jewish man is beaten and robbed, left for dead. A priest happens upon him and doesn’t help. A levite happens upon him and doesn’t help. The way the story should go, a good Jewish commoner would happen upon the man and help him at great cost to himself. But Jesus takes the story in a different direction.
According to Jesus, it was a Samaritan who came by next, and helped the man. If you would have been in the crowd, you would have heard the gasp in every mouth, from Peter and James and John to the lawyer questioning Jesus to the most common of the common people listening in. Every mouth hung open. This wasn’t how the story was supposed to go. Jesus was supposed to be using this story to criticize the religious leaders, something he was known to do anyway. But that isn’t what he did. It wasn’t a Jew that helped the man at all. It was a Samaritan.
The hatred between Jews and Samaritans went back hundreds of years and centered around racial and religious purity. The Jews had maintained their racial purity during their Babylonian captivity, for the most part refusing to intermarry with non-Jews. The Samaritans were the product of the intermarriage of what faithful Jews considered to be faithless Jews and their Assyrian invaders. They were compromising half-breeds. And then the Samaritans built a rival temple on Mount Gerizim in their own territory, a temple that was later destroyed by the pure Jews. Jewish rabbis taught the people to not even eat food prepared by Samaritans, “for he who eats their bread is as he who eats swine’s flesh.” And they concluded one of their prayers with “and do not remember the Samaritans in the Resurrection.” And the Samaritans weren’t innocent. They’d defiled the temple in Jerusalem with human bones, and had murdered Jewish travelers in their territory. In the days when people traveled primarily by foot or on the backs of donkeys, Jews went miles out of their way to avoid going through Samaritan territory, even though it was the most direct route between Galilee and Jerusalem. If the Jewish man hadn’t been so wounded, he probably would have pushed the Samaritan man away.
And yet is was a Samaritan who put the wounded, dying man on his donkey and walked alongside, supporting him with his hands so that he wouldn’t fall off. It was a Samaritan who found a place for the man to recover, and paid for his medical care, sparing no expense. He gave the innkeeper enough money to purchase 24 days food, and said he would pay any additional fees on his way back through. Basically, he gave the man his credit card number and said, charge what you need to help him get well. If anyone shouldn’t have stopped, it was him. And yet he stopped. He stopped because he saw. And that is the point of this parable. It isn’t that we can be saved by being good, loving people. When Jesus quoted Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” (Matt. 9:13), he went on to say, “For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” In other words, my kingdom is for those who know that they are sinful and come humbly seeking forgiveness. But, our forgiveness, our love for God, and our participation in God’s kingdom is made visible in our love for our neighbor. And Jesus leaves no room for us to wiggle out of showing love for someone in need. Notice Jesus’ words here.
The man wanted to know just exactly who his neighbor was. “Who is my neighbor.” Jesus answers by asking him, “Who acted as a neighbor toward this man.” He took the light off the other person, whoever it happens to be, and shone it on the heart of the man asking the question. “Who proved to be a neighbor to the man?” The answer was clear. It was the Samaritan. The one least likely to have anything to do with this man. The only one who had any reason to avert his eyes and keep walking like he hadn’t seen, refused to do so. The man answered his own question. And we cannot escape the next words out of Jesus’ mouth: “You go and do likewise.” No wiggle room. No room for theological and philosophical arguments about who deserves love and who doesn’t. Just, “You go and do the same.” Who do you see?
In his book When a Nation Forgets God, Erwin Lutzer retells one Christian’s story of living in Hitler’s Germany. The man wrote: I lived in Germany during the Nazi Holocaust. I considered myself a Christian. We heard stories of what was happening to the Jews, but we tried to distance ourselves from it, because what could anyone do to stop it? A railroad track ran behind our small church, and each Sunday morning we could hear the whistle in the distance and then the wheels coming over the tracks. We became disturbed when we heard the cries coming from the train as it passed by. We realized that it was carrying Jews like cattle in the cars! Week after week the whistle would blow. We dreaded to hear the sound of those wheels because we knew that we would hear the cries of the Jews en route to a death camp. Their screams tormented us. We knew the time the train was coming, and when we heard the whistle blow we began singing hymns. By the time the train came past our church, we were singing at the top of our voices. If we heard the screams, we sang more loudly and soon we heard them no more. Years have passed, and no one talks about it anymore. But I still hear that train whistle in my sleep. God forgive me; forgive all of us who called ourselves Christians yet did nothing to intervene. “You go and do likewise.”
[i] Gary M. Burge, Jesus, the Middle-Eastern Storyteller (Zondervan, 2009), pp. 24-25