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The Neighborly Samaritan

Preaching the Parables
Series II, Cycle C
The parable of the neighborly Samaritan demonstrates the enduring and provocative power of a good story. The language and point of the parable have worked their way into our language. People who have never read the New Testament or have no idea whatsoever of who a Samaritan is are influenced by it.

Many states have what is referred to as a Good Samaritan law. It relieves persons who give aid to an accident victim of liability. In their attempt to render assistance in an accident they may inadvertently aggravate some injury. The law prevents them from being exposed to a lawsuit in which they are sued for having performed an act of mercy in an emergency.

Context of the Lectionary

The First Lesson. (Amos 7:7-17) Amos has a vision of a plumb line used to measure the degree to which Israel has gotten off-center. It no longer holds to the demands of the covenant with the Lord. Amaziah reports what Amos has said to King Jeroboam. Amaziah, the priest at Bethel, then admonishes Amos to return to Judah from where he had come and not continue to bother Israel with his prophecies. Amos first disclaims that he is a prophet but then proceeds to claim he has a prophecy from the Lord to deliver to Israel. He delivers the warning of dire consequences to Israel as a result of their actions.

The Second Lesson. (Colossians 1:1-14) Paul commends the Colossians for their faithfulness and love for all the Christians. They have a good reputation about living according to the truth of the gospel which was taught to them by Epaphras. It is from him that Paul has received the good report. Paul urges them to continue steadfastly and assures them that he is praying that for them.

Gospel. (Luke 10:25-37) Jesus responds to a series of questions from a lawyer. The persistence of the lawyer in wanting to know the meaning of the law leads Jesus to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan. It is more an illustration of the heart of the law than a discourse on what it is about. The lawyer is led to draw his own conclusions about the essential intent of the law.

Psalm. (Psalm 82) God is seen as a judge in the midst of the council of the gods. He judges the behavior of people and the gods they follow. The critical test is their unjust judgments when they favor the wicked and neglect the needs of the most vulnerable members of the society, epitomized in the widows and orphans. While the psalmist calls the people gods, he reminds them of their mortality. God is the judge of all the nations because they belong to him.

Context of Related Scripture

Old and New Testament Summaries of the Law:
Deuteronomy 6:5 -- The command to love God.
Leviticus 19:18 -- The command to love your neighbor as yourself.
Matthew 22:37; Mark 12:29-31 -- Another location in addition to today's pericope where Jesus gave a scribe the previous commands as having first and second priority in the law.

Other contacts between Jesus and Samaritans:
Matthew 10:5 -- Jesus tells his disciples not to go into towns of Samaritans.
Luke 9:51-53 -- The Samaritan town refuses to entertain Jesus because he is going to Jerusalem.
Luke 17:11-21 -- The healing of 10 lepers in Samaria; only the Samaritan among them returns to offer his thanks.
John 4:1-30 -- An encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well.

An encounter with the rich young ruler about obeying commandments:
Mark 10:17-31
Luke 18:18-30

Use of oil for anointing:
Psalm 23:5 -- Anointing the head with oil.
Isaiah 1:6 -- Oil used to ease pain of a wound.

Content of the Pericope

A lawyer interrupts Jesus with a question about what must be done to inherit eternal life. Jesus counters with a question to the lawyer about what he reads in the law. The lawyer answers with the combination of the commands to love God and love the neighbor. Jesus affirms his answer and encourages him to follow the commands. The lawyer responds with the question as to who his neighbor is. Jesus then tells the parable of the Samaritan who meets the needs of a Jew who was beaten and robbed by thieves. He then puts the question to the lawyer as to who was the neighbor. He lets the lawyer in effect answer his own question.

Precis of the Parable

Jesus tells the story of a man, presumably a Jew, who traveled from Jerusalem to Jericho. The road winds down through a wilderness area where thieves attacked the man, beat him, robbed him, and left him nearly dead. Two Jewish officials, a priest and a Levite, happened to pass by, saw the man, but moved away from him and kept on going. A Samaritan also came along. He stopped, administered first aid, put the man on his own animal, probably a donkey, and took him to an inn. There he paid to have the victim cared for and when he left the next day gave a guarantee for any further costs in seeing that the man was brought back to health.

