The story is told that a famous rabbi around the time Jesus lived would tell about a Gentile (non-Jew) who challenged a rabbi to recite the entire Torah, or Law, while standing on one foot. The man said that if the rabbi could do that, he would convert to Judaism. The rabbi lifted one foot off the ground, and said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your strength; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. That is the whole law. The rest is commentary.” The rabbi then put down his foot. And the challenger was converted. (Ringe, p. 26) These are words to live by, they are the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:5 and the words of Leviticus 19:18 that Jesus also answered to be the greatest of all commandments. All the rest is commentary on how to live loving God and loving others.
In today’s Gospel lesson, a lawyer of Jesus’ time would be learned not just in civil law but in the Scriptures, because there was not the separation of church and state that there is in modern times. So his question was meant, as the text says, to test Jesus. We do not know just why he wanted to test him. Maybe he wanted to see what this teacher and healer knew. Or possibly he wanted to trap Jesus into saying something wrong. He asked Jesus what one must do to inherit eternal life. He knew the answer, and Jesus knew he knew the answer! So Jesus asked him a question in response. How did he read the Scriptures on this, Jesus asked. And the lawyer recited the words we just heard about loving God and neighbor. Jesus confirmed that the lawyer was right. The conversation could have ended there. But the lawyer persisted. “Who is my neighbor?” he asked Jesus. Perhaps he was seeking to know parameters. Neighbors could be family, friends, those who live on one’s street or in one’s town. Jesus, the master of this rhetorical art of questions and answers, and also a teacher and leader, did not answer him directly.
Rev. Jim Rigsby, a Presbyterian pastor and author in Austin, Texas, has said, “When spiritual teachers care about you, they teach in parables and questions. That is because they want you to think and feel for yourselves. When religious teachers do not care about you, they teach in answers. That is because they do not care about what you really think or feel. They just want you to follow.” Jesus was, of course, a caring spiritual teacher. He taught with questions and parables, because he wants us to learn and to live out the will of God. And so he began to tell a parable, one most of us know very well.
There are six characters in the parable. Three have active roles – the priest, the Levite, the Samaritan. The others are more passive, more in the background – the injured man, the robbers, the innkeeper. A lawyer of Jesus’ time would have had low regard for all of these characters. Priests and Levites were associated with the temple and were highly regarded by society in general, but were often in tension with the temple and its followers. Probably a Pharisee, the lawyer looked for strict adherence to the law in order to live a faithful life. Pharisees would also not like Samaritans, who were considered as heretics, having turned against the temple as the only true place of worship. The wounded man might have been a travelling trader, and traders were usually dishonest and/or at least unfaithful because they did not have time or opportunity to go to temple. A wounded man, naked and perhaps even dead, would make a holy man ritually unclean if he touched him. Innkeepers too were not admired. Only those with no family stayed in inns, so the most common clients would be traders or transients – seen as undesirables. So the lawyer, listening to Jesus tell this story, would not find anyone with whom to identify. Others in Jesus’ audience would have the most sympathy for the one robbed and assaulted.
As is often true of such stories, things happen in threes, with the turning point coming with the third part. So the first two characters passed by the beaten man without helping. And then came a third character, one the audience might assume would be an Israelite. But he was not; he was a Samaritan, someone despised by the Jews. Still, the same laws of touching what might be a corpse would apply to him, making him unclean if he touched this man. Yet he did not even hesitate. He went to the man crumpled on the side of the road and began to bandage the man as best he could, with wine to clean his wounds, and oil to keep them soft for better healing. Then he took him to an inn and paid for his stay and care there. The Samaritan went over and beyond what might be expected to help a stranger whom no one else would touch.
With this story, Jesus shattered all boundaries. The one who helped would not be considered a neighbor by those listening; in fact, he would be seen as an enemy, a heretic, someone to avoid like the plague. The lawyer could not even say who this person was, a Samaritan, when Jesus asked him who in this story was the neighbor. “The one who showed mercy,” was his answer.
So the most unlikely one was the hero of the story. He was “moved with pity” for the man he did not know, and who had no identification on him. He moved out of compassion, loving neighbor as himself, without giving it much thought.
And so Jesus did not directly answer the lawyer’s question of “Who is my neighbor?” He instead defined what it means to be a neighbor. He defined a neighbor actively, not passively. An Arab proverb says, “To have a good neighbor you must be one.” The Samaritan acted as a good neighbor. He acted compassionately. “Go and do likewise,” said Jesus.
I sat in the hospital room of a friend this week while she slept after a procedure. I knew she would rest, so I brought work with me, because I had a sermon to write and a memorial service for which to prepare, and I needed to catch up on the readings and videos for the new officers in training. But as I sat there, Taylor called to let me know the church had learned of another death in the church family. All of a sudden, all the other work seemed less important, and I just sat. I prayed for the friend in the bed, and I grieved for the woman who had died with no family around her, no family even really left, and no wishes expressed about what she wanted. In what felt like sacred moments, sitting in silence and prayer and grieve felt more like “Go and do likewise” than anything else I could think of to do, as there was not much else to do but to be there, to be present and to care, and to pray.
Aung San Suu Kyi is a Buddhist leader who has won the Nobel Peace Prize for her nonviolent work for democracy in Burma. She says: “To live compassionately is to courageously see the connection between ourselves and those who suffer. Not only do we see the connection and become aware of it, but we allow ourselves to feel it. Finally, it is not just to see and feel the connection but to act on it, to courageously take responsibility for those who suffer.” (Quoted in Newell, pp.18-19).
Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.” Go and act as a neighbor would act, out of compassion and love for God and for neighbor. And I think of the policeman recently shown in the news, who saw a car catch fire, and went straight for the car to pull out the driver, without a thought of what might happen to him. And I think of the father whose son was attacked by an alligator, who without hesitation headed towards his son, only to be attacked himself by another alligator. And I remember the woman who stopped doing whatever she was doing, probably also heading to work, when a car crashed into me on a December morning in 2015, and instead got into my car to sit with me and reassure me until the paramedics got there. “There is someone with the woman who hit you too,” she told me. I think of the heroes who stayed to help those in Orlando, or in Bagdad, or in Dallas, despite the risk to themselves in moments of terror and horror. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only love can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
“Go and do likewise” does not mean we have to dive into a burning car or into the fray of bullets. But it does mean that we are ready to act as the neighbor, to do the compassionate thing first, without even thinking about it. And that requires that we nurture that caring faith with daily prayer and practice. Jesus stepped aside to pray whenever he could, and he acted out of compassion every day. So should we all work at living a faithful and loving life so that when something happens that calls on us to be a neighbor, we do so without thought of ourselves.
“Who is my neighbor?” asked the lawyer, wanting some kind of definition, some parameters and boundaries to limit who we might care for as neighbor. But Jesus took away all the limits with this story. Our neighbor is anyone who is in need, absolutely anyone, regardless of race, gender, religion or nationality or any other differences. We are called to be a neighbor to all in need. And we are all in need, really. We are all neighbors of one another.
“Go and do likewise,” said Jesus. He says it still.