A man I know once said, "You cannot fully understand any story in the bible until you have identified with every character in the story." I believe this to be true.
This truth has impacted me in several ways. To start, I almost always know that I have more to learn from any story, no matter how familiar. Secondly, I recognize that when it comes to the gospels, I identify with Jesus way less often than I'd care to admit. Third, the character with whom I most strongly identify at a given time is often a signpost to where I am at spiritually and emotionally.
And, I have a confession to make. In our gospel lesson for today, I identify with the lawyer. More than that, I really like and admire the lawyer. This is probably not the impact the author of this gospel intended to have when he put pen to parchment.
These are tales about Jesus! The miracles he worked, the places he traveled, the people he engaged, the inflammatory comments he made! If anything, we're supposed to identify with him and strive to be more like him.
We're not supposed to identify with and appreciate the villain.
This lawyer, though.... He's crafty. And he's smart. And he uses language well.
I try to be kind to everyone I meet. I strive to love people well. I work to be gracious to and inclusive of others, no matter who they are.
I fail. A lot.
I have, on more than one occasion, been accused of using my intellect as a weapon. A co-worker recently told me that I have a special knack for making people ridiculous and stupid. Let me assure you, this is not often done on purpose. It is, however, a result of my very careful and incredibly intentional use of language.
This is where I identify with the lawyer. This is where I admire his chutzpah. He has the audacity first to challenge Jesus and second to seek to justify his behavior. And he does it with a careful and intentional use of language: And who is my neighbor?
This lawyer is crafty. And craftiness, in the bible, is a long and much admired tradition.
"What must I do to inherit eternal life?" the lawyer asks.
"What is written in the law? What do you read there?" Jesus responds.
"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 Jesus says, "You have given the right answer; do this and you will live."
What strikes me is that Jesus never gives the man a direct answer. Rather, in response to the lawyer's question, he asks a question. "What is written in the law?"
And he does the same again when asked, "And who is my neighbor?"
Jesus never gives a direct answer to this lawyer.
In fact in the gospels, Jesus is almost 40 times more likely to ask a question than to give a direct answer.
And who is my neighbor is followed by a story and the question: Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?
Answering another question with another question.
So, I would like to take a little time this morning to unpack this parable of The Good Samaritan.
We have four characters in this parable: an injured man, a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan. Though we are not told the ethnicity of the injured man, it is probably safe to assume he was Jewish. This is a story told to a Jewish man about how two Jewish religious authorities responded to the needs of an injured man and is contrasted against the way a Samaritan responded to that same injured man's needs.
Priests and Levites had very specific duties that centered on the Temple and worship. Priests performed sacred duties in the temple and entered the Holy of Holies, the innermost room of the temple where the ark of the covenant, the very presence of God, resided. Priests were charged with making sacrifices to God and performing rituals.
Levites assisted the priests in the temple in their duties, though they were not permitted beyond the Sanctuary within the Temple -- the antechamber to the Holy of Holies. Their many duties included the basic care of the Temple and the reading of the Torah during worship.
Priest and Levites are incredibly well versed in scripture. They would know beyond any shadow of a doubt that they are called to "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."
They would also have been well versed in what is now the Talmud -- at the time it was the oral tradition of interpreting the laws of the bible. This oral tradition was passed down in the Temple. With the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, the oral tradition was recorded on parchment as the Talmud.
Spending each day, every day, immersed in this oral tradition within the Temple, they would know the Pikuach Nefesh -- the rule concerning the preservation of life. The rule is simply this: with only three exceptions, the entirety of the Jewish law must be disregarded for the sake of saving a human life.
The three exceptions to this mandate are: 1) Defaming God's name, 2) Murder, and 3) Sacrificing one's own life to save another. It is permissible, however, to risk one's life in an attempt to save an other's. This is the religious tradition in which these men, the priest and the Levite, are steeped.
In this 1st century Palestine culture, however, nothing was more highly prized than ritual purity. Ceremonial purity was an absolute necessity. One could not serve in the Temple if one was not ritually clean. Touching a dead body makes one unclean. Those who are ceremonially unclean cannot perform sacrifices.
While the bible places an unmitigated emphasis on the preservation of life, this priest and Levite are not willing to risk touching a man who may be dying, as doing so will put them at risk of not being able to perform their duties. Knowing this man will die without fairly immediate attention and care, they instead leave him for dead and hurry by, crossing to the other side of the road so as to avoid him.
Yes, there is biblical precedent for remaining clean. Yes, there is biblical precedent for sacrifice. But when it comes to the preservation of life, an act of justice, in light of sacrifices, this is what God says: I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring me choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream.
And again: With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings and calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown you, o mortal, what is good! And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
Yes these men, a priest and a Levite, choose to keep their hands clean rather than show mercy to a beaten and dying man.
And what of the Samaritan?
Jews and Samaritans despised one another. They were enemies. Born of a common ancestor, they disagreed about many things, but it was their religious differences that most clearly distinguished them. Samaritans are the hated half-siblings of the Jews.
Again, ritual purity was at stake. Jews did not engage with Samaritans. Nor did Samaritans engage with Jews. They had their own separate territories and neither crossed into the land of the other lightly. They did not speak to one another, and the most certainly did not touch one another. They would not even touch a common object. To do would make them unclean.
And yet, it is a Samaritan who, upon seeing the man, went to him, bandaged his wounds, poured oil and wine on them, put him on his own animal, took care of him, and paid for his continued care at an inn.
What made the Samaritan's response so different from the response of the priest or the Levite?
What was different about the Samaritan himself?
The Jewish lawyer in today's gospel lesson would surely have identified himself with the priest and the Levite. The Jewish lawyer who sought to test Jesus and to justify himself.
It is the Samaritan, however, who was first moved with compassion.
Not bound by notions of ritual purity and a sense of self-righteous justification for keeping his hands clean, the Samaritan saw a man in need, and feeling compassion, was compelled to acts of mercy. Moved with compassion, he does not turn away.
Despised by the Jews, rather than permit one of them to perish, this Samaritan is moved with compassion, risks his own life, sacrifices his own comfort, spends his own wealth with no expectation of repayment, and seeks to meet the needs of an injured and dying man. The one who is despised and hated chooses to show love and mercy and to bring healing.
The Samaritan reminds me of Jesus.
Much as I identify with the crafty lawyer in this story, I want to identify with Jesus. I want to be more loving. I want to be more compassionate.
But it goes beyond that. For as crafty as this lawyer is, Jesus is craftier! He allows the lawyer to use his self-righteous justifications to lead him to a place where his craftiness fails him.
"What do you read in the law?"
"'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 who is my neighbor?"
And this is the brilliance of Jesus's answer: he makes it clear that in seeking to justify himself, the lawyer has asked the wrong question. Love your neighbor as yourself. "Who is my neighbor?" is the wrong question. "Which of these men, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?"
The question is not "Who is our neighbor?" The question is, "To whom will we be a neighbor?"
The question is not "What must we do to inherit eternal life?" The question is, "How will we choose to live today?"
Are we going to choose to keep our hands clean? Are we going to ignore those in need, be it physical, emotional, or spiritual? Are we going to justify our inaction by claim self-righteously, "They are not my neighbor, it's not my job?" Are we going to ask "Who is my neighbor?"
Or will we choose mercy? Will we choose compassion? Will we seek to meet the needs of those we know? Will we intentionally seek opportunities to meet others who have needs? Will we be a people who asks instead, "How can I be a neighbor to those in need?"
My hope is that more and more we are the ones who put aside our pride and self-righteous justifications and choose instead to show mercy. In doing so, we will not only inherit eternal life; we will truly learn what it means to live today.