When I was a child my family and I did all our traveling together by car; we were too poor for plane tickets, so our family vacations when I was a kid were all done by road trip. I still love this way to travel, and I have a lot of fondness for the open roads of the American West, where my father, mother, sister and I logged a lot of miles together.
One sight I remember seeing on these long road trips was a sticker on the back of a lot of the RVs, which were being driven by other die-hard road warriors over long distances. The sticker featured a smiling cartoon man’s head with a little halo above it; it said “Good Sam Club.”
I asked my dad what it meant once, and he said the sticker was a sign that the driver of the RV had promised to stop and help other motorists who were stranded on the side of the road. This was long before the days of GPS and cell phones, and if you broke down on a desolate stretch of highway seeing somebody pull over to assist was certainly a welcome sight.
Of course “Good Sam” was short for Good Samaritan.
That the Good Sam Club could assume that everyone would “get” their reference to the parable of the Good Samaritan is a sign I suppose of how thoroughly this parable from today’s reading in the gospel of Luke had saturated our culture, how familiar it was to everybody, even the unchurched.
Equally significant perhaps is the fact that today’s Good Sam Club imposes no requirement that members stand ready to assist other motorists in trouble; I am pleased to report though that they offer a 10% discount at RV parks and campgrounds as well as a number of other discounts and savings on insurance and extended warranties as well as a free subscription to MotorHome magazine. You can consult their website for a complete list of member benefits, but you won’t find any member demands.
Perhaps the familiarity of the story of the Good Samaritan has led to its real meaning being underappreciated.
So in the next few minutes let me try to make the story of the Good Samaritan a little unfamiliar, and maybe then we can appreciate it afresh.
For starters, let’s pay some attention to the context in which our Lord comes to tell this parable.
A lawyer is putting Jesus to the test. Now for Luke a lawyer of course is not a guy who argues cases in court; a lawyer is a student of the law, not civil or political law but religious law; a lawyer is a scholar of the Torah, the law revealed by God to Moses. This lawyer asks a classic question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus, as he often does, turns this question back on the questioner. Now when he asks this lawyer “What do you read in the law?” the question is actually a bit more probing than it sounds to us. Jesus is asking him for his interpretation of the law. In effect he is saying, “you are an expert in the law of God; what is your understanding of what it requires? How do you interpret what the law demands?”
And the lawyer answers in a way that again would have been quite classic: It was a commonplace exercise among scholars of the Torah to identify a passage or two that they believed to be a sort of summary of the whole of the law, one or two verses that could stand for the entirety of the law with all of its hundreds of complex commandments.
This lawyer has obviously thought of his own preferred summary: “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.” The lawyer’s summary borrows two verses, one from Deuteronomy and one from Leviticus, and puts them together in a way that I trust should sound familiar to all of us but was rather rare at the time.
Jesus approves of the lawyer’s answer because it is one he has given himself, in Matthew’s gospel and in Mark’s. That is why Jesus says that this lawyer has answered rightly; they agree—these two verses are a summary of the entire law of God. But Jesus adds something important, something I want us to pay attention to today. He says: “Do this, and you will live.”
Despite his apparent agreement with Jesus, our lawyer is not yet satisfied. Seeking to justify himself, Luke says, he presses on to a new question: “Who is my neighbor?”
Jesus has just said that to inherit eternal life you must love God and love your neighbor: “Do this, and you will live.” And yet it would seem in the mind of the lawyer a technicality remains to be resolved. His question amounts to asking then “To whom do I have to do this?” Who am I supposed to love? A question that is shadowed by another, unstated one: “Who am I allowed not to love?”
The parable of the Samaritan—who you will notice is never called “Good” by Jesus—the parable of the Samaritan is our Lord’s answer to this question. And yet again his answer turns the question back on the questioner.
We all know the story: A traveler, presumably a Jew like Jesus and like the lawyer, is beaten and robbed and left for dead on the side of the road. A priest and a Levite, both people with official responsibilities in temple worship, who should be expected to love their neighbor as a matter of the highest religious obligation, do nothing to help the beaten man. A Samaritan passing by though does do something to help. This despite the fact that there is no friendship between Jews and Samaritans. Not even close. There is only resentment and mutual suspicion and hostility.
The Jews and the Samaritans were not neighbors in the sense that the lawyer has in mind when he asked: “Who is my neighbor?”
The parable though does not answer this question. It does not answer this question because I think Jesus is trying to teach us that this question is the wrong one to ask. I cannot decide in advance who my neighbor is or is not. I cannot define who is or is not entitled to my love and mercy because there is nobody I am allowed not to love. I can—and must—only be a neighbor to someone else.
And that is why Jesus turns the question around. Not “Who is my neighbor?” but “Who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” This is the right question to ask, and again the lawyer actually gets the answer right. The one who was a neighbor to the robbed man is “the one who showed him mercy.” That’s what our translation says because it would sound funny to say what the Greek literally reads. The phrase literally says: “the one who did mercy with him.” The one who did mercy with him is the neighbor.
Mercy is not something we can feel—it is something that must be done. And it can only be done with those who need it, in taking their suffering upon ourselves in a hands-on way.
As one commentator I read this week pointed out:
The robbed man is in the ditch. To get him out, you have to get into the ditch yourself.
The robbed man is covered in blood. When you pick him up, you are going to get bloody too.
The robbed man can’t walk. He will have to ride on your horse while you walk.
He needs oil and wine, the food and drink you were saving for your own journey.
He has been robbed of all his money, even the clothes off his back, so you will have to pay his bills. You probably won’t even get a 10% discount at the inn.
And when all this is over you may never see him again, so you might never even be thanked.
None of that sounds very convenient, does it? But when you are in the ditch, you are not too picky about who comes to help you out.
When you are broken down on the side of the road and stranded without help you don’t care who stops.
And that is what Jesus invites the lawyer to consider. What if you were in the ditch? Would you want someone to ask him or herself “Who is my neighbor?” “Who am I supposed to love?” “Who am I allowed not to love?” Is this the sort of nitpicking debate you want passersby to be having with themselves as they walk on?
Or would you simply be asking “Who will be a neighbor to me?” “Won’t someone stop and help?”
When you are in the ditch all you want is someone to be a neighbor to you. All you want is someone to do something.
Jesus and the lawyer agree about what to do, but the parable is all about actually doing it.
Notice how often versions of the word “do” appear in this story.
“Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Love God and your neighbor. “Do this, and you will live.”
Who is my neighbor? Wrong question. Who was a neighbor to the robbed man?
“The one who did mercy with him.”
“Go and do likewise.”
This last bit, the final words of today’s reading, I want to end with too. I said earlier that Jesus and the lawyer both have a summary of the law, verses that they agree encapsulate the entirety of the law’s requirements. We repeat that here at the church at 8 and at 11:15, near the beginning of the mass, and we call it the Summary of the Law: “Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and all thy soul and all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And a second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
True enough. Jesus said it himself. The lawyer in Luke 10 said it. But the parable of the Samaritan teaches us that the Christian life is not just about saying—it’s about doing.
So when we hear the summary of the law; when we hear it said that we should love God and love our neighbor, hear a third commandment in the background too. Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ also saith: “Go and do likewise.”