Jesus then poses the question as to which of the men was a neighbor, letting the lawyer answer his own question that prompted Jesus to tell the story.

Thesis: The neighbor is the person who needs my mercy.

Theme: Showing mercy to persons in need fulfills the law.

Key Words in the Passage

1. "A Lawyer." (v. 25) A lawyer in Judaism was not what we would call a trial or criminal lawyer. It was someone who was educated on Jewish religious law. Lawyers interpreted the law and applied it to the current situation.

2. "Love the Lord ... and your Neighbor." (v. 27) The answer Jesus gave seemed so obvious that the lawyer appeared to be stupid in asking the question. So the lawyer asked a further question to show that he still had some difficulty. He posed the question as more complicated than it would seem on the surface.

3. "Who is My Neighbor?" (v. 29) Traditional answers would limit the neighbor to family, clan, or tribe. In Judaism it might be extended to fellow Jews anywhere but hardly applied to a person considered to be a Gentile.

4. "Going Down." (v. 30) It is about seventeen miles by road from Jerusalem to Jericho, or about eleven miles as the crow flies. The difference in elevation is about 1300 feet. The road twists and turns as it passes through a barren and rocky land for most of the way between the two cities.

5. "A Priest ... A Levite." (vv. 31, 32) Priests and Levites originated from the tribe of Levi. They were given no land when the Hebrew people entered Canaan but were set aside to serve ceremonial and ritual functions. By the time of Jesus a distinction was made between priests, who offered sacrifices, and Levites, who performed lesser functions in the temple area. Both the priest and Levite would become ceremonially defiled and unable to serve if they had contact with a dead body other than a near relative. Thus they probably avoided the man for fear he was dead and they would be ceremonially contaminated.

6. "A Samaritan." (v. 33) Samaritans were looked upon by Jews as half-breeds. They resulted from intermarriage of outsiders with Israelites after the fall of the northern kingdom in 722 B.C. They were religious conservatives, holding the Pentateuch as the only valid scriptures. A small group still remains in present-day Israel.

7. "Poured Oil and Wine." (v. 34) Oil was often used to ease pain. Wine has an antiseptic effect because of the alcohol content as well as easing pain.

8. "Brought Him to an Inn." (v. 34) A small spring is found about halfway down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. It is probable that the Samaritan brought the injured man to that location of the inn.

Issues and Insights

1. Who is My Neighbor? It is interesting that we naturally assume that the person who is the neighbor is the man who was in need. Yet the lawyer says that it was the Samaritan who showed mercy. In a certain sense we would therefore conclude that our neighbor is one who shows mercy toward us.

So the question put to the lawyer is not really, "Who is my neighbor?" The question put to him should be, "When do you act neighborly?" It was the neighborly outcast, the Samaritan, who acted in a neighborly fashion. It is his actions we are to emulate and whose actions were a fulfillment of the law.

We are not to be victims as neighbors in need. Nor are we to be victimizers. We are to be those who serve the interests of victims when they are in no position to serve our interests. In fact, they draw on our resources and they inconvenience us. We become the agents of a merciful and loving God to those who need mercy.

2. The Professional Religionist. The peculiar temptation of the professional religionists is that they can become so wrapped up in the formal acts of ceremony and ritual that they lose touch with elemental human needs. They can become so concentrated on the "spiritual" needs to be served that they become insensitive to the basic physical needs of persons.

Pastors may become so busy running the ecclesiastical machinery that they no longer live where the neediest persons in the community struggle and hurt. Especially in large congregations the pastoral staff may be so involved with administration of programs that they never have time to engage with people in the workplace, the marketplace, and wherever much of the pain and suffering of human beings is found.

That also can be the temptation of a CEO of a business or industry. Profit and efficiency can become the twin idols which they serve, rather than human need. They may easily forget that from a Christian perspective a business or industry should have as its primary objective any activity to meet human need.

Indeed, the head of an ecclesiastical organization is often pushed to become a CEO. The demand for productivity and efficiency tends to put them into the same position as other CEOs, except that their "business" is religion.

