Luke 10: 25-37
Our story opens with drama.
A lawyer has just asked Jesus a fake question. He says, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The first sentence in this passage reads A lawyer stood up to test Jesus, so we know that he doesn’t really want to know the answer. Instead, he wants to stump the teacher. Jesus is smart and knows what’s going on, so he plays along.
“Well,” he replies, “What does our scripture say?”
The lawyer replies that scripture says we should love God with all our heart, soul, and strength, and with all our mind. And that we should love our neighbors as ourselves. “You have given the right answer,” says Jesus. “Do this and you will live.”
But the lawyer isn’t finished. “He passed this one, but surely I’ll stump him with this next question,” I imagine him thinking. So he asks, “Who is my neighbor?”
Before I say more, I should admit that I totally relate what the lawyer is trying to do. The number of times I have tried to stump a person expressing a position I don’t support is remarkable. In the process, I have asked so many questions I don’t actually want to know the answer to. “How does a flat tax help the poor?” “Why is racism not a problem in the United States?” “Why is Lady Gaga’s music ruining our youth?”
I know the answer to these questions, and so did the lawyer, which, perhaps relevant to the teacher’s point, gives me a little empathy for him. For whatever reason, though, Jesus replies to lawyer’s insincerity with a story and, instead of an answer, an instruction: “Go and do likewise.”
Go and do what, exactly?
The road to Jerico is long and winding. Luke tells us that the man was “going down,” or in other words, descending into the city on a route so dangerous and difficult that travelers had termed it the Way of Blood. The road represented a stretch of about twenty miles of rocky desert, with hideaways haunted by robbers who would prey on vulnerable travelers, as is still true of parts of the road today. With all the markets and other resources that Jerico offered folks, the route drew lots of folks from Jerusalem, wealthy and poor, Jew and gentile and, like many places today, was one of those roads where people tell you to always keep your windows rolled up. We in Austin might understand the setting of the parable a little better if Jesus had said, “A man was driving down I35 on his way from Georgetown to Austin at midnight.”
The story has changed a little now. I wouldn’t want to stop on this road, much less on I35 at midnight, and I imagine that the priest and the Levite didn’t want to either. In fact, if they had any sense between them, they probably would have been hesitant to. After all, for all they knew, the suffering man could’ve been part of a trap set up by robbers to exploit the kindness of strangers, a common trick. We may also assume that other people depended on the priest and Levite. The priest surely had a congregation with members who depended on his safety. We don’t know much about the Levite, but we can assume he at least had a family to eventually get back to.
I imagine that, as the suffering man came into focus in the distance for them, the priest and the Levite faced these questions, as you and I both would, and I am not certain that we can call them bad people for not stopping. Don’t get me wrong; it is a miserable thing to pass by a person as horribly hurt as the suffering man in our story, but I also know that love is powerful, and that people will do selfish things to keep ourselves safe for the people we love.
I don’t know about you, but I find myself able to relate once again to the bad guys in this story. The number of times that I have headed down from one place towards another on an unsafe road and, after passing a person in need, do not turn around makes me feel ashamed, and I can only hope that others believe that I am a good person anyway.
After all, there is something instinctual about remembering our safety, especially if we have family and friends who depend on us, so it can’t be true that we are all bad people because we do not always stop to help folks who need us.
So what is Jesus trying to say?
Martin Luther King Jr. preached on this passage, which reminds me that I am profoundly unqualified to reflect on this passage in my own ministry. Recognizing my own inexperience as I look to his writing, King said that the problem in this passage may not be a matter of action, but question. For the priest and the Levite, the question that shaped their action was “If I stop to help this stranger, what will happen to me?” For the Samaritan, the question was, “If I do not stop to help this stranger, what will happen to him?”
Suddenly, the story has become about the lawyer, right in front of him. Without shutting him down, Jesus has told him a story in which the lawyer’s concern for himself is personified in two people, right before his eyes.
In other words, Jesus tells the lawyer that he is looking at life from the wrong direction. Instead of feeling genuine concern, the question beneath his question to Jesus looks something more like, “What will happen to me if I can’t stump Jesus?”
Once again, to nobody’s surprise, I identify with the lawyer here. The number of inside out questions I have asked in my life embarrasses me. “What will happen to me if I don’t make enough money to pay bills? What will happen to me if I don’t make friends in this new city? What will happen to me if I am not able prove myself right?”
I can’t remember the last time I asked, “What will happen to my neighbor if she can’t pay her bills? What will happen to my coworker if she doesn’t make friends in a new city? What will happen to this driver if my road rage scares her?”
In fact, these questions feel contrary to the way I feel wired in the world, which may be the point Jesus is trying to make: that we need to begin looking in a new direction. No longer inward, where all we see is our own fear and desires, but outward, toward the needing world, where, even though our needs matter deeply, we see our neighbor’s needs first.
When we look outward, we forget that we are Samaritans and that Samaritans do not associate with Jews. All we see is a suffering stranger and, for perhaps one of the first times, our eyes meet theirs.
That, to me, is what it means to be saved. The lawyer’s question about eternal life has just been answered, and, to his dismay, it was not the answer he was bargaining for. Isn’t that the way things always seem to go?
This is the life I hear Jesus calling us to. A life not simply devoted to helping the hurt and cast-aside, but a life where the desire to help strangers signifies an inner transformation in which a person no longer sees the world in the same way.
This conversion is a change in vision, a type of blindness even, at least to the things keeping us focused on ourselves. After all, Saul lost his eyesight during his own conversion, and while I am not suggesting that God blinds people, the question for us remains: which way are we looking?
There is still the question of what to do when, inevitably, we are priest and the Levite. No matter how many strangers in need you and I will inevitably meet in our lives, there will always be folks we are unable to help, and the question of whether to stop will always be here.
I have faced so much anxiety in my life over the choices I have made to not stop for folks who need help. I have turned around my car only to find them gone, or to find myself, one more time, unsure how to respond. I have even gone to bed wondering whether I have made the wrong choice to not stop for someone; the answer is often yes. This worry debilitates me sometimes.
I have also read enough Jesus to believe that, when we fail to be neighbors, it will not help heal the world, but it is sure not the end of it.
My sisters and brothers, what do you see?
Knowing that I will get it wrong again and again, I leave us with my own hunch that, when the call is hard to make, which is almost always is, it is always better to err on the side of love. And that, for every hurting person we do not help – because there is grace – somebody else will.