Readings – .Amos 7:7-15 ; Luke 10:25-37 ]
We think we know today’s gospel story. But do we?
I’ve been reading a Jewish commentary on Luke- by Amy Jill Levine- part of a whole New Testament commentary written entirely by Jewish scholars. Jewish people don’t grow up with this story the way we do. And they often know the First Testament, their Bible , much better than we do. So they may notice things we’ve missed.
So – I’ll start today’s reflection in light of my dialogue with this Jewish commentary.
That lawyer- well, he’s not what we may think- he’s a learned scholar of the Torah , the Jewish law. He’s a pedantic fellow, as some scholars are. He wants to get the better of Jesus- testing him with a trick question: What must I do to inherit eternal life?
Jesus doesn’t bite. Instead he throws the scholar another question.- what does the law say?
The scholar bites- happily- he loves this kind of question. He can show off his knowledge of the Bible. Love God and love your neighbour as yourself. That’s straight out of Deuteronomy and Leviticus-
Jesus answers- well then, you know – just do it! But the lawyer has to chew away some more. Who is my neighbour? Who’s this one I’m supposed to love? Is he hoping to be let off the hook: you’ve got to love these ones but don’t bother with those ones?
Jesus doesn’t let him off. Instead he tells a parable- a story with a twist, or two or three.
This man gets beaten up and wounded and left for dead. Now remember in this type of story , things come in 3s. You expect the first two people to come along will get this wrong and the third will get it right. ..
No 1, The priest passes him by- now you might say the priest is off to do priestly stuff – maybe he’s in a hurry or doesn’t want to get contaminated by contact with someone who might actually be dead-our commentaries often try to let him off. But Jesus’ has put a hook in – one we easily miss: the man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and the priest is going down too, that is away from Jerusalem. What’s to stop him from doing the right thing? But he doesn’t.
No. 2, the Levite , a temple functionary , does not either. Jesus doesn’t explain that either.
So much for the super-religious folks, the top brass. But no. 3’s the charm , right? No. 3 should be a Jewish layperson- who ,like many lay people, will be the salt of the earth and do the right thing, when the hierarchy mess up.
But- whoops- no. 3 is – to the Jewish scholar’s mind- a bad guy, the enemy, a Samaritan. Samaritans had started off Jewish, but they’d gone in another direction- different worship practices, different beliefs- though the differences might not seem that much to you and me, it was enough to bother a strictly observant Jew or strictly observant Samaritan .
Surely the Samaritan couldn’t do anything right. But no, he’s the one who gets it, and he really gets it.
It you look up what Leviticus says about love of neighbour, it’s clear, it’s not a warm fuzzy feeling, it’s about doing good deeds, helping, especially if anyone’s vulnerable- and you’d kind of think a wounded person is a little vulnerable. And if you keep reading, you’ll find it’s not enough just to help your own kind- you’re supposed to help the stranger, the alien, whoever is in need. You don’t ask- are they Jewish? Are they Samaritan? References, please! [Leviticus 19]
Jesus just tells the story. No explanations. No excuses. Then, like the good teacher he is, he hooks the scholar with another question. Who proved himself to be a neighbour to the wounded man?
Now, I never noticed this till Amy-Jill Levine pointed it out- but the legal scholar is uncomfortable. The word Samaritan sticks in his craw- he can’t say it, just the one who showed mercy to him.
But Jesus has changed the whole conversation- as Jesus often does.
Neighbour love in the Torah- it’s not about splitting hairs- who’s my neighbour and who isn’t, whom do I have to help and whom can I ignore? It’s about rolling up your sleeves and acting as if you are a good neighbour. If you’re wounded by the side of the road, who cares who helps you as long as someone does? The Jewish teachers of Jesus’ day took this being a good neighbour commandment as the lens through which to interpret the whole Law, all the commandments and instructions in their Bible.
There’s a story in 2 Chronicles [28:12-15] – a book we don’t ever read on Sunday morning- probably few of us have read it at all- where the Samaritans had some folks from Jerusalem in captivity- but chose to tend to their wounds, put them on their own horses and get them safely home- much the same way as the Samaritan acts in today’s story from Luke. [note- there are some complexities in the Chronicles passage I didn’t go into. I picked up on it as a comparative reference cited by Amy-Jill Levine, who noted the parallels].
Not the first time the Samaritans have got the message. You don’t necessarily have to believe the right stuff,whatever the right stuff is . It matters more whether you roll up your sleeves when you see a need.
We don’t know if the clever scholar got the message- go and do likewise. It matters more – do we go and do likewise?
Maybe we get it, living in a small town. We do respond if we see someone in need or distress. And not just people we know personally. If someone was lying on the street when we went by, we’d probably stop or at least call 911. We give to Open Door or the Volunteer Centre or coins for kids. And we answer local requests : would we give a little to help someone pay an unexpected college fee, or to do a baby shower for a low-income mother, or help a family who’ve had problems getting their well fixed and are behind with their bills? And we don’t just help locally. We sponsor refugees. And, even further away, we answer appeals for famine and disaster relief.
All of which is heartwarming. As for example, the driver in Halifax who picked up a woman who’d missed her bus and found she was the mother of those poor children who died in the fire and her husband was in hospital .
But there’s another step We read the Hebrew prophets like Amos to take a larger and longer view. There’s a plumb-line for our whole community-Amos is a social justice prophet through and through- it’s great to help people individually but we can’t stop there. As modern prophets also note, we should ask what’s beating up the wounded people, not just treat their wounds.
God wants justice for all, Amos insists- real change in the lot of the poor. Amos spoke out loud and clear about what was wrong and needed to be put right in his time. Today I’m sure he would speak out about human rights abuses, climate change and more.
Governments don’t like faith-based groups to talk this way- they’d rather we just respond to the symptoms. They didn’t like it in Amos’ day. They wanted him to shut up and go home.
But that would be against his religion. Justice wasn’t political for him- though it needed political engagement and action to happen- it was biblical. It was part and parcel of the love commandment.
Silence about justice, human rights, environment – that should be against our religion too. Love of neighbour requires us to speak and act for the welfare of the whole human community. Why so many poor people in our rich country , or indeed anywhere? Homeless people? Refugees? How do we address the root causes, not just the symptoms? And it’s not just our human neighbours – we now know we must love all our relations . The whole community of creation- right whales, and oceans, and old growth forests and more.
So, a simple story that we all know . And yet a challenge that remains , for each and all. As long as life and breath remain, may we keep learning how to be good neighbours. May we keep being those who show mercy.May we keep working for a world where mercy and kindness and justice are plain to see for each and for all.
May it be so!