The Samaritan’s Goodness

 A Sermon for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost

Year C – Proper 10 – 14 July 2013

John Edward Miller, Rector


Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall 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 your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, `Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

                                                                                                                     – Luke 10:25-37


The Collect

O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


Jesus taught in parables. They were his favorite mode of spelling out the gospel for people to hear and to grasp. His parables were word-pictures, drawn from everyday experience. People could relate to them because they featured familiar scenes, such as farming, shepherding, family relationships, and dealing with loss. Most of Jesus’ parables stick to the walls of our memory. However some are so vivid that they get etched into our consciousness and become part of our language and culture. Such is the case with the parable of the Good Samaritan. It is an unforgettable story, but our understanding of it needs a tune-up now and then so that its meaning can grasp us with real power.

When Jesus told this parable, his featured character (the man from Samaria) was so controversial a figure that he shattered the expectations, as well as the complacency, of his audience. His placement at the focal point of the story made Jesus’ listeners sit up and take notice. And it probably made them angry because Jesus’ message was counter-cultural. However, that is not the usual take on the Good Samaritan. Today the sincere but superficial view is that Samaritans are people who do good deeds, and that Jesus is commending them as examples to emulate.

 On the face of it, the ideal of exemplary compassion is something to applaud, but that is not the parable’s purpose. Jesus is not singling out Samaritans as a special class of heroes, nor is he commanding us to be like them. It is true that Luke quotes Jesus as saying, “Do this, and you will live,” and “go and do likewise.” However, if you consider what Jesus and the lawyer were talking about, you’ll see that his purpose is not to advocate a “just do it” approach to morality. Moreover, for Jesus to have used a Samaritan as an illustration, and to get the lawyer to see him in a favorable light, was a revolutionary move. Samaritans just didn’t fit into a Jewish moral picture. Law and covenant lay at the center of Jewish life, and obedience to the law was their chief religious duty. Samaritans were outsiders with respect to these things, so it was outrageous that Jesus put him in the spotlight. Yet his message was worth taking this risk. It pushed the audience (and it pushes us) beyond the limits of legalism to the surprising realities of God’s grace.

The scene opens with a question put to Jesus by a lawyer – an expert in biblical law. He approached Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Although the query sounds innocent, it wasn’t. The lawyer was not seeking spiritual guidance from Jesus the teacher. He was already certain that obeying God’s commandments, statures, and ordinances was the path to life, while disregard for the law is a sure way to condemnation and death. To his point of view, Jesus was a threat to law-abiding Judeans because he was known to play fast and loose with the law. Therefore he must be discredited and removed.

The lawyer’s question was like bait to a trap. With it he challenged Jesus to comment on the law, to distill the whole legal tradition ofIsrael, and cite its most important commandments. Since there were 613 biblical laws to comprehend, this would be more than a challenge. It would press him to choose some laws over the others, and that would open him to criticism about this choice. Jesus would appear to be biased, arbitrary, or even unfaithful. That was what the lawyer was counting on: he was waiting for the teacher fromNazarethto embarrass himself in front of the crowds.

Jesus, however, did not take the bait. He tossed it right back to the lawyer with an appeal to the man’s pride. “You’re a scholar of the law,” he said, “what’s your opinion?” As if by reflex, the lawyer selected two commandments of the law, namely to love God with one’s whole being, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself.[1] Other rabbis had already called those very commandments the summary of the law. Thus, it was a safe bet that he concur.

Jesus nodded, saying, “Right! Do this, and you will live.” That briefly thwarted the lawyer, who now was red-faced that he’d been outmaneuvered. But he recovered sufficiently to snap, “But, teacher, who is my neighbor?”  

The lawyer was tempting him again to enter the realm of rules and paint himself into a corner. By law, the neighbor is a member of the Jewish covenant community. Jesus, however, was known to consort with all sorts of people – Jewish outcasts, Romans, Samaritans, Phoenicians, slaves, lepers, and women of dubious repute. He never limited his contacts to an exclusive group. Thus, if he gave the standard legal answer, he would be excluding every Gentile whom he had treated with respect. But if he expanded the definition of the neighbor to include non-Jews and the so-called unclean, he would be in violation of the law.

Momentarily, the lawyer appeared to have gained the advantage. But Jesus was not about to step into this second snare. He declined to answer, but instead told the lawyer a parable that we all know, or assume we know.

Jesus said that a traveler on the Jericho road was mugged, stripped, beaten, and left for dead. When a priest approached he saw the poor wretch, but he looked away and kept on walking. Then a Levite came along and saw the victim lying on the roadside. But the Levite likewise refrained from getting involved. He walked on down the road, feeling no responsibility to help. But both the Levite and the priest had a moral duty under the law to aid the victim.

Just then, said Jesus, a third traveler happened upon the wounded man, and stopped. He was neither a priest nor a Levite; he was a Samaritan. The awful scene touched his heart, and he put the victim on his own donkey and took him to an inn, where he proceeded to care for his wounds. When he had to go, the Samaritan made arrangements to reimburse the innkeeper for any expenses incurred while the man recuperated.

After he finished the parable, Jesus asked the lawyer, “Which one of these three was the neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”

“The one who showed him mercy,” replied the lawyer.

Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

The passage comes to an end with those words. A dangerous moment has passed, and a message has been sent. Jesus challenged the lawyer to love God totally (with all his heart, soul, strength, and mind) and to love his neighbor as himself (showing mercy as the Samaritan had). But these two commandments are real “stretches” when you think about it. Why spotlight a Samaritan? Is anyone capable of loving like that?

The Samaritans were northern Israelites whose ancestors fell victim to the Assyrian empire seven centuries before Jesus. Many had been deported, and the rest were forced to interbreed with a transplanted population from some other part of the Assyrian empire. As a result the Samaritans’ status as Hebrews had been ruined. They were treated as impure and unclean aliens. So when Jesus introduced the Samaritan into the parable, it would have offended Jewish sensibilities. They were regarded with contempt and suspicion.

The lawyer and the rest of the audience would have presumed that the Samaritan “no good” – a creature who would likely mistreat the victim. No one would have dreamed that the Samaritan would be Jesus’ choice to stop, have compassion on the man in the ditch. The priest and the Levite were the ones who would have been expected to do good. They were, after all, professional “holy people.” They should know the law and abide by it. But in Jesus’ parable they did not. It was the Samaritan – an “outlaw” – that did what the law required.

Jesus asked the lawyer to identify the neighbor to the parable’s victim, The lawyer he chose the Samaritan, saying that he was “the one who showed mercy.” Now it was the lawyer who was being revolutionary, His answer shifted the meaning of “neighbor” from that of a status (a fellow Jew) to that of a mercy-giver. Neighbor more an action word (a verb) than a noun that names a class of people. In this famous encounter between Jesus and the lawyer, every form of distinction – religious, racial, class, and legal – disappears in a beautiful picture inclusive love. Neighboring means showing mercy to anyone who needs mercy. Thus the neighborhood is expansive; it is the whole world.

But loving like that is difficult. If loving my neighbor as myself means that I am required to be a neighbor, to show mercy to someone who has never shown me mercy a day in his life, then I am likely to fall short of the mark. Recognizing that we have no power in our selves to help ourselves, we can be open to another source of strength than our own.

The parable of the Good Samaritan isn’t about obedience and resolve. It is about something else, something that we are being challenged to accept and experience for our own good, despite our bias and preference. What Jesus’ point is clearer when we understand the idea of neighboring together with the other commandment to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind.

But who is sufficient to fulfill that commandment?

The answer is that no one is. The goodness that this parable describes, and challenges us to accept, is neither the Samaritan’s goodness, nor the church’s goodness, nor our goodness. The “good” that is necessary is what is lacking. It is not in us, and it cannot be earned or accumulated, or urged or emulated. It is beyond us, but it is what the story beckons us to recognize. It is God’s goodness that made the Samaritan’s act of mercy possible. It is the influence that affects us despite our self-love and our failure to love God wholly. This goodness is the same power that transformed that awful Friday, when Christ was crucified, into the day God made for our good. It is God’s continuous, indefatigable gift – the light that shines in the darkness, and that the darkness has not, and cannot, overcome.

In the late 60s when I was a college student, social activism of many types was sweeping America. “All you need is love” was a Beatles’ song that became an anthem for revolutionary change. One of the activist groups of the era was the Jesus Movement – a religious counterculture phenomenon that took a number of forms. There were Jesus communes run by Christian hippies, the charismatic Pentecostals, school-based Christian clubs, and political progressives inspired by the ideal of love. In the midst of spiritual ferment I was browsing in my college bookstore and spied a small red book entitled, Quotations from Chairman Jesus. It was a collection of Jesus sayings updated for a revolutionary time.

One of my favorite entries was called “The Parable of the Good Black Panther.” You may recall the Black Panther Party as one of the most feared, militant, and misunderstood of all the 60s groups. The parable takes place in a subway station – a place filled with indifference and apathy. A white man has been beaten and mugged, and there are many people who walk right past him, including a priest and a bishop. Everyone is supposed to have a social conscience, but no one steps up to help. Finally a member of the Blank Panthers walks up to the bleeding victim. Everyone freezes; they are afraid that he’ll take out all of his anger on the man. But he doesn’t. Something in him recognized the plight of the man, despite his race or politics or social class. The Black Panther had compassion. He acted. And the man survived. He was the neighbor in the subway scene. Perhaps he had been shown mercy by someone unlike him, or given a second chance when he deserved none. His goodness came from a source beyond himself; all he had to do was to be open to its influence.  

Such love is not a feeling of affection; it is an act of the will. But it is not an act done out of our own reservoir of goodness, it is the effect of being loved in this way by God. We love because God first loved us; we show mercy because we have been shown mercy by a goodness that transcends the best that we can muster on our own. It seemingly can’t be done, and yet we see it happen enough it know that it is a power seeking to be born in us. We experience it in the most surprising of circumstances, and among the most unlikely of people. Sometimes, it grasps our heart, soul, strength, and mind, and does what it is impossible for us to do.

In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, may such love never let us go.  Amen.



[1] Deuteronomy 6:5, and Leviticus 19:18, respectively.