by Chris Ritter

Since this message debuted on February 14, maybe we should say a word about St. Valentine.  There are several persons by that name identified as saints by ancient church traditions.  All died as martyrs for their Christian faith. The most prominent tradition is about a Christian leader and physician named Valentine who suffered martyrdom around 270 AD at the hands of Emperor Claudius II Gothicus.  He is said to have been involved in marrying soldiers to their loves against the edict of the emperor who wanted them fully available for deployment. According to legend, Valentine healed his jailer’s daughter of blindness and became great friends with her.  Before his death, he signed a letter to her with the words, “from Your Valentine.”

Love is on everyone’s mind today.  But I hope it is not just the red roses and box-of-chocolates kind of love.  I hope it is the Love that binds God’s universe together.  That is our topic today.

We are spending February on the parables of Jesus in Luke. Jesus was a story-teller. He told stories to reveal truth.  He also told stories to conceal truth.  Those who wanted truth found it abundantly available through Jesus’ teachings.  Those that wanted to catch him on a theological technicality usually walked away scratching their heads.

The Story that Changed the World

Every once in a great while, there is a story that changes the world. 

I heart the Gospel of Luke referenced on the evening news this week. They were talking about a traffic accident and the reporter mentioned, “A Good Samaritan stopped by to offer assistance.” Here in Geneseo we know The Good Samaritan Society that is the largest provider of care to the elderly in our nation. You have probably seen a “Good Samaritan Hospital” as they are scattered all over the nation. In the UK, there is a suicide prevention ministry called The Samaritans. There is a disaster aid organization called Global Samaritan Resources. There are Samaritan orphanages. There was the Order of Samaritans and Daughters of Samaria that African Americans started to help their brothers and sisters through the Jim Crow Era. You may have packed a shoebox for Samaritan’s Purse International. Illinois has a law called The Good Samaritan Food Act that protects people that provide food to others from prosecution. Who knows how many trillions of dollars in charitable giving this one story from Jesus has inspired over the years? More than that, it has inspired countless acts of small of human kindness that has made our world a more livable place.  Even people who are not God-followers or believers have studied and appreciate this ethical parable of Jesus. Let’s give it fresh eyes and ears today.

25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

27 He answered, “‘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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

Luke 10:25-37 (New International Version)

A Growing Tension

There is growing tension in Luke’s Gospel between our Savior and the religious establishment of his day. He was offering a alternative to their approach, and they noticed the popular shift in attention away from themselves. They began sniffing around to see what this young rabbi from Nazareth was all about. Pinning him down on theology was proving difficult. But they could not help but notice that he seemed to be very confused about who was in and who was out.

  • In Chapter Five Jesus invited a tax collector to be one of his disciples.  And he then proceeded to attend a party attended by several tax collectors and sinners.
  • In Chapter Six, Jesus healed a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath in the synagogue.
  • In Chapter Seven, Jesus healed the servant of a Roman Centurion.
  • He also attended a dinner party at the home of a prominent Pharisee. That was fine. But at the party he allowed a sinful woman to weep sloppily at his feet, and then proceeded to indicate that she was behaving more appropriately than his host!

Sometimes you have to call in an expert. And that is exactly what the Pharisees did. In Luke 10 this expert comes to ask the right questions to get the revealing answers from Jesus for which they had been seeking. The question he asks is a great one: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Luke tells us this question is a test, not a personal inquiry. This expert is not in doubt about his own salvation. He wants to make sure that Jesus provides a definition of righteousness that jibes with the teachings of the Pharisees.

Annoyingly, Jesus answers the question with another question: “What is written in the Law?  How do you read it?”

There are any number of ways the Expert might have responded, but, to his credit, he goes right to the heart of things. He quotes a passage of scripture that is the very heart of Jewish worship. It is recited in every synagogue service to this day. The Shema: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. (Deuteronomy 6:4,5). Being radical monotheists, Jews don’t believe in eight gods, but One God. Because there is one God, this God deserves all our devotion, all our love, and all our reverence. This is the heart of Jewish devotion.

Of course, faith in the One God also has ethical dimensions. So the expert is also wise to add “love your neighbor as yourself.” This is taken from Leviticus 19:18: “You shall not take vengeance, nor hold any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.” So far the Expert and Jesus seems to be completely on the same page. This is the same thing Jesus had been preaching in the Sermon on the Mount: Love God, love others.

Jesus: “You have answered correctly.  Do this and you will live.”

Nothing was ever that easy with the Pharisees. Jesus and the expert might agree on the most important texts. But every text needed interpretation. And those interpretations needed interpretations. And the interpretations of the interpretations need interpretation. “Wishing to justify himself” the Pharisee asks, “Who is my neighbor?”

