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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 07/14/2013

When a parable becomes a cliché does it still have anything to say to us?  That’s the problem with the Good Samaritan.  Even at a time when it’s risky to assume that there is any Bible story that everyone knows, the story of the Good Samaritan comes close; at the very least, even if there are those who don’t really know the story or where it comes from, most people know what you mean if you refer to someone as a Good Samaritan.  It is one of the best known of Jesus’ parables

Is there more to it than that though?  Is there more to the parable than a reminder to show compassion, more than a call to “do goodism?”  There doesn’t have to be more.  It doesn’t hurt to be reminded that the world is a better place when compassion like that of the Samaritan is extended.  To see the story as an example of how Jesus wants us to treat each other and leave it at that is OK and regardless of whatever other spin might be put on it that’s how the story is going to be remembered anyway, especially when it’s about the random acts of kindness kind of thing, the acts directed toward a stranger; those people are going to be known as Good Samaritans.  So again, it’s OK if this is just seen as a reminder story, an example of Christ-like behavior.    

Relative to Jesus’ parables though, you have to keep in mind that part of his intention was to challenge people, to disturb them a little bit.  So while it’s OK to see this as an example story what you also want to pay attention to is how the example takes you outside the box toward something you might not expect. 

In this case, outside the box had to do with Jesus’ definition of neighbor.  When the lawyer asked Jesus the initial question about what must I do to inherit eternal life, he already knew the answer.  Just like how even a nominal Christian knows the story of the Good Samaritan, even a nominal Jew knows the shema, the command to love the Lord with all your heart, soul and mind and the command from Leviticus to love your neighbor as yourself.  The lawyer already knew that. 

It also sounds like Jesus would have been willing to leave it at that and let the lawyer go home happy, but the lawyer pushed the conversation, asking “And who is my neighbor?”  As the text says, he asked because he wanted to justify himself so he must have thought that whatever answer Jesus gave he was going to proudly be able to say, “I already do that.”  The lawyer knew the law and he knew the accepted religious and social boundaries of the law, who was in and who was out, who was clean and who was unclean; he knew where the lines were drawn and based on that he figured he was OK.  What he didn’t know was that Jesus didn’t really care about those lines.  The lawyer wasn’t ready for a story where the accepted boundaries were changed, a story in which the good guys become the bad guys and the bad guys become the good guys. 

It is OK to use the parable of the Good Samaritan as an example story about a call to extend compassion but to leave it at that can run the risk of leaving us feeling self-satisfied like the lawyer wanted to feel.  We might be tempted to say, “I already do that; I may not do all I could or should, I may not help everyone who needs it, but I do what I can; I do show compassion.  I know I don’t respond to every situation but it’s not like I do nothing either.”  That’s kind of how I feel and I bet many of you do too.  Our inclination is the same as that of the lawyer, we want to justify ourselves with Jesus’ stamp of approval and we do, until the follow up question.  It’s that neighbor thing that trips us up.

The lawyer had his boundary lines and so do we.  We’ve got those we feel OK about, those who we think are worthy of our compassion but then there are others who maybe we’re not so sure.  We’ve all got somebody we put outside the boundaries like how the Jews of Jesus’ time put the Samaritans outside.  We’ve all got some group in whom we can see all kinds of negative qualities, while we’re unable or unwilling to imagine their good qualities.   Those are the groups, whoever they might be for me, whoever they might be for you, when we want to justify ourselves, those are the groups Jesus calls to our attention. 

It is disturbing, it is challenging in part because there’s something strangely comforting about having someone or some group we don’t like.  There’s something about us that wants boundaries that we’re on the right side of, maybe because it helps to create a sense of order.  Life is more complicated if we have to try and find room for everyone, but that’s the strange ethic that Jesus calls us to.  Actually it’s not even so much an ethic; it’s more of an orientation that changes how we see the world and from that comes the ethic.  As he often does though, Jesus rearranges the world and the order we might want to impose on it.  For many of us, Jesus presence in our lives is a source of great comfort but, when you take seriously all he has to say, Jesus also complicates life.

Another caution with this story is to see it as an example story, a call to compassion, but then to kind of dismiss it as another case of Jesus setting the bar impossibly high just to make a point.  Especially relative to the definition of neighbor, he can’t really expect the boundaries to be gone; this world just doesn’t work that way.  So again, to justify ourselves, we want to say, Jesus must be pointing us toward some heavenly vision of the end times; he didn’t intend this as practical advice.

There may be an element of truth to that.  I do think there are cases where Jesus engages in that kind of rhetoric to make a point, the bit about if your eye causes you to sin pluck it out comes to mind.  But let’s go back to the lawyer’s original question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Eternal life is another one of those terms that we throw around like we know what it means but of course we don’t because we can’t; we can’t know exactly if we assume it has something to do with life beyond or outside the end of earthly life.  There is a degree of mystery about what is meant by eternal life.

Relative to the parable of the Good Samaritan though, what may be relevant is that a question about eternal life was the starting point for the lawyer.  That heavenly, long term life with God was what he had on his mind and like I said, if he hadn’t pushed, Jesus might have left him with that comforting, heavenly image.  By the end of the parable though, Jesus had him planted firmly back in this world, not only back in this world but back in what is worst about this world, its violence and inhumanity.  

In a way, you could say that Jesus changed the subject on the lawyer.  The lawyer started with a question about eternal life, Jesus ended with an answer about mercy and “Go and do likewise.”  Was that his way of saying, “Here’s what you should be worried about.  Eternal life starts here and now.  What you do here isn’t just preparation for the future, this life isn’t just a holding pattern while you wait for eternal life.  What you do here is part of eternal life.  So don’t worry about that which you can’t understand and isn’t for you to know.  Instead, do now what you can with the life you’ve been given.”

What has sometimes gotten lost in Christianity is its this worldly nature.  Central to our faith and our understanding of God is God becoming human in Jesus of Nazareth in order to fully become part of this world.  With that as the starting point, our task is not to seek to escape the world, our task is to engage the world as Jesus did.  The old hymn “I am but a stranger here, heaven is my home,” is really contrary to Christian theology.  God didn’t reject this world; this is our home and in Christ God became part of it. 

For him and for us, becoming part of it means engaging the world in all its messiness and brokenness.  It means allowing ourselves to be interrupted by the this worldly needs of others.  In the parable, the priest and the Levite, the good guys, perhaps worried about attending to their heavenly duties, didn’t want to be interrupted while the Samaritan, the bad guy, regardless of any other concerns he may have had, responded to the interruption; he went into the ditch and got his hands dirty; he showed mercy and that image brought the lawyer back to earth.

In the end I guess, however you spin it, the parable of the Good Samaritan is an example story that ought to bother us.  Jesus’ final words to the lawyer challenged him and they still challenge us: “Go and do likewise.”

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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