(This article appeared in The Call in 2009)
And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou? And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself. And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live. But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour? And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him, And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee. Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves? And he said, He that shewed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.
The familiar Bible story printed here tells us a lot. Jesus is in the company of people who make a point of debating with him. The first speaker is described as a “lawyer”, meaning one well-versed in the Laws of Moses. The passage says that this lawyer wanted to challenge Jesus, to test his knowledge and integrity. Nevertheless the lawyer asks pertinent questions, important enough to record in Scripture as more than an example of Jesus outsmarting one of his adversaries.
During the time of Christ’s mortal ministry, anyone familiar with Scripture would have known the words “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself”. Again the evangelist gives the lawyer selfish motives for asking a follow-up question, but again it is pertinent – “Who is my neighbour?”Jesus then tells this famous story, of the man waylaid somewhere along the highway from Jerusalem to Jericho. He cuts his questioner to the quick, by citing two other learned and pious men – the priest and the Levite – as being ones who would not stop to help the unfortunate.
When help comes to the injured man, neither he nor his rescuer stops to wonder who the other is. It is almost irrelevant that the latter is a Samaritan, and that we only assume the former is a Jew (all Jesus says is that he is “a certain man”). All that the rescuer knows is that here is someone in need of his help; all that the victim knows is that he is being rescued.
The identity of the two is more relevant to the listeners, and in particular to the lawyer, for to an educated Jew like him, the rescuer might well have represented an anathema, a heretic, certainly someone ethnically dubious.
He was, in fact one of the Šāmĕrîm (שַמֶרִים) which literally means ‘the keepers of the Law’. To the Judaist of the 1st century, a Samaritan was unorthodox in his religion. To a Samaritan, his was the true observance of the Law, as his people were Israelites who had not been taken away to Babylon, but had remained in the Promised Land, and therefore their religion was untainted by foreign influence. Was there more to Christ’s choice than simply picking someone whom the lawyer might have despised? Was it because the rescuer, in having mercy on the thieves’ victim, was the one who had truly obeyed the Law?
But there is a point at the end of this episode that readers tend to ignore, a turning-round through a hundred and eighty degrees of how the story is usually intetpreted.
The lawyer asked “Who is my neighbour?”; Christ asks him “. Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?” The lawyer answers “He that shewed mercy on him”. Then Christ says: “Go, and do thou likewise”.
Do you see the shift? The lawyer had asked who was his neighbour. Christ asks who was the victim’s neighbour! Not only is the story here about how the we should behave to one in trouble, but also about how we should love the neighbour who helps us, no matter who that person is.
What is the equivalent of that Samaritan today? Someone gay? A Muslim? An atheist? Who? It doesn’t matter. There is a time and a place for speaking to such things, and that time and place is made known to us by the Lord. At other times we are instructed to love those who, for a reason maybe not known to them, obey the Law and show mercy to us. In such people there is obedience to the Law which is written on the hearts of humankind, obedience to the Light which enlightens all who come into the world. Such people, again at a time and in a place appointed by the Lord, are our neighbours, and we are bidden to love them as we love ourselves.
With how small a step might one such person, now our neighbour, be or become our enemy? There are those in the groups named above and from elsewhere who, at times past or present, have been challengers of the Church. But they too are loved by the Lord, who so loved the world. If we find one such – or many – coming to us as an enemy rather than as a neighbour, we are commanded to a different step of love: “Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.”
Lessons of love, Friends, may be the hardest lessons for anyone to learn; but to the Church – those who hear and obey the Voice of the Shepherd – they are essential.