Listen to the sermon HERE.
Today’s Gospel contains a famous story, the story of the Good Samaritan. Even those who may never go to church are often familiar with the basic outline of the story: that of a person who is left by the side of the road for dead, and then of all the people who pass by, a foreigner—about whom there were all kinds of cultural assumptions, stereotypes and prejudices—is the one who offers help. Of course, the story offers a nice moral and serves as a gentle reminder for us to be helpful, to live on the lookout for those in need, and for us to remember to practice charity. But the story goes much deeper if we notice the context of Jesus’ telling.
The story comes in a conversation Jesus is having with a young lawyer. We don’t know if the lawyer is serious at the beginning, or not. He could be genuinely asking Jesus about eternal life, or he might be trying to show off, to score points in front of his friends and impress the visiting holy man. And so he asks Jesus his question and Jesus responds with another question, “What does the law—meaning the teaching of Moses, the inherited and interpreted law of God—what does the law say? How do you read it?” The man piously quotes back to Jesus the famous teaching of Israel, the Shema, one of the first things a Jewish kid might learn, “Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Eḥad,” Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” The lawyer knows his basics, and Jesus says, “You’re right, you’ve given the right answer.”
And at this point in the story, I imagine Jesus is ready to move on. There are people to heal and hearts to reach. This lawyer seemed to want recognition from Jesus, and he got it, he got what he wanted. But then, just as Jesus is moving away “wanting to justify himself, [the man] asks Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’”
I love that phrase “wanting to justify himself.” There’s a lot in those few words. The translation by Eugene Peterson (The Message) makes the lawyer’s intention a little clearer: Peterson’s version says, “[But] Looking for a loophole, [th]e lawyer asked, “And just how would you define ‘neighbor’?”
The lawyer asks about his neighbor not out of concern for the neighbor, but to justify himself, to make himself look good, to make sure that he’s doing what he needs to do somehow to please God or make God love him.
I stumble on that little phrase because the lawyer’s motivation is familiar to me. That’s the sort of thing I might ask Jesus—well, which neighbor? The lady who gets seems to scam people at the intersection or the guy who begs and then goes and spends the money at the liquor store? Are they my neighbors? What about the ones in far away places whose pictures are used for fundraising—if I send money, will it get to them? Should I help those who don’t care a thing for me, or my tribe, or my country, or my religion? (I get creative trying to justify myself and can spend quote a bit of time doing that– all the while, the neighbor in need has either been helped by someone else or has simply vanished.)
The young lawyer wants to justify himself, and so, Jesus then tells the story of the Good Samaritan. He tells the story to try to explain to the man who his neighbor is, what his neighbor might look like. But even more, Jesus tells this story to change the focus of the lawyer. With every word, every look, every move, Jesus has communicated that God is love and Christ brings God’s love to all people. There’s nothing to do to earn it, or argue for it, or win it, or buy it. There’s no loophole to exploit. There’s no self-justification. Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan in an artful and compassionate way to say to the lawyer—“this isn’t about you.” It’s about helping someone in need. It’s about service. You want mystical religion? You want a spiritual experience? You want to see God? Then offer yourself to another in service, and strange things will happen. You’ll find yourself a part of God’s kingdom—unfolding, transforming, making a new heaven and earth.
The story of the Good Samaritan illustrates this. The man going to Jerusalem is robbed and beaten. A priest walks by but is probably late for an appointment. Maybe he’s told someone else he would meet them, or is expected elsewhere. He might have good reasons for passing on, but whatever those reasons were, they don’t help them the poor man on the side of the road.
Next a Levite passed by. The Levites had particular responsibilities, especially related to the synagogue. They were busy people. They were important people and they were concerned with God’s law, too—in macro-ways, in institutional ways, in communal ways. The Levite might have had very good reasons for passing by, but again, the man by the road is still hungry and hurt.
But the Samaritan does help. Why? Somehow, he’s jolted out of his own head, out of his own needs for self-justification or approval. He’s able to move out of weighing the pros and cons of the situation.
What jolted the Samaritan out of his own head? Out of his own routine? Out of his own sense of importance? It may have been that he recalled a time when he had been helped. Or it may have been because he saw something in the other person that reminded him of someone he once knew and loved. Or it might even have been because the Samaritan was simply oriented outward, he aimed his energy, his affection, and his interest toward other people.
Jesus says to the young lawyer, “It’s not about you.” Jesus says the same thing to me and to you and to all who want to know God, experience life in its fullest terms. It’s about service; about serving one another.
The Good Samaritan in scripture works as an example for us, but sometimes I’m helped by examples in our own day. Sister Norma Pimentel shows up in the news from time to time as the voice and witness of someone who works among immigrants at the US border in Brownsville, Texas. If you read the words of Sister Norma or hear an interview with her, you’ll hear echoes of the Good Samaritan. [If you don’t know of her, look her up online, or read about her here.] You’ll hear echoes of Jesus. Sister Norma is not new to working among immigrants and their families—she’s been doing it for over 30 years. She was one of the first people allowed entrance into US detention centers for children—created by the Obama Administration, by the way, which deported more undocumented immigrants quietly but aggressively. Sister Norma responds to a complicated situation with the love of Christ: she helps those in front of her who need help—while, at the same time—working with, respecting, and praying for border guards, police, and political officials. She faces each challenge and setback with a power deeper than herself, because it’s the power of Christ’s love within us. We just have to allow Christ love to flow, to move, to touch, to heal, and to extend kindness and mercy.
Who knows what will move us out of ourselves, beyond the need to self-justify, to be noticed, or to find a loophole that lets us appear moral without ever sacrificing. But whatever it is, I pray we might be open to it. May God move us out of ourselves—whether it be through our own sense of need, our sickness, failure or challenge, or perhaps simply by hearing familiar words in a new light—may God move us out of ourselves and into the lives of others.