I’ve had this exchange between Jesus and a lawyer on my mind recently. This passage is so familiar that I think we assume the meaning is very straightforward. They ask a question that is always current. What does it mean to love God and neighbor? Some would say that it means helping others in need. And that’s a good interpretation of the passage, but I think there’s a lot more going on in it. Today I want to dig a little deeper to make this text come alive to us once again. So, let’s just get right into things.
We cannot skip over the context of this parable because it defines the point of the teaching. The lawyer wants to know what he must do to inherit eternal life. To begin with, we see a flaw in the lawyer’s understanding of inheritance. You cannot do anything to inherit anything. An inheritance is a gift from another. It’s outside of your control. Still, Jesus answers with the Greatest Commandment and tells him to do it – love God and love neighbor. Like the parable that follows, Jesus’ response is so familiar, I think we just assume that it’s easy and possible. It’s not. Not one of us here consistently love God and neighbor. Jesus might as well have told this lawyer, “Sure, you can inherit eternal life. All you have to do is jump over this ten-foot fence on your first try.” No one can do it.
This lawyer may be smart, but he doesn’t get what Jesus is up to. He doesn’t realize what Jesus has told him is humanly impossible, and his follow-up question shows just how much he doesn’t get it.
“Wanting to justify himself,” Luke says, the lawyer asks a follow-up. “Who is my neighbor?” The lawyer hopes to hear something manageable. Maybe Jesus will just tell him to love those who are like him – those who share his ethnicity and religion, but that’s not what Jesus does. I suspect we all have a bit of this lawyer in us, where we can name who is our neighbor and who is not. Jesus won’t let him – or us – off the hook!
Before we get into the parable, I want to pause for some comic relief. Don’t worry. They’re religious. A Rabbi, a Priest, and a Minister walk into a bar. The Priest says “I bet I can go up to the bartender, have a few beers, and get out without paying.” The Rabbi and Minister do not think this is possible, but the Priest goes up to the bartender, has a few drinks and begins to exit the bar, but the bartender calls out “Sir, you forgot to pay for your drinks” The Priest replies, “No you’re mistaken, I already paid, good night” and walks out.
Then the Minister in disbelief says he’ll give it a go as well. So, he does the same, goes up, has a few drinks, and begins to walk out when again the bartender says “Sir you forgot to pay for your drinks.” The Minister then replies, “No you’re mistaken, I already paid, good night” and walks out.
The Rabbi is astounded, but walks outside to see his buddies, he says those were good, but I’ve got one better. He walks up to the bartender, has a few drinks when he begins to walk out the bartender calls to the Rabbi and says “Sir, you forgot to pay for your drinks” the Rabbi replies, “No sir you’re mistaken, I already paid you, now I need the change back for my hundred.”
This joke formula is familiar, isn’t it? I’m sure you’ve heard some priest/minister/rabbi jokes before. They’re so common that you can find at least one joke about the joke itself: A priest, a minister, and a rabbi walk into a bar. The bartender looks at them and says, “What is this, a joke?”
The formula of the priest/minister/rabbi joke relates to the parable of the Good Samaritan in this way. The lawyer and others hearing Jesus’ teaching would hear the formula Jesus is using and assume they know which characters will show up. There were three classes of people associated with the temple – priests, Levites, and laymen. Jesus uses this formula to present the priest first, move to the Levite second, and then subvert their expectations by putting a hated Samaritan in place of the temple layman. It would be like me giving a priest/minister/rabbi joke and by the time I got to the rabbi section, I’ve changed him out for someone who just was released from jail. It’s unexpected, and it reshapes the entire story.
So, let’s investigate the parable itself. There is a man who was been robbed, stripped, and left to die by the roadside. He is most likely a Jew, but passers-by could not know for sure because he can’t talk, and his clothes are gone. A priest comes on the scene first. Priests had inherited their duties from their fathers and tended to be wealthy. The priests lived in Jericho and would commute the seventeen miles to Jerusalem for their period of service. Since the priest is going to Jericho, we know his period of service is done. Encountering this beaten man presents a problem for the priest. It’s likely that priest has legal responsibilities towards him, but those could interfere with other good work he is doing. If the man is dead, the priest would become ceremonially defiled, meaning a return to Jerusalem for a week-long purification. During that time, he could not eat from the tithes or offerings, and neither could his family and servants. He also could not distribute to the poor. So, the priest comes across an ethical problem that is not easy. He could help, but it would limit other good things he could be doing. So, the priest’s behavior may not be commendable, but it is understandable. He did not have a simple solution to determining his duty under the law, and so he opted to move along.
After the priest comes a Levite. Levites were assistants to the priests at the temple. This Levite would have known that the priest has already encountered this man by the side of the road. Surely, he reasoned, if the priest determined it was not his duty to help this man, then the same should be true for the Levite. He would not want to insult the priest by acting differently.
And now, Luke messes with our expectations. Instead of a temple layman, along comes a Samaritan. He is a hated outsider. He is outside of this story both ethnically and religiously. Samaritans aren’t the heroes; they’re the villains. Yet, this Samaritan stops, binds up the wounds of the man, puts him on his ride, and, at great risk to himself, takes him to an inn in Jericho. He leaves enough resources for the innkeeper to care for the man for two weeks and promises to cover all expenses from there.
Finishing his story, Jesus turns to the lawyer and says, “Which of these three was a neighbor?” The lawyer gets it, “The one who showed mercy,” but he’s not even able to say, “The Samaritan,” so bitter is his heart. Ken Bailey reminds us, “Experience dictates that it is very hard to love the unlovely neighbor until the disciple’s heart is filled with the love of God.” For this lawyer, he wants eternal life, but he cannot accept that that kind of life begins with the boundary-breaking love of God. Jesus’ parable doesn’t answer the question of “Who is my neighbor?” so much as it reframes the question in this way, “To whom must I become a neighbor?” In this story, Jesus is telling the lawyer that he must become a neighbor to someone he detests – like the Samaritan.
If we are to take Jesus seriously, then we must ask ourselves that same question. To whom must I become a neighbor? Who is a Samaritan to you – someone you consider far removed from your life, whom you don’t want to understand, whom you might even really, really dislike? This parable says that we must become a neighbor even to that person.
To put it bluntly, the ethical demands of this question are limitless. There’s always someone else along the way whom we need to love the way God loves them, but that’s the eternal kind of life now. If we are to take Jesus seriously, then we must go and do likewise – leaving no one outside the bounds of God’s gracious love, becoming neighbors of everyone.
 Kenneth Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, 287. Much of the details in this sermon owe a debt of gratitude to Bailey’s book.