The Nearest Neighbor
We just heard a story that would be on Jesus greatest hits album, if Jesus had such a thing. For all I know K-Tel has produced an album with Jesus greatest hits, and if they have, the Parable of the Good Samaritan is sure to be on the album. The parable is one of those standard Bible stories sure to make any kids Bible storybook. In fact, if you dont even know a single Bible story, you have probably heard of a Good Samaritan. Its a generic expression. You can call someone a Good Samaritan for helping out someone in need without ever thinking of Jesus story. But what is a Good Samaritan?
I want to take the time to look deeper at this story to find out what is going on. But first we need some more information. After all, the first hearers knew about parables, and they were familiar with the cast members of the little drama Jesus unfolds for them with his story. We, however, need a quick refresher course before we dive deeper.
First, parable comes from the Greek word Parabole meaning literally that which is tossed alongside. This parable tosses some very different images together as a means of teaching, like an extended metaphor. Knowing more about those images helps us to learn more from the story.
First, lets look at the setting. The whole story takes places on the road between Jericho and Jerusalem. To this day, the road from Jerusalem down to Jericho remains a rocky, barren, waterless expanse. In Jesus day, the road was downright unsafe. Travelers going between Jericho and Jerusalem often traveled in groups as travelers were often attacked by robbers. This stretch of road was a dangerous no mans land between the two towns. Unfortunately, it took no stretch of the imagination to picture a single traveler being attacked, stripped, beaten, and left for dead.
Next, we get two passers by who do nothing to help the injured man. They are a Priest and Levite. It helps to know that from our perspective, they are both priests, and like all priests in Israel, they inherited that honor. The designation priest tells us that the first man to approach the scene is a priest, who could not only trace his lineage to Levi, but also to Israels first High Priest Aaron. That means he could serve in the Temple in Jerusalem, an honor reserved for descendants of Aaron. While the second priest descended from Levi alone, with no relation to Aaron. That meant that he served as a priest in outlying areas and could also have fulfill some lesser duties within the Temple in Jerusalem.
Both of these men were bound by the purity laws found in the Old Testament book of Leviticus. Certain activities could make them impure and disqualify them for service in the Temple for a period of time. The holiness laws governing what the Priest and Levite did were more stringent than the laws guiding other Jews in their day-to-day lives. That little detail could have complicated the decision on the road to Jerusalem. After all, if the Priest and Levite were on the way up to Jerusalem, they would have likely been on their way to work in the Temple. Then the decision of whether to reach out to help the battered fellow traveler could have been harder.
The Priest and Levite would have been torn between the duty to help and the duty to remain qualified for their service in the Temple. The worse the traveler was injured, the worse the dilemma, for the real injunctions that would have concerned the Priest and Levite would have been that they would be benched from Temple work for 7 days if they touched a dead man. However, Jesus says quite clearly that the Priest and Levite were heading down from Jerusalem, on this the Greek quite clear. So, we know that they were leaving the Temple, not heading toward it. While they would still risk being ritually unclean be reaching out to the man, they would not be risking losing their eligibility for Temple service.
OK, so there are our first cast members. Next, we get the unlikely hero of Jesus little story. He is a Samaritan. So, what is a Samaritan? For a good Israelite, a Samaritan was a ritually unclean, reasonably uncouth heretic who couldnt be trusted even as far as you could chunk him. Samaria was Israels nearest neighbor. Well, thats not exactly right. Samaria sat smack dab in the middle of Israel. Jerusalem and the rest of southern Israel, known Judea, sat to the south and Galilee and the rest of Israel to the north with Samaria in between.
The Israelites despised the Samaritans. The Samaritans themselves, they do exist to this day as a separate people, say that they are the descendents of the Israelite tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim. Those tribes were conquered and deported by the Assyrians more than 700 years before Jesus was born. The Israelites claim that the Samaritans were other peoples who the Assyrians later let settle in the parts of Israel they conquered. The truth is probably somewhere in between. The people known as Samaritans are most likely a mix of Israelites who returned to Samaria together with other peoples conquered by the Assyrians with whom those Israelites intermarried.
What everyone agrees on is that the Samaritans practiced a religion similar to Judaism, based on Judaism, but not exactly the same brand of Judaism espoused at the Temple in Jerusalem. The Samaritans had their own priest with their own Temple on Mount Gerazim in Samaria. An Israeli view of the Samarian religion was probably not unlike how many Christians view the Mormon faith or how Muslims look at The Nation of Islam. The Samaritans would say they practiced the same religion. The Israelites were and are convinced they are heretics.
If you needed a butt for an Israeli joke, a Samaritan was a good choice. No body liked Samaritans so you were free to poke fun at them. They were the outsiders who lived within Israel. The one thing that any two Israelites were likely to agree on is that there was no such thing as a Good Samaritan.
