By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
As I promised last Sunday, the parable for today is The Parable of the Good Samaritan. Several of you told me last week that you appreciate getting a heads up on the coming Sunday. So, would you like to write this down? Next week, we’ll take a closer look at The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. It’s found in Matthew’s gospel, chapter 18, verses 23-34. Granted, it’s less familiar than some of the other parables, but I think you’ll find it every bit as engaging.
For now, our focus is on the Good Samaritan. It’s a story you’re already familiar with. It begins,
“A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho,
and he fell among robbers, who both stripped him and beat him,
and departed, leaving him half dead.”
The old road from Jerusalem to Jericho was little more than a steep, treacherous path. The Romans widened it to accommodate chariot traffic. If you’re a good driver, you can still take a tour bus down it today. It goes around one hairpin turn after another as it winds its way down from the hills of Judea to the Jordan Valley 1,300 feet below. It’s a seventeen-mile trip, and, in Jesus’ day, it was known as “The Bloody Way” because of all the horror stories told of thieves and robbers lurking behind rocks and hiding in the bushes. Muggings along this road were pretty common. The parable goes on to say,
“By chance a certain priest was going down that way.
When he saw him, he passed by on the other side.”
At first thought, it might be tempting for us to come down hard on the priest. Why, you’d think that a man of God would be the first to stop and render aid. But remember, this was the 1st Century, and priests were set apart to administer the sacramental duties of the Temple. Priests were not expected to perform manual labor or to be involved in the unclean tasks of nursing the sick and wounded. And, if the man was dead and the priest so much as touched him, he’d have to be isolated for seven days.
So, let’s cut the priest some slack. He was just doing his job, going from the Temple in Jerusalem to, perhaps, a synagogue in Jericho or back home to be with his family. In any case, he would be needed for priestly duties, and he was expected to keep himself ritualistically clean.
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Leta Hays was a member of my church in Prosper, Texas years ago. One of her favorite expressions was, “He’s as good a man as he knows how to be.” It was something she often said about men in general, but it was something she was quick to say when the topic of conversation came around to Wallace Vickers.
Wallace Vickers was the owner and operator of the Wallace Vickers Grocery Store/Filling Station downtown, a primitive little convenience store where, in one stop, Wallace would fill up your tank, sell you a pound of bologna and fix your flat tire.
I would say it was a Mom and Pop grocery, but I don’t ever recall seeing a Mrs. Wallace Vickers, and that may have been because ole Wallace was a little rough around the edges. He was known for wearing the same overalls, day after day, and for taking a bath about as often as he changed clothes. What’s more, he dipped snuff, and there was usually a trail of tobacco juice oozing out of the corner of his mouth and over his stubby whiskers.
The upshot of all this is that Wallace Vickers made an easy target for criticism. He was the brunt of a lot of jokes. But not for Leta Hayes. She’d smile and say, “He’s as good a man as he knows how to be.” And, as far as she was concerned, that was all that needed to be said.
Well, I’d like to think we could say the same of the priest in The Parable of the Good Samaritan – he was as good a man as he knew how to be. Given his training and the responsibilities of his office, he wouldn’t have given it a second thought to avoid a victim lying by the side of the road. If anything, he would have made a conscious effort to keep his distance. The parable goes on:
“In the same way a Levite also,
when he came to the place, and saw him,
passed by on the other side.”
Just so we’re on a level playing field, Levites were also officials of the Temple, though subordinate to the priests. When the twelve tribes of Israel were first established, the tribe of Levi was set apart to tend to the priestly functions. Times changed, but the Levites were able to maintain their close affinity with the inner workings of the Temple. In Jesus’ day, Levites were responsible, among other things, for the Temple treasury.
So, here was a Levite, perhaps one of the treasurers of the Temple, possibly carrying a large sum of money, on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he heard the groans of a man in anguish by the side of the road.
Now, what would you have done? A common ploy of thieves in those days was to have someone pretend to be hurt and so, lure an unsuspecting traveler into their trap.
When I was in seminary, I was driving home from Dallas one day, and, for some reason, I went up through Plano, then took a farm road cross country. I rounded a curve a saw a car up ahead pulled over to the side of the road with its hood up. Four men were standing around. I had an uneasy feeling, and so, as a precaution, I hit the button to lock all four doors. I stopped beside the car and cracked my window about two inches. One of the men said they’d had car troubled and asked for a ride. I told him I couldn’t give him a ride, but that I’d stop at the next farmhouse and call for help. That made him really nervous. He blurted out, “No. No calls.” Just then, I caught a glimpse of one of the other men in my rearview mirror sneaking up behind the car on the passenger side. I hit the accelerator and sped away. God only knows what would’ve happened if I’d stayed around much longer.
