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(Luke 10: 25-37)
The man asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”
Luke identifies this man only as a “lawyer.” Which I suspect is less about his career and more about the man himself – that he is one who takes his understanding of faith seriously.
Seriously enough, we are told, that when he first asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, and Jesus says, “Well, you need to love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind; and you need to love your neighbor as yourself” – it’s almost as if this man thinks to himself, “Okay, love God, got it. Love neighbor….well, who is that exactly? I gotta know who my neighbor is if I’m going to love them.”
So that’s when he asks the question that lies at the very center of this passage. And in his mind he’s thinking that if he knows who his neighbor is, then he can love them, and that will lead to him inheriting eternal life.
What he doesn’t expect in the least, of course, is how Jesus would answer that.
And it’s notable that when we get to the other side of the story Jesus tells – a story that, incidentally, is stunningly simple yet anything but simplistic – the man who wants to justify himself cannot even bring himself to directly speak to it. All he can say, all he can muster when Jesus asks who the most neighborly person in the story was, is that it was the one who showed kindness and mercy.
Which is technically true – and Jesus tells him so. But what’s telling here is what he does not say. What we should pay special attention to is the fact that this man could not bring himself to even say the name.
Now there is power in saying a name. It’s why the name is always the largest font on the birth announcement or the graduation diploma; it’s why we pastors ask for the name as we prepare to baptize a child. Saying the name is literally speaking the person into existence. It’s acknowledging identity, personality, humanity, value, and worth. There is power in saying the name.
Consequently, there is also power in not saying the name. Which is why we now hear the call echoing in our streets, painted on protest signs and trending as hashtags: Say his name. Say her name. When names are not spoken, those whom those names belong to remain hidden, out of sight, of little consequence. Their existence is uncertain. Their lives do not matter.
So it is most telling that, in answering Jesus’ question, our lawyer friend could not bring himself to say the name “Samaritan.”
Now it is hard for us two thousand years later to wrap our minds around this reluctance – we who live in a society where the word “Samaritan” is not only used, but some might argue overused. We’ve paired it with another word – the word “Good” – and we’ve named a parable with it (even though Jesus himself never uses the word “good” in his story, just for the record). We take those two words and employ it as a catchphrase when someone helps someone in need. We’ve used it as a brand and incorporated it into names for hospitals, food pantries, homeless shelters, and even a cleaning company.
None of which has anything to do with an actual Samaritan, or why it was so hard for a Jewish person to even say their name.
And the truth is, no one really knows why Jews and Samaritans didn’t like each other. Two peoples linked closely together, seemingly always at odds, always disagreeing, the animosity ever-present. Like any long-standing family feud, there wasn’t a specific incident that anyone can recall that led to the breach. It may have gone all the way back to the reign of King Ahaz in Old Testament times and the forced migration of foreigners into the northern kingdom after Assyria’s conquest. Maybe that’s where the bad blood started. All we know is that during Jesus’ time, Samaritans and Jews claimed to worship the same Yahweh but had their own scriptures, their own temple, their own religious rituals. The division and discord had been baked in long before our lawyer friend sidestepped Jesus’ question.
And speaking of Jesus, his introduction of the Samaritan into the story was a masterful move, a brilliant complication that was undoubtedly met by audible gasps from the Jewish audience – and, like a preacher who dares to “go there” in a provocative sermon, there very well may have been a few who got up and walked out. It was more than just a clever plot twist that Jesus drops in their laps: it was a game-changer that washed over the gathering before they even knew what hit them. It thrust them into unchartered territory where no one knew what was going to come next – which was exactly the point.
Up until that moment, the story had gone pretty much as one might expect. A man was beaten and left for dead on the road to Jericho. this kind of thing happened on the road to Jericho. And even though Jesus doesn’t say specifically, the audience would’ve naturally presumed he was a Jewish man, because Jericho was a road frequented by Jewish people in the same way that Providence Road is a road frequented by Charlotteans.
There’s a bit of a head-scratcher when the priest and Levite enter the story, no doubt. To our modern-day sensibilities, the idea of two holy men passing a person in need might seem callous and tragic – which it is. But before we get too high on our horse, it’s wise to remember that the primary audience of Jesus’ story is the lawyer. And since this lawyer knows his Torah, he would’ve been sympathetic to the predicament the priest and Levite faced; religious leaders who had an obligation to preserve ritual purity by avoiding contact with anything that might be unclean. The passing by of both the priest and Levite might’ve raised an eyebrow from someone in the audience, but it would not have garnered the kind of reaction it does today.
