Getting the Right Answer
The Parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the few bible stories that has made it into our society’s general knowledge. A Good Samaritan is someone who does a good deed for someone in need. It’s a compliment to call someone a Good Samaritan. Hospital and civic awards have been named after this parable. And in today’s lawsuit-crazy society, there are even “Good Samaritan” laws that protect people from being sued if something goes wrong while they are trying to help someone in need.
As a preamble to the parable, in Luke’s gospel we’re told how Jesus is confronted one day by a scribe, a lawyer-type expert on Jewish law, who apparently wanted to test the orthodoxy of Jesus’ beliefs. The man asked what he must do to inherit eternal life, to be fully right with God. Jesus asked him what scripture says on this topic. The man rightfully replied, “Love the Lord God with all your heart, soul, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.” The pop quiz is over; the A student has aced the test. Jesus nodded and said, “You have given the right answer; do this and you will live.”
If Jesus had stopped after the first phrase (You have given the right answer), the lawyer might have smiled and gone on his way into the obscurity of history. But as we’ll come to see, it is one thing to give a right answer; it is another thing to get the right answer. As soon as Jesus said, “Do this and you will live,” the lawyer was faced with the task of putting his right answer into practice. The rubber hit the road; everything just became real. So to hopefully stay within his comfort zone, the lawyer asked a follow-up question, “But who exactly is my neighbor? To whom must I do these acts of neighborly love?” It seems he could give the right answer, but doesn’t yet understand the full meaning of that answer.
Matthew and Mark also describe this encounter with the lawyer, but only Luke pairs it with a parable. Thank God he did, because what unfolds next is the vivid drama of the man beaten by robbers and the compassionate response of the Good Samaritan. This is a story that people understand right away. Kids can act it out without any words and the meaning is obvious even to them. A person is hurt, alone and in need. Others walk by, doing nothing. One person stops to offer help and makes things better. It’s clear whom we should try to be like.
Now, to flesh out their sermons, preachers can give you lots of background information on the Good Samaritan parable. They can talk about things like purity laws that prevent the priest and Levite from coming near to the wounded man. But Jesus doesn’t focus on those details, so I’m not sure it’s helpful for us to do so either. Whatever purity codes the Jewish officials had, the faithful Samaritan also had purity laws in his own faith. This isn’t the time to try and rationalize why good deeds aren't done – whether by the priest and Levite, or by extension, by us when we’ve walked by, driven by, or turned away from people in need. This is not a time for excuses.
In contrast to his silence about the motives of those who walked by, Jesus is quite clear why the Samaritan stopped to help. He said explicitly, “He was moved with pity.” That’s a powerful statement – moved with pity and compassion. Do you know where else this phrase turns up in Luke’s gospel? It is the same Greek word used to describe the emotions felt by the father of the Prodigal Son, when the father saw his lost boy from afar and was so moved with compassion that he ran to him, hugged and kissed and welcomed him home (Luke 15:20). So once the Samaritan is moved with deep pity, he begins to act. He becomes a flurry of activity. The priest and the Levite are the subjects for only three verbs each – they went down the road, saw the man, and passed on the other side. The Good Samaritan is the subject of 15 verbs: he traveled, came near him, saw him, was moved with pity; went to him, bandaged his wounds, poured oil on them, put him on his animal, brought him to an inn, took care of him, etc. etc. The contrast is dramatic and readily apparent to all who hear this story.
So is there more we can say about the motivation of this Good Samaritan – something we can take away as wisdom for our own faith lives? Well, let’s start with something obvious. All the best human virtues are always relational, as opposed to being individual-based. John Pavlovitz is a pastor and writer, and in a recent book called Hope and Other Superpowers, he talked about the nature of relations. He said, “Compassion needs another’s story to invest ourselves in and move toward. Generosity requires a recipient to be extended to. Humor is magnified when it is shared. Our [best] gifts and abilities are, by their nature, meant to be relational.” That’s something worth remembering. If you want to be a person of virtue, of Christian compassion and mercy, the Good Samaritan parable reminds us that all good things happen when they are done with and for others.
Second, our lives are constantly connected to strangers through bonds of mutual trust, even when we don’t think about such things. Here’s a simple example. The novelist Andrew Holleran recently wrote these wise words, “Using a two-lane highway presumes that everyone coming toward you wants to live as much as you do.” (The Kingdom of Sand) You’re driving down a narrow highway and you want to get home safely, so you have no intention of crossing the yellow line into oncoming traffic. We ascribe that same intention to every car that comes toward us in the opposite lane. We presuppose a common value system, a shared humanity – mostly unconsciously – as part of how we get through our days. Maybe the wisdom of the Good Samaritan parable is that it reminds us to make that unconscious assumption conscious – to ascribe humanity to those in need, to see a shared human identity in strangers and those different from us, whether by race, sexual identity, nationality, age, ability, whatever.
That’s one of the reasons I played the Bach-Siloti prelude this morning. I played the exact same notes for both repetitions of that piece. The difference was that I emphasized, I made more conscious, the notes of a counter-melody easily overlooked the first time through. Suddenly by doing this, the piece became richer – more vibrant and alive. Ernest Hemingway supposedly once said, “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.” The Good Samaritan model calls us to transcend our former selves – to see with eyes of faith those we’ve overlooked, our fellow travelers on the two-lane roads of everyday life, and let the melody of who they are – where they’re going – and what they need – shape the melody of our own lives. In doing this we become as Christ intends – a true neighbor to one another.
Remember how this passage from Luke ends. The lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbor?” and Jesus replied by telling him the parable of the Good Samaritan. Then Jesus turned back to the lawyer and said, “Which of these three was a neighbor to the beaten man?” The lawyer answered, “The one who showed him mercy.” To which Jesus simply said, “Go and do likewise.” Jesus didn’t want the lawyer to just give the right answer. He wanted the lawyer to get the right answer.
Getting the right answer is hard in a world that prefers easy checklists of personal priorities over messy engagements with others that entangle us heart and wallet and spirit. It means you and I have to step outside these church walls and intentionally be mindful as we drive down the roads of life, as we pass by alleys and abandoned homes and subsidized housing and ERs and foster homes; and yes, as we go by the suburbs and malls and fancy homes rife with unacknowledged prescription drug addictions, divorce court proceedings, over-spent credit limits, spousal abuse cases, and just plain ol’ afraid and lonely people all around us. It means seeing virtue as something that is fundamentally relational. It means being noble and superior to our former selves. It means seeing faith as a willingness to be “moved by pity and compassion” like the Good Samaritan, extending to others five, ten or fifteen verbs of our own led by the Spirit’s power, by Christ’s love and by the grace of God.
If we take to heart Jesus’ instructions to “go and do likewise,” then we already will be living the answer to the question that started this whole conversation – Who is my neighbor? - and we will get in our hearts what we must do to inherit eternal life.