3. The Samaritan Institutionalized. Christianity has given rise to many institutions that intend to serve on a more structured and systematic basis the same way the Samaritan acted on an individual basis. Modern hospitals are an outgrowth of the neighborly impulse. They arose out of the attempts of the Christian community to serve the sick and injured in a more regular way than depending on the accidental appearance of a Samaritan who had oil and wine and a beast of burden to transport the victim. They arose out of a need to provide a place better equipped than the local hotel or motel to house the sick and injured.

Again, the danger is that such institutions depart from the original motive of mercy. They may become impersonal institutions that lose sight of the whole person.

4. A Different Scenario. Some people have raised questions about what the Samaritan would have and should have done if the circumstances were different.

A. What if the robbers had still been present when the Samaritan came along? Would he have used violence and inflicted pain, injury, and even death on the robbers if he were able to do so? Would he have become a victim himself when he stopped to take care of the victim?

Would the responsible thing for the Samaritan to do have been to organize a posse to hunt down the thieves? Should the Samaritan have gone to the authorities to demand an army or police force to assure travelers from Jerusalem to Jericho safety on the road?

Is the modern Samaritan as much one who deals with the social and political causes of problems as the one who binds up the wounds of the victims after the injury occurs?
B. What if two Samaritans had traveled together to Jericho? Would they have acted differently because they would wonder what the other Samaritan would think of helping the Jew? Would the Samaritan have reacted differently in the presence of peer pressures to conform to certain stereotypes and prejudices? Would the Samaritan act differently in a person-to-person relationship from what he would in a social or group situation? Many southerners acted differently on a one-to-one relationship with blacks from what they did when they met the social demands for obedience to separate but equal laws.

How do Christians find the courage to treat people according to their needs when it runs counter to the group or cultural norms? What does that tell us about the problems of racial and ethnic differences in our society?

5. How Do You Preach? Does Jesus' method tell us anything about the effectiveness of preaching? Jesus used what is sometimes called the Socratic method in meeting the questions of the lawyer and others. He did not answer the questions directly. Instead he first posed a counter question that drew out what the lawyer already knew about right living.

When the lawyer became defensive and sought to put Jesus on the spot, Jesus told a story that embodied a universal truth. He did not end with a moral or an exhortation. He asked the lawyer what the point of the story was. When the lawyer drew his own conclusion, then Jesus asked the lawyer to put himself into the story.

Will our preaching be more effective if we do less moralizing and exhortation and tell stories where people can identify their best selves and live out the stories themselves?

Homily Hints

1. Inheriting Eternal Life. (v. 25)
A. Loving God Leads to Obedience
B. Loving Neighbor Leads to Mercy
C. Loving God and Neighbor is Real Living

2. Justifying Ourselves. (v. 29) In what ways do we seek to avoid responsibility for what we know we should do?
A. Avoiding the Issues
B. Confusing the Issues
C. Rationalizing Our Behavior
D. Letting the Samaritan Do It

3. Pass on the Other Side. (vv. 31-32) How do we pass on the other side, not physically but spiritually?
A. Insulation. Refusing to see the need. Refusing to enter the lives of those in need.
B. Apathy. It is none of my business. I have too many things to do already. I don't have the energy, skills, resources....
C. Aloofness. That is social gospel. That is works righteousness.

4. Showed Him Mercy. (v. 37)
A. He Responded at Risk. The thieves may still be around.
B. He Used What He Had. He used his oil and wine. He used bandages. He used his animal. He used his money to pay the inn for the bill.
C. He Committed to the Future. He planned to return. He put his credit on the line.

5. Go and Do Likewise. (v. 37) The Lawyer was admonished to act, not just to theorize.
A. Identify the Need
B. Enter into the Situation
C. Follow through to the Solution

Points of Contact

1. Helping Our Neighbor. The church should not be just a place to meet our needs. The church should be a neighborly Samaritan in the community where it exists. Every community has people who are hurting and are in need of mercy.

Christians and churches should periodically and self- consciously ask whether they are neighbors to the people and communities among which they live. The truly vital Christians are those who enter into the pain and suffering of those around them.

Christians and churches should serve needs because they have a deep concern for the interests of others. Otherwise the acts become obligations and duties that are burdens to carry rather than expressions of eternal life.

2. Samaritans in a Global Village. People today are much aware of a broader world than the Samaritan could have known. Through television and other media people know about the suffering and needs far beyond their local village, town, or city.