A decent argument could be made that Leviticus 19 instruction to love the neighbor is limited to “the sons of your people.” Your neighbors are your people. The interpretive question for the Pharisees is: Who qualifies? If you define “neighbor” narrowly enough, the expert would have a definition of righteousness from Jesus that included him. He is trying to probe of Jesus’ seeming love for the unacceptable.

A Relatable Story

In response to this highly technical question, Jesus tells a very human story.

A man was travelling from Jerusalem down to Jericho. This was a stretch of road that everyone knew and had travelled. Jerusalem sits at an elevation of around 25,000 feet above sea level. Jericho is just 18 miles away, but sits 800 feet below sea level. I have been to Jericho. It has a sign as you enter that says, “The lowest city on earth.” It is a place of palm trees, sand, and delicious dates. People from Jerusalem today use it as a weekend getaway. It is definitely a downward journey.

The road from Jerusalem to Jericho earned the nickname “The Bloody Way” because of the robberies that were known to happen. We might liken in to the South Side of Chicago or other places in our nation with a reputation for violent crime. True to reputation, Jesus says the man was set upon by bandits who robbed him, stripped him naked, beat him, and left him half dead by the side of the road.

The roads in those days were full of priests and levites travelling back and forth to Jerusalem. If you look back in Week #2 of this series, you will see that Zechariah was one of these priests. They operated on a schedule of service established by King David. Being a priest was like being in a religious version of the National Guard. You left your day job a couple weeks per year and served in temple. The roads were always full of priestly folks either coming from or going to Jerusalem.

A priest happened by the bloody and beaten man and passed by on the other side of the road. So did a Levite. A levite is a member of the tribe of Levi who, though not a priest, helped with the temple service. They were the gatekeepers, the sheep wranglers, and the like. Like the priest, he would have spent several days “on the mountaintop” in Zion praying, hearing the scriptures taught, and assisting in worship. In Methodist speak, they are just coming home from annual conference. Their hearts should be strangely warmed.

Excellent Excuses

These good guys do the wrong thing. Many a Hollywood script is based on bad people doing good things and good people doing bad things. It is all so interesting. What are the internal processes that go into the decisions we make? For me, it is often a matter of excuses.

Let’s put ourselves into the shoes of the priest and the levite. What might have been their legitimate reasons?

Danger. What if that man laying there was just pretending to need help? Maybe six of his friends were behind the bushes just waiting to waylay any do-gooder that happened by. You never know with strangers.

Purity. The condition of the man was difficult to discern from a distance. If he was dead, touching a body would make you ceremonially unclean. It would not do for a priest and the levite to be unclean, even if their temple service had already ended. If you see someone with a flat tire on your way to church, what is the better decision? You are not dressed to help. Coming in late would interrupt the service. What if you are serving on Host Team that day? People are counting on you. (See Hosea 6:6.)

Punctuality. Your family is expecting you back home after a week away. Friends and neighbors have been helping to cover your responsibilities while you were gone. Your wife will worry if you are late. The 18-mile walk from Jerusalem to Jericho was do-able in a single day if you started out early and did not make a lot of unnecessary stops. You didn’t want to be caught out at night on such a dangerous stretch of road. Maybe someone more local would happen by and help.

Skill Set. This injured man obviously needed help from someone trained in First Aid. You have no such skills. If your wife was with you, she could tie a nice bandage and really do a good job. If you had another person with you, you could maybe offer more help. Probably someone else will come along who could offer the type of help really called for in this situation. You took a spiritual gifts inventory, and you did not rank high on mercy and hospitality. Better let someone else take this one.

Blame. This wounded man may not be innocent. Maybe he was a thief knocked in the head by other thieves when it came time to divide the loot. Or maybe he ended up in this situation because of his own foolishness. He might have flashed his money around. Maybe he ventured out on the Jericho Road without a weapon. Poor planning for his journey should not cause me to stop my own journey. That would not be fair.

I lived in Georgia for three years while attending seminary. My license plate was about to expire and I learned that the county courthouse was the only place to renew your sticker. Fine. I arrived on the last day of the month to find the courthouse completely swamped. There was a line going out the front door, down to the corner, all the way down the block, and swirling around in the parking lot behind the courthouse. I asked someone what in the world was going on. They shared that everyone’s sticker in the whole county expired on the same day of the year. I made a lot of friends that day standing in line. When I got hear the front door of the courthouse, I saw a temporary sign posted by the staff: “Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on our part.” In other words, “Tough luck. You should have planned better.”

Sympathy. Just because the priest and the levite did not stop, that does not mean they didn’t feel bad for the guy. There were likely grateful to God that their own journey was safe so far. They may have whispered a prayer for the man. “Thoughts and prayers” gets a bad rap these days as a response to tragedy. But thoughts and prayers are a great first response. But that does not mean it has to be our only response.

