A neighbor (hereafter referred to as the party of the first part)
The Good Samaritan
Luke 10:25-37  July 14, 2019


There’s a special challenge with this famous parable we call The Good Samaritan.

The challenge is whether we’ll hear it.

It is so familiar and we are so sure of where it is going that our brain may drop into cruise control and we just miss what God is wanting to say to us.

Jesus’ encounter with the lawyer – a legal scholar of the Mosaic law, not what we’d call a criminal or civil lawyer today – happens as Jesus’ ministry had built a lot of momentum, and soon after Jesus, himself had been summarily rejected by Samaritans.

A few passages earlier, Jesus had dramatically healed a demon-possessed boy in front of a large crowd.

It was a raw display of divine power that further spread his fame while also further threatening the religious establishment.

Then, soon after that, he personally felt the sting of ethnic prejudice as he was thrown out of a Samaritan town when the locals learned that he was headed for Jerusalem.

After centuries of conflict, the hatred between Jews and Samaritans was intense.

It was right as Jesus left Samaria that the lawyer approached and tried to trap and humiliate him by tangling him up in legal fine print.

That is how Biblical literalism works – fixating on every word of scripture, parsing every phrase, mistaking stories and metaphors meant to point to God as brittle facts.

I have a friend who pastors a church where a handful of very knowledgeable people pick apart her sermon every week.

Mistrusting English translations, they return to Greek and Hebrew texts and discredit an entire message about grace and love by challenging how she used one or two words.

Her church has become hard-hearted and divided obsessed with minutia rather than mending hearts and healing lives.

Legalism codifies an ancient understanding of God from a long-gone society and so makes God smaller in the process.

It makes scripture brittle, God’s love restricted, and – often times – its adherents angry, intolerant.

Beyond that, a Christian life is not the same as even the most scholarly knowledge.

Michael Nicholson is a 75-year-old man who to date has earned one bachelor’s degree, two associates degrees, 23 master’s degrees, three specialist degrees, and one doctorate.

He explains, “I just stayed in school and took menial jobs to pay for the education and just made a point of getting more degrees.”

He was enrolled in school for 55 years straight years, earning 30 degrees in total – but he has never applied even one of them.

You know how the encounter with the lawyer goes.

The lawyer essentially asks how to please God, and, being a good rabbi, Jesus turns the question back to the lawyer who gives the obvious answer by quoting

Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 “‘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.’”

Any schoolboy could answer this – but now the lawyer springs his trap.

Luke 10:29 Looking for a loophole, he asked, “And just how would you define ‘neighbor’?”

If Jesus gives the socially acceptable answer that the neighbor is a family member, or a fellow villager, or even a fellow Israelite, he would please his audience – but put limits on God’s love.

As you know, in the Ancient Near East, family was everything.

Your family gave your identity, you were dependent on their support, and through them, you inherited your future.

This being an honor/shame society, if a brother or a cousin got into some kind of trouble, you and everyone in your family shared in their shame.

Family was so central that if your brother died, you were expected to marry his widow in order to provide for her and to keep the family line going.

But if Jesus said that your neighbor is your family or village, he’d be making God small – even though that is what everybody wanted to hear.

Since God is beyond our knowing, we are only capable of grasping a little bit of how God views his creation, but as humans, we assume that God only sees what we see.

On the other hand, if Jesus came right out and said that God’s love extends to everyone – even to Israel’s enemies – then he would alienate the crowd.

The lawyer may be counting on what he’d heard about how Jesus already had challenged society’s concept of family.

That was back in Galilee when Jesus had been sitting in someone’s house with his disciples and his mother and brothers tried to push through the crowd surrounding them.

Someone came to him and said (Mark 3:32), “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.”

What would any sane and respectful son do?

Sure … he’d drop everything and go out to greet his family.

But Jesus did the unspeakable:

Mark 3:34-35 Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”

In two sentences, the Son of God had redefined the meaning of family, and with it he raised the bar on the meaning of discipleship.

So, the lawyer has put Jesus in a “no-win” situation and is hoping Jesus will try to weasel his way out by obfuscating the law.

