“Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today
is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away….
No, the word is very near to you;
it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”
Moses, in Deuteronomy 30:11, 14
This week, we have before us Jesus’ parable of the “good Samaritan.” That phrase has become such a commonplace, people say it who have no earthly idea what a “Samaritan” might be. In point of fact, Jesus told the story to people who hated Samaritans, and Samaritans (as a rule) hated them back.
In Jesus’ day, there were descendants of old Father Abraham who worshiped God at Jerusalem, and then there were other descendants of old Father Abraham who worshiped God at the ancient Israelite city of Samaria. Each group cursed the other and swore that the other group was evil and totally wrong about religious matters. In the gospels, we find many instances where friction between “Jews” and “Samaritans” was a focal problem in Jesus’ ministry: perhaps the best example is Jesus’ deep and lengthy conversation with the “Samaritan woman” in John 4.
As Luke sets up this week’s story, an expert on the Law of Moses— a good, anti-Samaritan Jew— tested Jesus by asking him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life ?”
Jesus turned the question back on the lawyer, asking him how the Law of Moses answers that question.
The lawyer replied by quoting from the Books of Moses: Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. The verse from Leviticus is the source of our beloved Golden Rule, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
But the lawyer still wanted to win an argument with Jesus, so he asked a follow-up question.
Recently, I have been listening back to some interviews given by Ivan Illich (1926-2002), a Christian teacher. Here is Illich’s understanding of Jesus’ reply to that lawyer:
Some thirty years ago, I went into sermons from the early third century into the nineteenth century dealing with this story of the Samaritan, and I found out that most preachers, when they comment on that passage, comment on it in order to show how we ought to behave towards our neighbor, when in fact this is the opposite of what Jesus, who tells that story of the Samaritan, wanted to point out. …
They asked him, point blank, the question: “Who is the guy whom you call ‘neighbor’ ?”
And he, as a story, told them, “A man was going down to Jericho, fell among robbers, was beaten up and left wounded. A teacher goes by, a priest goes by, sees him and walks on. And then an outsider comes along, the traditional enemy, and turns to the wounded man, as an internal turning, and picks him up, takes him into his arms and brings him to the inn.
So he answers them, “My neighbor is whom I decide, not whom I have to choose.” There is no way of categorizing who my neighbor ought to be. This doctrine about the neighbor which this guy, Jesus, brings into conversation, is utterly destructive of ordinary decency, of ethical behavior, and to say this today is as surprising as it was at the beginning. …
The Master told them, who your neighbor is is not determined by your birth, by your condition, by the language which you speak, by the “ethnos,” which means really the mode of walking which has become proper to you, but by you. You can recognize the other man who is out of bounds culturally, who is foreign linguistically, who – you can say by providence or by pure chance – is the one who lies somewhere along your road in the grass, and create the supreme form of relatedness which is not given by creation but created by you.
God in mysterious wisdom has given to us followers of Jesus the freedom to identify the “neighbor” whom we choose to bless. This opens up boundless opportunities for creativity and expressions of grace.
Also, it is overwhelming.
May you be made strong
with all the strength that comes from His glorious power,
and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience,
while joyfully giving thanks to the Father,
Who has enabled you to share
in the inheritance of the saints in the light.