Gracious God, our way in the wilderness, guide us, by your Word, through these forty days, and minister to us with your Holy Spirit, so that we may reformed, restored, and renewed; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
SCRIPTURE LESSONS Leviticus 19:18,33-34,CEB
18 You must not take revenge nor hold a grudge against any of your people; instead, you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.
33 When immigrants live in your land with you, you must not cheat them. 34 Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.
Luke 10:25-37, NIV
25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’[a]; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b]”
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii[c] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
SERMON Good Sam
It’s perhaps the parable we know the best, or think we do. It comes up in Sunday School curriculum every year and most years in Vacation Bible School, or at least that’s the way it always seemed to me. To be honest, as a child I got tired of this story. I’ve heard it, taught it, re-enacted it, re-written it, studied it, and preached it. So, imagine my delight learning new things about it reading Amy-Jill Levine’s research and perspective on this classic parable of Jesus. I’m learning a theme as she reviews these parables, that the traditional lessons we have been taught, developed over centuries by Christian teachers and preachers, “‘tain’t necessarily so.” At least they are not likely the way a first century Jewish audience heard them, nor necessarily what Jesus had in mind as he told them.
For example, some Early Church Fathers viewed the parables including this one, as allegories. In an allegory each thing or character may stand for something else. In Revelation, for instance, the Beast is identified as Babylon but is code for Rome. One such allegory for The Good Samaritan as interpreted by Early Church Fathers would have the Priest and Levite signify the Law and the Prophets. They think the man in the ditch represents sinners and that the Samaritan stands for Jesus. They go so far as to say the two coins he gave to the innkeeper symbolize baptism and communion. I can see how this made a tidy sermon, but it makes no sense in terms of Jesus’ teaching. As Levine tells their version she writes that “commentators leave the road for detours into imagination.” (short stories by jesus, p. 95) I agree, their interpretation is imaginative but off track.
The person in the ditch is unidentified. The Greek word anthropos is pretty generic, the same as the root for anthropology. We have a human male, but as Levine points out we don’t know if he is “rich or poor, free or slave, priest or lay, nice or naughty.” (p. 94) He was just an ordinary person, traveling a treacherous road, who fell victim to a violent crime. (p. 96)
The Greek word lestai is translated robbers. It is used elsewhere for those whom Jesus cleared out of the Temple, for Barabbas who was set free the day Jesus was crucified, and for the two hung on crosses either side of Jesus. Levine suggests, “The basic meaning is ‘member of an armed gang.’” (p. 96)
The road on which our victim traveled ran about 18 miles from Jerusalem to Jericho. In Jesus’ day it was a rocky path that descended from 2,500 feet above sea level down to 825 feet below sea level. It is the same road on which King David fled and King Zedekiah was chased. (Levine, p. 95) The road had its own biblical history related to struggling against one’s enemies.
The original audience may have identified with that victim more easily than we do now. Some of them would have traveled that road and perhaps had their own fears as they did so. Perhaps some of them had their own experience of being robbed or cheated. Living under Roman domination, they knew what it was to have enemies.
When you hear this parable, have you ever seen yourself as the man in the ditch? Have you ever been a victim? That may give you a very different perspective on this parable. If you have experienced a sense of helplessness in any situation, whether it is related to violence or justice or health or finances or something else, then you can imagine how the victim felt at any point of consciousness while lying on that road after the attack and how dearly he wished for someone to come and save him.
The first two passersby were a priest and then a Levite. These were the first two possibilities for help to be received by the victim. All descendants of Aaron, Moses’ brother, were members of the priestly class. John the Baptist’s parents, both Zechariah and Elizabeth, were from this family line. Levine reminds us, “Priests and Levites may have had neither wealth nor status. In Judaism the priesthood is not a vocation; it is an inherited position.” (p. 98) The Hebrew term is kohen, and even today Jews with the last name Cohen may likely be descended from this line. Her own family name Levine traces back to the Levites, the tribe named for Jacob and Leah’s son, Levi. (also p. 98) Among the tribes the Levites were set aside to serve in the tabernacle. They were not given territory in the promised land but rather 10 cities of refuge. We can’t make any other assumptions about the Priest or the Levite in this story than their family background.
I noted earlier that Christianity has often made inaccurate assumptions when interpreting the parables, especially when it comes to understanding the Jewish background of both Jesus the storyteller and his original audience. One major mis-teaching relates to the first two additional travelers on this road who passed by the wounded man in the ditch. As Levine puts it, “From both classroom and pulpit comes the claim that the Priest and the Levite pass by the man in the ditch, because they are afraid of contracting corpse contamination and so violating purity laws.” (p. 99) I. too, have also been taught and have passed on the teaching they may have avoided him, because they would become ritually unclean if they touched a dead body, and they couldn’t tell if he was alive or dead. Levine has thoroughly corrected me on this point.
Let me summarize some of Levine’s reasons for refuting the contamination excuse made for the Priest and the Levite.