“Henceforth a neighbor (hereafter referred to as the party of the first part) shall be defined as meaning a person of Jewish descent whose legal residence is within a radius of no more than three statute miles from one’s own legal residence, unless there is another person (hereafter referred to as the party of the second part), or whereupon the discovery of there being by a human in good standing, residing in the area hereafter defined as world in which case the party of the second part is to be construed as the neighbor to the party of the first part. (based on a quote by Frederick Buechner)

Rather than giving a crowd-pleasing answer or sidestepping the issue with dense legalize, Jesus says, “Let me tell you a story”.

Everyone knew the dangers lurking on the 18-miles of steep, rocky road that descends 3,300 feet from Jerusalem to Jericho.

The road had become known as the “Way of Blood” because so many people had been assaulted by robbers who could hide behind rocks until their victims were right upon them.

So, hearing about a beaten man on the side of the road would not have been a great shock to Jesus’ audience.

The road was so narrow in places that you would nearly have to step over a fallen victim.

But when the priest and the Levite come upon this poor man they treat him as no more than roadkill.

Some might try to give them a pass because of the importance of ritual purity for them.

Had they been hurrying to perform official duties, then coming in contact with what they might fear was a dead body would have required they return home for a personal purification ceremony.

But no excuse is acceptable to Jesus.

The priest and the Levite had the Torah and knew its call to care for those in trouble.

However they rationalized it, they passed by the suffering man, and so Jesus challenged the assumption that holiness and godliness are one and the same.

Do your Bible devotion three times a day, avoid all sexually provocative movies, tithe 20% to your church – but if you fail to stop and help the down trodden man then, in Jesus’ scenario, you missed the whole point.

In 1973, two social psychologists conducted a now-famous experiment at Princeton Seminary.

They gathered ministry students one by one and told them that they had been selected to record a talk about the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

They also explained that because of a tight schedule, they needed to hurry across campus to the recording studio.

The thing is, along the way the researchers had staged a scene where an actor played the part of a man in distress, slumped in an alley, bruised and coughing.

What would happen, the researchers wondered, when the students actually encountered a man in need?

Would they be Good Samaritans?

Well, no, as a matter of fact, many were not.

Many of the ministry students rushed past the hurting man.

One even stepped over the man’s body as he hurried to teach about the Parable of the Good Samaritan!

By the way, the percentage who did stop varied by how rushed the researchers made them feel.

In the high rush group, only 10% stopped to help.

In the medium rush group, 45% stopped.

And in the low rush group, 63% stopped … which tells us something about how to schedule our days.

As Jesus told his parable, with first the priest and then a Levite crossing the road to avoid the injured man, his audience knew that the third person to arrive on the scene would be the hero of the story.

But I’ll guarantee you, no one expected Jesus to say that the hero was a Samaritan.

That would have sucked the breath right out of the crowd.

The bitterness toward the Samaritans had burned as long as anyone could remember.

Israelites referred to Samaritans as a herd, not a nation.

About a hundred years earlier, some Samaritans retaliated for an Israeli attack by throwing human bones into Temple in order to defile it right before Passover.

Now go and do like the Samaritan, Jesus says to the lawyer.

To some people, giving our life to Christ means accepting a creed, getting baptized and then resting assured that we’ll get into heaven.

Jesus had a different idea … giving your life to Christ means– among other things – joining with Jesus, to go and do likewise.

When Jesus’ brother James later became head of the Jerusalem church

he was as adamant as his brother about faith needing to be put into action if holiness is to become godliness.

James 2:18 You can no more show me your works apart from your faith than I can show you my faith apart from my works. Faith and works, works and faith, fit together hand in glove.

Our life is the truest testimony of our faith, and God has uniquely equipped each of us for our time and our community.

The 20th-century violin virtuoso Fritz Kreisler set out from Hamburg, Germany to give a concert in London.

With an hour to kill before his boat sailed, he wandered into a music shop, where the proprietor asked if he might look at the violin Kreisler was carrying.

The shop owner quickly vanished before returning with two policemen, one of whom told the violinist, “You are under arrest.”

“What for?” asked Kreisler.

“You have Fritz Kreisler’s violin.”

“I am Fritz Kreisler,” protested the musician.

In those days people didn’t carry the photo IDs as we do today, and with little time left for prolonged explanations, Kreisler asked for his violin and played a piece he was well known for.

“Now are you satisfied?” he asked.

The policemen let the musician go because he had done what only Fritz Kreisler could do.

Jesus has given us his Word, human abilities, and spiritual gifts … and now says, “Go and do likewise”.