The Episcopal Church of the Holy Innocents
Pentecost VIII: "And who is my neighbor?"
Luke introduces the parable of the Good Samaritan with a short conversation between a lawyer in the crowd and Jesus of Nazareth:
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" He said to him, "What is written in the law? What do you read there?" He 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." And he said to him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"
I imagine the lawyer asks his first question in modulated, adversarial style…a measured baritone in deliberate cadence, his words clearly enunciated so as to be perceived as challenging Jesus almost to the point of threat, but really wanting to appear smart more than anything else…and Jesus responds to him by inviting him to answer from his own knowledge. Jesus does not attempt to deflect the lawyer’s question by changing the context; He does not ridicule the question or the questioner. Rather, Jesus leans directly into the context the lawyer knows best, and gives him the chance to answer from the strength of his own learning. And when the lawyer answers well, Jesus tells him he has answered well, and encourages him to act on the good answer he has just given. If the lawyer’s question really was “to test Jesus,” everyone passed the test with perfect marks.
Those of us who grew up listening to good preaching and now are in the preaching trade ourselves had modeled for us by those good preachers, and maintain for ourselves, a mantra: “Never miss a good ending.” Knowing when to quit, know when enough is enough and let it be…this is a good thing. The lawyer in this parable is not such a person. Luke gives editorial insight as to why.
“…wanting to justify himself” is the context for the lawyer’s follow-up question. Luke is clear that the lawyer is not cleanly pursuing a line of theological inquiry- he is instead trying to avoid any further obligation than his own (correct!) answer has already claimed. This question probably comes in the arched tones of one who loves verbal fencing, repartee, the one who is constitutionally incapable of not clawing for the last word: “And who is my neighbor?” The question is a minimalist question asking in part if not as its essence: “What’s the least I have to do to qualify as being neighborly?” Inflect either “who” or “is” and the tone is fully expressed.
So….now that the lawyer has put his true agenda out there, Jesus responds to him with the parable of the Samaritan. Jesus is not flummoxed or confused by what the lawyer hopes is a knock-out punch…a lawyerly question calculated to create Richter-scale ambivalence. No, the issue was and is clear for Jesus, the question’s speculative possibilities that the lawyer hopes will muddle things are not distracting to Him, and Jesus once more builds on the foundation the lawyer himself has laid.
The parable has so many subtle features that several extended essays are needed to get closer to its brilliance. That said, Jesus’ basic structure is pretty simple. He sets a scene and asks a question. Jesus draws a picture that first and foremost provides affirmation of prevailing wisdom and custom- “the Jericho road is dangerous, everybody knows that, and the guy was either really stupid or just asking for it”…”priests and Levites have an obligation to their constituencies not to touch the mugging victim- they can’t do their work if they’re delayed or made unclean by touching him”….”the priest and the Levite have an obligation to themselves to not become defiled- they are after all observant sons of the Covenant”…you get the picture…all of the conventional excuses by which people give themselves a pass and opt to stand at the edge of the picture without getting any closer….all the justifications for inaction, all the “yes buts” are present, and they resonate with the lawyer and the crowd I am sure.
Jesus makes no comment on the reaction of the priest or the Levite. He simply moves on to the Samaritan. The Samaritan’s identification almost makes this a cartoon….the Samaritan is as close to the priest and Levite as a flip-flop is to a wingtip…so totally other, so not-our-kind, so tacky, so déclassé, so oh-I-don’t-know-what. The Samaritan is on the same road as the mugging victim, and the Samaritan handles the problem in front of him rather than creating a second problem by not handling the first. The Samaritan’s response anticipates the needs emerging from this crime, not just the injuries themselves. And the Samaritan handles them as well.
This all reminds me of the Royal Bank of Scotland television ads several years ago: there’s a piece of trash on the sidewalk next to a metal trash receptacle on a busy street. Two or three people come to the piece of trash, and by various facial expressions and gestures it’s clear that they lament the presence of trash, or feel contempt for whomever let it drop there, signaling that they cannot or will not do anything more about it. The model Royal Bank of Scotland banker walks along, entering the small knot of people looking at the piece of trash on the sidewalk; he sees the trash and picks it up, deposits it in the trashcan, and keeps on walking. Yeah. No words, speaking volumes.
The crowd and the lawyer are perhaps a bit edgy at this point, and here it comes:
“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" Numb as an anvil to the very end, the lawyer says "The one who showed him mercy." Wow. I wonder how long it took this solid citizen to hear himself say that. His own words have gotten him to this place in the “friendly” conversation, and now the lawyer has answered his own question. “And who is my neighbor?” Your neighbor, sir, is the one who needs mercy. From you. Your neighbor is the one who cannot act for himself and needs your protection. Your neighbor is the one who is beaten up, suffering loss, shame and humiliation, and clueless to figure out the next move. Your neighbor is the one who is one hot mess, and so avoidable.
And before the lawyer can do any mental gymnastics or formulate any qualifying transactional conditions, Jesus tells him "Go and do likewise." Go and be the one who shows mercy. We don’t get any further report of it from Luke, but my guess is that the lawyer finally knew when to quit. “Wow. Maybe I shouldn’t ask the third question.” He cannot avoid Jesus’ good ending, and he is invited to make Jesus’ good ending his own.
The one needing mercy is the neighbor. We all need mercy from one another, and so of course we all are neighbors.
Love you. See you in Church.
FBC3+, 10 July 2016, being The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost