On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
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.’”
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
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. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 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. 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.’
The word neighbor tends to conjure a wide variety of images ranging from the opening song of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to the crusty character who insists that all of the kids get off his lawn. Our understanding of who our neighbor is and in what ways we interact with them are dictated by the ways in which we were raised, our past experiences, and even our cultural depictions. How would you define the word neighbor? What has influenced this definition for you?
This passage begins with an expert in the Law of Moses seeking to test Jesus with his knowledge of Scripture. This man would have been heavily concerned with maintaining a state of ritual purity, which included following the laws set forth by the legal code within the Torah, and ensuring that others were taught the ways they were expected to live.
The legal expert answered Jesus’ question of “what is written in the Law…how do you read it?” with answers from Scripture that are often summarized as love God and love neighbor, though the expert in the law still desired further clarification by seeking to know who is meant by his neighbor.
In order to answer the expert in the law, Jesus tells a story about a man who was attacked while traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. After the man has been beaten half to death, a temple priest and a Levite each see him lying on the side of the road and cross to the other side of the road. In the Old Testament Law, if either of these men had touched the man’s blood, they would have been rendered ritualistically unclean and would have therefore been unable to fulfill their religious duties.
The Samaritans were the descendants of the tribes that remained in Israel during the Babylonian Exile, as well as people from other countries who were brought into this region to keep the land. They developed a religious tradition that blended some of the ancient Jewish practices with the pagan traditions of other countries. For this reason, they were universally despised by the Jewish people during Jesus’ time.
Jesus’ use of a Samaritan as the hero of this parable would have greatly challenged the views of care and charity for both the legal expert and the rest of those listening. This would have caused a great deal of thought as to whether the actions of a person were more important than their lineage or appearance of righteousness according to the law.
Gracious and merciful God, we thank you that you challenge our notions of who is our neighbor, and you challenge us to care for our neighbors in the ways that you know are best. Help us to see through your eyes of love and mercy; help us to seek the reality of your righteousness rather than our own notions of it, and guide us that we might live in community with you and each other. In Christ’s name, we pray; amen.