No, that reaction most certainly came with what Jesus says next:
But a Samaritan, while traveling, came near him….
“Came near him,” it says. Like, just the act of coming near was of grave consequence. The point he’s making is obvious. It’s a Samaritan in Jesus’ story, but it could be anyone in ours…
It could be a MAGA hat-wearing Trumper or the most elitist progressive liberal….
It could be a man of color or a white supremacist….
It could be a turban-donned Muslim or a pearly-white teethed evangelist….
In other words, whoever you are not, whoever you would most struggle with just coming near, that is who stops to help.
That’s who tends to the wounds and splints broken bones.
That’s who puts you in the front seat of their car and drives to the nearest emergency room.
That’s who leaves their credit card at the front desk to cover the expenses.
That is who helps you in your hour of greatest need, whether you like it or not.
Amy-Jill Levine, renowned author and divinity school professor, offers this insight into the crux of Jesus’ parable.
We should think of ourselves as the person in the ditch, and then ask, ‘Is there anyone, from any group, about whom we’d rather die than acknowledge that he or she offered help?’ More, is there any group whose members might rather die than help us? If so, we know how to find the modern equivalent for the Samaritan.
I love this parable precisely because we so often misunderstand it. We read it and tend to think that what it’s saying is that Jesus wants us to help people in need. We use it not only to inform the kinds of things we do as churches, but also how we understand ourselves in that – where we are the helpers, we are in the advantaged position; and our job is to go find people who need our help. Our calling, we think, is to be Samaritans – good Samaritans, even – tending to the people who are hurting, who are suffering, who need us.
And to be sure, anytime we’re able to help someone in need, we are living into God’s calling for love and compassion, and that is a good thing.
But this story Jesus tells in the 10th chapter of Luke is not about that. It is about the uncomfortable and unsettling question of who our neighbor is. So who is it? Who is the Samaritan for us? If we happen upon them in need, will we help them? More importantly, if we’re the one in need and they happen upon us to help, will we let them?
This past week in my Monday Message to you, I talked about our “Connect TPC” theme for this year. I recapped the three-pronged approach of connecting with God, connecting with our church family, and now connecting with our neighbor. I mentioned that you might be wondering what is meant by “neighbor” and how we’ve intentionally left that open-ended because neighbor, like Jesus’ parable, is stunningly simple yet anything but simplistic.
I mentioned that the sequencing of the three is intentional, because our ability to discern who our neighbor is as followers of Jesus has to be preceded by, and depends heavily on, how we connect with God our church family. In other words, to jump right to the neighbor-connection without first accounting for God and each other almost always results in a failure to fully understand who our neighbor really is. And so we wind up passing them by on the side of the road. Or we fail to say their name.
Connecting with our neighbor is especially important work in these times we find ourselves in. For they are strange and uncertain times, and show every indication of being contentious and unsettling in all kinds of ways. So much is happening around us, and so much is seemingly out of our control. The divisiveness and division and discord are real.
And so your ministerial staff team – Rebecca, Jodi, Chris, and I – we want to provide you with a biblical, theological, and spiritual framework through which you can interpret what happens around you, viewing it through the lens of faith. So that you are best positioned in the moment to discern how to react and respond not as a Democrat or a Republican or an American or a South Charlottean or whatever other identities you might claim; but most importantly how you react and respond as a follower of Jesus Christ. A follower of the one who once shared a simple-but-anything-but-simplistic story about who our neighbor really is.
And we can react and respond like the lawyer, who wanted to define “neighbor” in terms of who was deserving of his love. Or we can choose to view it differently – that it is the love itself that seeks out neighbors to receive compassion and care, even and especially when established boundaries of prejudices or biases conspire against it. That understanding of neighbor – the one Jesus longs for us to see – obliterates all boundaries precisely because it is God, and not us, who defines the breadth and depth of that love.
So who is our neighbor? May we be ever-faithful to the calling Jesus has placed on us as we discover the answer together.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
Featured image from https://www.flickr.com/photos/93141201@N00/773401091/