Well, it’s just as true today as it was in Jesus’ time – you have to be careful. And so, if we’re willing to forgive the priest for failing to stop and render aid, we need to go easy on the Levite as well. All things being equal, we’d probably have done the same thing. Then Jesus went on to say,
“But a certain Samaritan, as he traveled, came where he was.
When he saw him, he was moved with compassion,
came to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine.
He set him on his own animal, and brought him to an inn,
and took care of him.
On the next day, when he departed,
he took out two denarii, and gave them to the host,
and said to him, ‘Take care of him.
Whatever you spend beyond that,
I will repay you when I return.'”
At this point, Jesus listeners’ would have gone ballistic. The Jews hated the Samaritans worse than they hated the Romans. The Jews and Samaritans shared a common ancestry, but that’s about as far as it went. As far as the Jews were concerned, the Samaritans were racially inferior. Halfbreeds, they called them, because they had intermarried with the Assyrians. Plus, they were anything but righteous. Why, they’d just as soon bow down to Ba-al as to Yahweh. And, to make matters worse, a bunch of them had gotten together and defiled the temple during a recent Passover festival, scattering human bones in one of the courts. Put all this together, and you can understand why Jews were taught, “He that eats the bread of a Samaritan is like to one that eats the flesh of swine.” (Mishna Shebiith, 8:10)
So, you can just imagine the reaction when Jesus told this parable. The hero, a Samaritan? To an upstanding Jew, it was a slap in the face. This is why, when Jesus asked the lawyer, “Now which of these three do you think seemed to be a neighbor to him who fell among the robbers?” the lawyer couldn’t even bring himself to say the word, Samaritan. Instead, he mumbled under his breath, “He who showed mercy on him.”
The parable exposes the prejudice of the Jewish people in Jesus’ day. It undercuts their tendency to judge who’s worthy of God’s love and who’s not. Contrary to the belief of Jesus’ day, it was not the priests, or the Levites, or even the Jews who held the inside track on the Kingdom of God, but whomever God chose to call, including a lowly Samaritan. To this day, the parable literally screams “Gotcha!” and catches us in the throes of our own self-righteousness.
But, for Luke, that’s not enough. For by setting the parable in the context of an encounter between Jesus and the lawyer, he takes it a step further. Let’s replay the tape.
The lawyer asked Jesus what he had to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus directed the question back to him and said, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” The lawyer answered by quoting the “Great Commandment” –
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind;
and your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus didn’t have any quarrel with that. He said, “You have answered correctly. Do this, and you will live.” But Luke says that the lawyer, “desiring to justify himself “, asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” And this is what prompted Jesus to reply, “A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho…”
In this context, the parable catches us in a trap of our own making: Love the Lord your God with all you’ve got, you say? Love your neighbor as yourself, and you’ll have eternal life? O.K.
But, first tell me, who is my neighbor? Define the parameters. Tell me who’s in and who’s out.
Specify the limits. Be concrete. Then I will know precisely what I have to do to measure up, to be righteous, to justify myself.
Like the lawyer, we want to define neighbor in reference to others. Jesus defined neighbor in reference to ourselves. He placed the burden of proof upon us. For Jesus, neighbor is not the object of the sentence, but the subject. So that the question is not, “Who is my neighbor?” rather, “What kind of neighbor are you?”
Or, to put it differently, the neighbor Jesus was talking about was not the man on the side of the road at all, but the voice of conscience speaking within the hearts of his listeners, then and now.
Whoops! The judgment’s on us. What kind of neighbors are we?
Frank and Cindy (not their real names, of course) were the odd couple at a church I once served.
It all started in the way they first came to our church. They ran a small custodial business out of their home. And so, they showed up one day, mid-week, hoping to get a job cleaning the church. I told them we couldn’t afford a janitor, but we could sure use a couple more members. Sure enough, they joined. But they never quite blended in. They drove an old car, dressed in work clothes and reeked of cigarette smoke. If that weren’t enough, Frank stood five feet, five inches tall and weighed about four hundred pounds.
It was in the fall of the year, and the church had decided to sponsor a Cuban refugee. We had his name and a picture. All we needed was a family to take him under their wing. The Missions Committee made the appeal. No one responded. Lots of questions were asked, though: “What would it entail?” “Do we know anything about this young man?” “Has anyone done a criminal background check?” “What about the liabilities? We don’t want to get sued.” Lots of opinions were offered as well, such as, “If you ask me, we should’ve sunk the boat off Miami.”
One day, after church, Frank and Cindy asked to speak with me in my study. I invited them in and closed the door. As they were leaving, one of the elders asked me, “What did they want? Were they hitting you up for money?”
“No,” I said, “They wanted to tell me, if no one had any objection, they’d like to invite the Cuban refugee to live in their home until he got on his feet.” Listen once more:
“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.”
Then ask yourself: How are you going to respond the next time you cross paths with someone in need? What kind of neighbor will you prove to be?
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Copyright 2004, Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.