25Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27He answered, “You shall 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.” 28And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” 29But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
What I am Learning:
So we know the story. We all know what the phrase "good Samaritan" means. We know that to be a good Samaritan is to help other people when they are in trouble.
When we are familiar with a text and can quickly name the moral of the story, well, that is when to watch out.
A lawyer walked up to Jesus and asked him a question: "What must I do to inherit eternal life?"
We assume that this learned biblical scholar is trying to secure his post-death living arrangement. Jewish speakers and writers were ever using poetic phrases in place of God's name. God's name was not to be spoken. When the writer of Matthew uses the term "kingdom of heaven" he is not speaking of heaven as the place where you go when you die. He was using "heaven" as a euphemism for God. The same sort of thing is happening here: God is the only one who is eternal, so to speak of "eternal life" is a way to refer to God.
In other words the text could be read like this: "What must I do to participate in the life of God in every day life?"
We tend to read this text and assume that the text is about how to get to heaven, when it is really about how to live a life in God now.
The word choice here is quite odd: how to inherit eternal life. When one is a child one does nothing to inherit the family's resources, they come as the result of being a child. Of course the people of Israel understood themselves as the "Children of God" and their kings were "sons of God". I think the lawyer was asking a deeper question: What does a life lived in God, a life that takes part in God's life look like?
Jesus says nothing novel. At least not yet. He reminds this learned man of the core teaching of the Hebrew Scriptures: love God and neighbor.
But then the question becomes more devious and slippery: "Who is my neighbor?" This question arises from a deep place in human nature - we have a capacity to "sub-speciate" that is to decide that some other humans who look or act differently are not fully human and therefore can be ignored or killed.
This second question is the real question of the text. The first question, the one that we focus on, is just the set up for the second.
Most Jews hated Samaritans. The Samaritans were the people who inhabited Jerusalem and other lands when the Jewish people were taken to Babylon. Jewish people saw them has half-breeds and interlopers and thieves. Even after 600 years they still hated them even though the Samaritans followed the Torah as well. Samaritans weren't quite human to many Jewish people.
To get the full impact of this story, let's change the scene.
Imagine that the lawyer is a pastor and a leader of the KKK. He walks up to Jesus and asks the two questions ending with "Who is my neighbor?"
Imagine that there is a large crowd around, mostly filled with KKK members and sympathizers. And then Jesus tells this story.
"A good Christian man was driving his car when it broke down. Some people came and beat him, stole his car and his money. A pastor saw him there but drove by, afraid to get involved. A church leader saw him, but was scared that he might be attacked so he drove by too.
An African American came by, stopped and tended the man, brought him to the city hospital and tended the man until he was better - he even paid the hospital bill. Who was the neighbor to the man?
The KKK pastor said, "the African American."
Jesus said, "Go and do likewise."
Luke does not write this story to show Jesus telling a moralistic story about how we ought to love others.
This whole scene is a story about Jesus confronting the racism of his own people, and doing it in public. Jesus takes the question about who is our neighbor and he shows a hated and despised person behaving more honorably and more faithfully than the religious establishment that the Lawyer was a part of.
You can imagine how Jesus, in a crowd of KKK and KKK supporters would be received. You can imagine how angry they would be. The ropes and the crosses would be ready pretty quickly.
This is a story about Jesus' courage to speak the truth even when it was dangerous for him to do so. That God's love can and often does its work through those we despise or discount, that God's authentic life works in ways we can't imagine, through people we hate. And we can just as easily be in need of that love as anyone.
Martin Luther King said that the goal of his movement was to win over those who had made themselves the enemies of the sons and daughters of former slaves.
By telling this story the way he does, Jesus hopes to win over this lawyer - to help him see the humanity in his enemies and to realize that everyone is his neighbor. Jesus is willing to risk his life in the anger of the lawyer to win the lawyer over.
What are we willing to risk to win others over to love?