A Walking Oxymoron

We hear the word “good” and “Samaritan” together so much we might think that they are one-in-the-same. Nothing could be further from the opinion of the good, religious people of Jesus’ day. A Samaritan was about the worst thing you could be. When the Babylonian Exile happened a few hundred years BC, the best and the brightest of Israel were taken captive and relocated. Other people from other places were brought in. (The Babylonians liked to resettle people to make them more docile). When the exiles were allowed to come home under Persian King Cyrus, they found that the “leftover” people had inter-married with the outsiders who were brought in. In their minds, they were no better than mongrels and had no place in rebuilding Jerusalem and the temple. Offended, these folks set up their own temple on Mount Gerazim and maintained their own religion with alternative histories that made themselves the true believers. They lived near the Jews, but in constant conflict with them. Jesus himself is mistreated by Samaritans in the preceding chapter, Luke 9. Jesus hoped to stay in a Samaritan village on his way to Jerusalem but was rejected because he was a Jewish pilgrim.

So “Good Samaritan” would have been an oxymoron… a contradiction in terms. But Jesus uses a Samaritan to show what true love of neighbor really involves.

He opened his eyes. I have learned to avoid eye contact with the guy holding the cardboard sign. How about you? The Samaritan did not turn his head. He stepped closer so that he could see the need.

He opened his heart. There is a difference between sympathy and compassion. Sympathy is feeling bad for another person’s plight. Compassion always involves action.

He opened his hands. He bandages the man’s wounds. What did he use for bandages? Remember, the man’s clothes were stolen, too. The Samaritan may have had to tear his own clothes to provide bandages. His poured in oil and wine. With a lack of actual medicine on hand, he used what he had. Oil is soothing. As Dr. Luke could tell you, wine might work as a disinfectant in a pinch.

He opened his schedule. He put the man on the donkey he was riding and took him to the nearest inn. There he spent a long night with the man, attending to his needs and making sure that he was going to pull through.

He opened his wallet. The next morning, the Samaritan makes arrangement with the innkeeper to look after the man so that he can continue to rest and heal. He gave him two denarii. A denarii is roughly equivalent to a day’s wages for a laborer. Just for shorthand, let’s think of it as $200. The Samaritan was a frequently traveller and told the innkeeper he would drop by in a couple days to pay any additional expenses the man may have incurred.

A Better Question

After sharing this story of extravagant mercy from an unexpected source, Jesus asks the expert, “Which of these was a neighbor to the man who fell among robbers?”

The expert could not bring himself to use the “S” word (S-S-S-Samaritan). He replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.”

Do you see what Jesus did there? He defined neighbor based on need, not on kinship. In doing so, he provided a definition of love that is bigger than anything previously considered by the Pharisees. The expert came to Jesus feeling very sure of his own righteousness. But Jesus provided a new definition that none of us have lived up to perfectly.

Higher Love

For much of church history, the parable of the Good Samaritan was read as an allegory of salvation. The traveller was Adam and his descendants. Jerusalem is paradise. Jericho is the world. The robbers are the Devil and his angels. The stripped garments are Adam’s immortality. The priest is the Law. The Levite is the Prophets. The Samaritan is Christ. The oil is the Holy Spirit. The wine is Holy Communion. The inn is the Church. The innkeeper is St. Paul. The two denarii are the commandments to love God and neighbor. The promised return of the Samaritan is the promised second coming of Jesus.

The Bible is a house with many windows. I am sure there are multiple possible layers of meaning. But I read the Parable of the Good Samaritan in a much more basic way. Jesus showed us what love looks like. It jumps over what is fair to give what is needed. It costs us more than we were planning to spend. It keeps us longer than we were planning to stay. It is risky, self-sacrificial, and does not stop to ask if the person is worthy.

Love does not ask how a person voted. Love does not inquire into lifestyle. It simply sees the need and gives. A neighbor is not someone who thinks like us, looks like us, and acts like us. A neighbor is anyone that needs our love and care.

In telling this story, Jesus is pointing us toward the very kind of love that he would exemplify on the Cross. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. As we begin the journey toward the cross this Ash Wednesday, we are called to reflect on that amazing, expansive love.

John Wesley’s notes on this passage include:

Let us go and do likewise, regarding every man as our neighbor who needs our assistance. Let us renounce that bigotry and party zeal which would contract our hearts into an insensibility for all the human race, but a small number whose sentiments and practices are so much our own, that our love to them is but self love reflected. With an honest openness of mind let us always remember that kindred between man and man, and cultivate that happy instinct whereby, in the original constitution of our nature, God has strongly bound us to each other.

John Wesley’s Notes on the New Testament

I don’t know about you, but the type of love Jesus describes takes me back to my own need for divine grace. This type of love doesn’t happen, as least not consistently, in our hearts apart from the power of the Holy Spirit. I need this season before Easter to reflect on the Cross and to seek divine grace to strengthen me to love everyone as my neighbor.