First of all, the laws found in Numbers are about touching a corpse. In this parable the man is not dead though seriously wounded. Even if he were dead, the Torah would obligate them to bury the body. Both Priest and Levite should have checked to see if the man was dead, and if so, they should have covered the body. (the above comes from p. 100) Levine writes, “Burying the dead is one of the highest mitzvot, most important commandments in Judaism, for it is one of the few acts that cannot be repaid by the person who benefits from it.” (pp. 101-102) As an example she shares that after the attack on the twin towers in New York on 9/11 “Jews stood vigil at Ground Zero until every corpse was recovered.” (p. 101)
Second, the concern of ritual cleanliness relates to priestly duties. These would take place at the Temple in Jerusalem. But the Priest was going in the opposite direction leaving Jerusalem. How do we know? The elevation difference at either end of the road I mentioned earlier and the phrase in the passage; the Priest was going “down the road.” (v. 31) Levine also lets us know that “one always goes ‘up’ to Jerusalem.” (p. 100) I suspect that is elevation of significance as well as geography.
Third, even purity laws would not have been an excuse, because there is the priority of saving a life, that even supersedes Sabbath observance. (Levine, p. 102) Levine cites other Jewish texts and commentaries to make this point. So, given the expectations of Torah, and especially the words of Leviticus 19:18 which Jesus considered the second greatest commandment, to love one’s neighbor as oneself, the Priest and the Levite have no excuse, they simply failed to do the right thing. They should have checked to see if the body in the ditch was alive or dead. If alive, they should have provided aid. If dead, they should have seen to burial. They kept going.
At this point I have to ask myself about the times I have driven by someone stranded on the road and not stopped to check or at least in the age of cell phones made a phone call. I know all too well what it feels like to be the stranded individual when someone else drives by, even someone I knew. I was so grateful when someone else did stop to check on me, or pulled up nearby to wait and stand guard until AAA arrived.
The parable is bracketed by a conversation between Jesus and a lawyer. The story is Jesus’ response to one of the lawyer’s questions. We need to also see that context.
The Greek word nomikos translated in English as lawyer has no direct antecedent in Hebrew. The connotation is one “learned in the Law [meaning Torah or first 5 books of scripture].” (Levine, p. 83) The Jewish audience would have no problem with that, but Levine suggests that Luke seems to take issue with this lawyer at least in the way he interacted with Jesus.
The main issue I see is that the lawyer asked a question to “test” Jesus. He asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (v.1) It is a trick question. Levine claims, “The question presumes eternal life is a commodity to be inherited or purchased on the basis of a particular action rather than a gift freely given.” (p. 85) Jesus refers him back to the Law.
Here’s the significant point that might not occur to you but fits so well with everything I believe and strive to teach about grace. Levine states, “Jews followed Torah not to earn eternal life; this was already part of the covenant. They followed Torah in response to the gracious gift of the covenant that God gave them, because to do so prevented sin and because to do so showed how love of God and love of neighbor were to be manifested.” (p. 86) How I carry this concept into Christianity is that we do our best each day not to earn salvation (also tied to our concept of eternal life) but in response to the grace and mercy Christ offered us on the cross. In words from John’s letters, “We love, because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:7) I cannot earn God’s grace, but I can live my life everyday in ways that express my gratitude for God’s grace.
In another passage, Luke 18, a rich young ruler asks the same question. Jesus refers him back to the Law. This young man has done his best to keep God’s commandments, not only the Ten we think about, but the whole of the Torah from Genesis to Deuteronomy. Levine sums them up this way, “Not murdering, stealing, or bearing false witness along with the positive act of honoring parents are relatively easy laws to follow (avoiding greed, envy, and lust; loving the neighbor and the stranger; and caring for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the alien are the more difficult ones).” (p. 86) I think we might agree with her assessment, but that is the challenge made to us.
The lawyer in Luke 10 is looking for an easy way to earn eternal life. But Jesus wants him to understand and wants us to understand, that it isn’t about a check list to earn anything. Instead, our focus should be on how we live our day to day lives here and now. Jesus asks how the lawyer, so familiar with the Law, reads it. The lawyer’s summary comes from the same two commandments Jesus quoted back to the Rich Young Ruler in Luke 18. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength” adding mind to the list from Deuteronomy 6, and “Love your neighbor as yourself” from Leviticus 19:18. If you live these diligently you will fulfill the spirit of the rest of the Law.
But the lawyer is persistent. “Who is my neighbor?” What do you think so far? Is it the robbers? The wounded man in the ditch? The priest or the Levite? I might challenge you to consider this week in what way each of these is your neighbor. But for now let’s go with the lawyer’s answer. “The one who showed mercy.” Though he refuses to name the designation himself, we have at last come to the Samaritan who took the time, made the effort, sacrificed his own convenience, and paid to assure that the man was indeed alive and received the help he needed to fully recover.