So whats up with Jesus and the Samaritan. Notice Jesus never calls him the good Samaritan, but we cant help but draw the conclusion. Perhaps an even better name would be the Compassionate Samaritan. For what the Samaritan really does in our story is to show compassion for a person who probably despised him.
Now that we know our cast of characters. Lets look at the story. You will notice a certain pattern. It goes like this. There was a Priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan. Does that sound like the set up for a joke to you. Kind of like, There was a Rabbi, a Baptist minister an Episcopal Priest. Or whatever, you get the point. Insert three folks here, punch line to follow. Thats not too far from where Jesus is headed. You see in Jesus day some folks were concerned that the Temple priests in Jerusalem were a bit to chummy with the Romans for anyones good. And a common joke might go, There was a Priest, a Levite and an Israelite. And we know the hero will be the Israelite. The good old hard working schmoe who tries there best to be faithful to God and doesnt give the Romans the time of day if they can help it. The Priest and Levite come off looking a bit up tight about their duty and the Israelite comes off looking faithful. Thats how the story was supposed to go.
So now imagine being a hearer of this story the first time it was told. The lawyer asks, Who is my neighbor? Jesus answers with a story. Now once Jesus gets under way, the crowd can start to jump ahead to the ending. Jesus gets the story just right. He tells about the bad old Priest and the bad old Levite who pass by on the other side of the road leaving the beaten man for dead, just as the robbers had done. Then we get to the punchline. The good part weve been waiting for. The audience is probably made up of plain old Joes (and Janes) ready for the Israelite hero to step in. But then the story goes wrong. Bad wrong.
Heres what Jesus said, But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.
Now lets pause for full effect here. Everyone is standing around ready to hear the one about the Priest the Levite and the Israelite. Why not, they, the audience, are the heroes of that story. Instead, we get a blankety-blank Samaritan in the tale coming in on cue for the hero. But thats not the worst part. The worst part is what happens next. The Samaritan comes near to the injured man and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.
Heres where I have to get a little technical again. Im sorry, but without it, you just dont get the full impact of the story. The Greek word for moved with pity is Splanchnisomai. It sounds kinda funny when I say it, Splanchnisomai. But when Jesus said it, I bet no one was laughing. You see that splanchnisomai is a special word. Its sort of a theological word as it was reserved to describe the compassion and mercy God has for us. It is a common Biblical word for Gods compassion and mercy. But splanchnisomai is a rare word indeed otherwise. In fact, only Jesus ever uses it to describe human action. Everybody else reserved the word for God alone. Now Jesus has the nerve to say that a dirty rotten scoundrel like a Samaritan can show God-like compassion for someone in need. If thats not shocking, it should be. Of course, the story doesnt stop there. It just gets worse. The good for nothing Samaritan risks his own safety, spends his own money and a good deal of time to make sure that the Israelite who was beaten by bandits is taken care of. While the crowd is still trying to sort out the images Jesus has tossed together, Jesus asks the lawyer, Which one of the three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers? The no-doubt dumfounded legal expert said, the one who showed him mercy. There it is again, Mercy. The Samaritan was moved by mercy, showed mercy to the injured man and was his neighbor.
But dont you see, the story is inside out. It started out with whos my neighbor. That equation starts with me, or in your case you and works outward. For a good person the concentric circle stretch out farther and farther. You not only include your close family and friends, but can be neighborly to people you dont even know. Thats just great, but Jesus works the equation the other direction. Jesus starts with the person in need and says the person who is closest is the neighbor. If you see a need, if you know of a need, then you are a neighbor. In fact you may be the nearest neighbor and the one God is looking to to express that Godly compassion and mercy.
This is the part where a preacher is tempted to look for some modern day equivalent of the Good Samaritan. I think thats too tall an order. After all, the Samaritan in our story risked personal injury, gave up not inconsiderable amounts of time, energy and care and all for a person who considered him and all Samaritans to be beneath contempt. Modern day examples no doubt exist, but they sure dont leap to mind. Jesus story of the Compassionate Samaritan is full of meaning. Thats what makes stories such a great vehicle for teaching. You cant really boil this parable down to one meaning alone. But neither can you avoid the conclusion that being a neighbor is not about you or your goodness. Being a Good Samaritan to someone else is about their need and Gods compassion. When you allow yourself to be moved by Godly compassion and mercy to act on anothers behalf you are being a Good Samaritan. But watch out. God has a way of asking you to show compassion on people you would rather pass by.
King of Peace Episcopal Church + 6230 Laurel Island Parkway + Kingsland, Georgia 31548-2526