Does knowledge of need elsewhere place an obligation upon us or give us an opportunity to act, and if so, how? Increasingly, since the breakdown of the cold war, national and ethnic loyalties have emerged as causes of conflicts.

National loyalties may cause people to put their interests ahead of others. It is difficult for people to put the interest of the larger global village ahead of their own more parochial or national interest. It is reflected in a national debt crisis that leads to cutting of international aid except where it serves the national interest by providing jobs for our labor force or to buy allies with military aid.

How does the parable of the neighborly Samaritan affect our attitude toward national and international policies and programs?

3. Do Likewise. Jesus did not ask the lawyer to accept a creed. He was not content with a verbal response to a summary of the law. He told a story in which a person was called to act.

Words are important. They help us to articulate how we should act. But words alone are not sufficient. The words must be translated into acts of mercy and compassion.

The priest and the Levite as well as the lawyer could give good answers to questions about the law. They knew the creeds but lacked the deeds that translated into operational terms.

Ceremonies and rituals can help prepare us for service. They shape attitudes and motives. However, they become empty acts and hollow symbols if they substitute for actions that apply to daily life.

4. Whose Neighbor Am I? The parable raises the question of who is my neighbor in the contemporary world. American society has a resurgence of racism. If we were to tell the story today, who would we choose for the characters who act in a neighborly way?

It might be that the Christian would be the victim of a robbery. Would it be the black who would come along and help after the white Christians zip by in their cars? Would it be the Jew who might reach out to the poverty-stricken white family in the neighborhood? Would it be the migrant worker from Mexico or Central America in the country illegally? Would it be the Native American restricted to a reservation?

Are the people who are discriminated against and who live in poverty more likely to show mercy and compassion than the person who lives in a fine house, drives a luxury car, has a good health insurance and retirement program, and lives in a beautiful suburban house?

Does neighborliness have anything to do with how we relate to the gang member, the skinhead, the drug addict, the white supremacist militia member? Jesus would probably raise the question with us as to whom we should show mercy in the midst of the needs around us.

Illustrative Materials

1. The Samaritan Society. Reinhold Niebuhr pointed out the irony that more brotherhood (neighborliness) toward blacks was shown by the labor movement and the military than by the churches during World War II and the forties. The labor movement accepted blacks into unions as equals more than most white churches. They did so, not as acts of mercy, but because they needed the numbers in the struggle with management.

Blacks received more equality in the military during World War II than they did in white churches. The armed forces needed all the manpower they could get to fight the war.

2. The Anti-Samaritan. In recent years it has become dangerous to stop and aid apparent victims or persons in need along a lonely road. Too often people use the impulse of the Good Samaritans as a ruse to rob them and sometimes to steal their cars. Persons who stop for a person in apparent distress are sometimes ambushed, robbed, injured, or even killed.

It used to be an act of mercy to pick up hitchhikers. Too often persons who have done so have become victims, even been killed, by the persons whom they have befriended. People are advised not to pick up hitchhikers because of the dangers.

3. Demonization of the Enemy. In war it often seems necessary to demonize the enemy to bring people to be able to kill another human being whom they do not know. If the persons are dehumanized and made into devils, they are no longer persons they are killing. In Vietnam, persons were so demonized that people no longer respected the enemy. A man was killed and left lying in the road. Normally there the arms of a dead person were crossed over the chest and the body was covered out of respect for the life that had been. The opponents were so demonized that this man was left lying in the road and people passed by without giving him the normal and appropriate respect as a person.

4. The Jerusalem to Jericho Road. In June, 1967, Jordan and Israel fought along the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Tourists going down the road in August observed burned-out and destroyed tanks. They all looked the same. They were American tanks. Only the symbols painted on the sides told which were Jordanian and which were Israeli. What happened to the neighbor?

5. Neighbors Needed. As this is written a peace treaty between the Palestians and Israel is being developed. The proposal would turn Hebron, which has been occupied by Israel since 1967, over to the Palestinians. The peace treaty may be subverted because 450 Jewish settlers have moved into the city amidst about 120,000 Palestinians. Extremists are threatening to try to overthrow the treaty by the use of violence against the side they oppose. Killing is expected to happen after the Day of Atonement is past.
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