There really are few things more exasperating, I think, than asking a serious question and not getting a serious answer – whether it’s an evasive answer that one gets, or maybe no answer at all, or (perhaps worst of all) another question instead of an answer. If the lawyer in today’s gospel (Luke 10:25-37) was at all like most of us, I think he must have been very exasperated with Jesus!
He had, after all, asked a perfectly legitimate question, certainly a serious question, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus was, apparently, presenting himself as a sort of teacher, so why shouldn’t he respond? Jesus, however, just answered him back with a question of his own, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?”
Now this lawyer was obviously no slouch. Having had the ball thrown right back at him, he took it and (as they say) ran with it – and ran rather well, judging from Jesus’ approving response: “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.”
Now who wouldn’t be satisfied with an answer like that from Jesus – to any question, any time?
Of course, the lawyer was able to answer so well because he had been properly instructed in the Jewish law, and so he could quote it correctly. “You shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, with al your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18).
But the lawyer was, after all, a lawyer; and so, we are told, he wished to justify himself. He demanded further clarification. The law says I am supposed to love my neighbor as myself. OK, then just who exactly counts as my neighbor?
This time Jesus replied with a story, a long story, known ever since as the “Parable of the Good Samaritan.”
Some two millennia later, we’ve all already heard this parable so many times that we all already know the story. And, because we already know the story, we’re not at all surprised when (of all people) a Samaritan appears as the hero. So we can call it the “Parable of the Good Samaritan,” conveniently forgetting, for example, what a complete contradiction in terms that phrase, “Good Samaritan,” would have been to the people who first heard this story from Jesus himself!
Of course, our only experience of Samaritans is this story (and others like it). We certainly haven’t experienced Samaritans the way the lawyer (and the rest of those present) would have experienced them. So we completely miss the surprise, the shock, the real scandal in the story – and so also miss the ultimate point, which is the parable’s invitation to us to think about things in a new way.
And, of course, we also see this story (as the title we’ve given it suggests) from the hero’s perspective – forgetting that Jesus’ hearers would not have known who the hero was going to be, and so would likely have heard the story from the victim’s perspective.
Lets’ remember the context – a discussion about the law, the Old Testament’s law of love for God and neighbor. Jesus never answered the lawyer’s original question. He let the lawyer do that himself. We don’t need Jesus just to quote the law to us. We can do that ourselves. But we do need Jesus to make the commandment come alive in our world. We need him to tell us who is our neighbor.
“And who,” the lawyer had asked, “is my neighbor?" The way the lawyer framed that question (and the way we hear that question today) it means “To whom do I have some obligation?” That’s not a bad question, but it’s an ordinary kind of question. It’s part of the ordinary logic of our ordinary world, which wants to know, Is this person my neighbor? Is this someone whom I am required to help? Is that something owed to him or her – by me? In short, what is the legal or moral minimum that I as a socially responsible, ostensibly moral person am obliged to do?
But … if we identify (as we were presumably intended to do in this story) with the victim, then that will hardly be our question. Jesus in the story has subtly shifted the focus from neighbor as an object of obligation, someone to whom duties are (perhaps grudgingly) owed, to neighbor as someone who acts, someone who intervenes, someone who saves, someone who acts on my behalf and comes close enough to touch me and become my friend.
Now (as everyone in Jesus’ audience would presumably have understood) in our ordinary world both the priest and the Levite would have had very legitimate reasons, when they passed by, to stay on the opposite side. In order to do their jobs, they had to remain ritually pure, which precluded contact with corpses (a real danger here, since the victim, so we’re told, was left half-dead). The Samaritan, on the other hand, was already impure. He was impure by definition, just by being who and what he was - a Samaritan. So he had nothing to lose by touching the wounded man – nothing to lose, that is, except his right to remain aloof.
But the point of the parable is that he did not remain aloof! The stranger has become our neighbor!
Jesus’ parable portrays otherwise ordinary people in an otherwise ordinary world and one person, a Samaritan, for whom nothing is ordinary anymore. It gives us a glimpse of how God acts – as seen in the actions of Jesus. The question for us is whether we want to enter into that new world.
This “Parable of the Good Samaritan” is thus actually a story about Jesus, whose whole story is about the neighborliness of God, the distant stranger who has now become our friend.
To ask, as the lawyer did, what the minimum is that I must do presumes that we experience the moral life as some sort of burdensome obligation – that we, in effect, experience God and one another and life in general as burdensome obligations.
That is the ordinary logic of our ordinary world.
But the God who is no longer a stranger to us, because he has become our neighbor, has given us – in Jesus – a glimpse of God’s extraordinary logic and God’s new world.
And so, says Jesus (finally answering the question): “Go and do likewise.”
Homily at St. Paul the Apostle Church, NYC, July 11, 2010.