If you remember the “rule of three” from last week, the first two passersby have set us up for a twist. Help didn’t come from either of them. Help will come from the third one to see the man in the ditch by the side of the road. Who did the first century Jewish audience anticipate would be that third person? Here’s what Levine expects, “Mention a priest and a Levite, and anyone who knows anything about Judaism will know that the third person is an Israelite.” (p. 103) Why? Passages in Ezra and Nehemiah both list the three in that order. (p. 103) It is a cliché from that culture we would entirely miss. But she goes on to say, “However, Jesus is telling a parable, and parables never go the way one expects.” (p. 103) The one who helps is a Samaritan. In a provocative statement Levine suggests it would be similar to how many of us would finish the naming of Larry and Moe with Curly, but the third was instead Osama bin Laden. (p. 103) To a first century Jew, for the one who helped to be a Samaritan was that radical a twist.
You may already know something of the enmity between Jews and Samaritans back then from John’s telling of the Samaritan woman Jesus met at a well. The history goes back to the division of the Northern Kingdom with ten tribes from the Southern Kingdom of Judah which also embraced the tribe of Benjamin after the time of King Solomon. The Northern Kingdom of Israel made Samaria, formerly Shechem, its capital. Ahab and Jezebel were among the royalty in the northern line. Assyria conquered Israel in 722 BCE. The population were exiled just as many from the Southern Kingdom would later be taken to Babylon. But Assyria had a resettlement program to keep their annexed territories in line. People from other nations were brought into the north to occupy and work the land. They took the name Samaritans. When some of the southerners were allowed to return to Jerusalem and Judah to rebuild the walls under Nehemiah, it was Sanballat the governor of Samaria who tried to get in the way of that rebuilding. The temple was rebuilt in Jerusalem, but the Samaritans built their own temple at Mt. Gerazim. These and other incidents added up to major disagreement between the two nations and how they practiced their faith, each claiming to be the true keepers of the Law and covenant with God. But in addition to theological differences, the two nations also periodically engaged in violence against one another. (taken from Levine, pp. 105-109)
Shechem, later called Samaria, was related to other violent acts in the Old Testament, stories that would be known by a Jewish audience. In Genesis 34 Jacob and Leah’s daughter Dinah was raped, and her brothers took violent revenge against the town. In Judges 9 Abimelech convinces seventy men of his mother’s clan at Shechem to make him king, then kills them all to keep the throne. In 2 Chronicles 28, men from Samaria took 200,000 captives from Judah as well as plunder back to Samaria. A prophet named Obed told them to send the captives home.
Any Jew in the first century still saw a Samaritan not just as a foreigner with the wrong faith but as an enemy. In similar reactions today, a friend wrestling with his gut reaction to Middle East Muslims reached the point where at least if he saw someone stranded by the side of the road he might stop to help. But I realized reading this study, that the more appropriate question is this, What if a Muslim from Iran stopped to help you, when you were the one stranded by the side of the road? That’s the twist this parable offers us.
Or you can try Levine’s similar take on it. I’m going to quote her modern retelling after reminding us that Samaria today is the “West Bank, Occupied Palestine, or Greater Israel” depending on who you ask. (p. 114) She writes:
Suppose “I am an Israeli Jew on my way from Jerusalem to Jericho, and I am attacked by thieves, beaten, stripped, robbed, and left half dead in a ditch. Two people who should have stopped to help pass me by: the first, a Jewish medic from the Israel Defense Forces; the second, a member of the Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. But the person who takes compassion on me and shows mercy is a Palestinian Muslim whose sympathies like with Hamas, a political party whose charter not only anticipates Israel’s destruction, but also depicts Jews as subhuman demons responsible for all the world’s problems.” (pp. 114-115) Or she suggests that if Jesus told the story today it might be the “’Good Jew’ told in the streets of Ramallah.” (p. 115)
It is in the twist that we are fully challenged in terms of our attitudes and actions.
Levine’s favorite interpretation comes from a sermon by Martin Luther King, Jr. on this parable. She quotes him as follows:
“I’m going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It’s possible these men were afraid…And so the first question that the priest [and] the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?...But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” (Levine, p. 102)
Go back once again to the commandments in Leviticus 19. What does it look like to love your neighbor as you love yourself? Your neighbor includes immigrants living in your land according to Leviticus 19. Jesus takes it even further when he teaches, “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you.” (Matthew 5:43-44)
As you go through the week ahead, look around with the lawyer’s question, “Who is
my neighbor?” and prayerfully answer it as honestly as you can with Jesus’ help. It will include people who are different from you. It will include strangers. It may even include people you don’t think you trust. What does it mean to be a good neighbor to them?
For the Sundays in Lent, our messages will focus on Jesus' parables using primarily a resource from Amy Jill Levine Short Stories by Jesus. Toward the end of each service we turn to the cross, extinguish one candle, hear a reading about the disciples and sing a hymn of the cross.