This is the third in an on-going summer sermon series on the Lukan texts; read the introduction here.
Lectionary Text for July 11: Luke 10:25-37
“How Not to Inherit Eternal Life”
- Be preoccupied with “will this be on the test?” (lawyer’s question: What must I do to inherit eternal life?)
- Focus on rules not relationship
- Walk by the neighbor in need
- Stay in the ditch when a neighbor offers to help you
“How to Inherit Eternal Life”
- Focus on relationships
- Let somebody help you up
A man was once on a train going through the Alps for the first time. He sat staring out the window, transfixed by the glorious, white- peaked mountain view. He noticed a man sitting near him reading a detective novel. “How can you read with this view out the window?” “I’ve taken this trip so often I have seen it all many times before.” Many people feel this way about the parable of the Good Samaritan. We think we already know all there is to know about it. This is how we think it goes: a lawyer comes to Jesus trying to trip him up with questions about eternal life and who is my neighbor. Jesus then tells a story that has a Samaritan as the hero, which would have shocked Jews who, at that time, hated Samaritans. The realistic part of the parable is that a person on a journey gets beat up and, subsequently, other people walk by without helping. The strange part is who sees and walks by and who sees and stops to help. Jesus’ listeners would expect the Jewish religious leaders to see, stop and help. They would not expect this of a Samaritan.
We are quite familiar with the traditional boiling down of the parable’s message to an example story. Don’t be like this. Be like this. “Don’t be self-righteous; assuming God can’t work through people you look down on. And be like the Samaritan, helping those you meet each day who need your help.
There is some truth there. But the familiar interpretation doesn’t squeeze all the blood still left in this turnip. So let’s pose the question to the parable: What is the kingdom of God like? And let’s try on my answer, “It shows up where you least expect it.” And let’s see if any new details in the landscape appear. The context of the parable is a question to Jesus from a student of Torah (a lawyer) in Luke 10:25-28. Many readers assume the lawyer doesn’t really want the answer but is somehow trying to test Jesus. They lump him together with the self-righteous people to whom Jesus tells the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18:9. Or they group him with the spies who try to trap Jesus in the question about the lawfulness of paying taxes to Caesar in Luke 20:20-26. But what if the Torah student here in Luke 10 actually wants to know the answer to the question “What must I do to inherit eternal life? Or what if he wants to hear what he knows is the answer from the Torah confirmed on the lips of one he has chosen to be his teacher? Jesus asks his question back to him, assuming that, as a student of Torah, he should already know the answer. The lawyer answers with the command to love God and neighbor from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. Jesus affirms his answer and tells him that if he does this he will live.
Then the lawyer asks a follow-up question, the text says, “because he wanted to justify himself.” “Justify” is not a word we use that much these days. If one wants to “justify themselves”, they want to be perceived as good and just, to be viewed as guiltless and righteous, to be approved and accepted. The lawyer wanted Jesus’ acceptance and approval. He wanted to stand out from the crowd in Jesus’ estimation. I have found over the years that students will go to great lengths to gain the teacher’s approval. Any teacher will tell you, though, that the best way a student can impress a teacher is by doing the readings, knowing the material, and being able to talk about its practical impact on daily life. Students still sometimes resort to other means. They may bring the teacher food items that she has mentioned in passing are her favorites. I hasten to say that, while I enjoyed the apple fritters and the peanut m and m’s, I have never requested such items or so much as implied that placing them in my campus mailbox would improve a student’s grade! Sometimes students ask if they can do extra credit work if their last assignment received a poor grade. They may come to class early to help set up chairs. If they come in late while the class is discussing this week’s readings, they may immediately jump in and try to contribute to the conversation, never mind that they haven’t done the readings.
One other way students try to gain a teacher’s approval is by asking what they regard as nuanced, subtle questions in class which, they hope, will reveal their intellectual depth. I wonder why the lawyer felt a need to justify himself to Jesus. And I wonder what answer he was hoping for to his question “Who is my neighbor?” A list of categories of people he needed to try to love as he loved himself, the shorter the better? Is the lawyer a human being like the rest of us who knows what the syllabus requires, but might not mind doing the minimum required to pass the course?
If it is true that the kingdom of God shows up where we least expect it, and I believe that it is, then maybe we meet it first in the gap between our knowing what Jesus requires of us with regard to our fellow human beings and our willingness to do it. Maybe our own ethical uneasiness is an entry point for the kingdom of God in our lives.
Parables Scholar Luise Schottroff, in her interpretation of this parable, connects the lawyer’s question with the question asked by various groups of people responding to John the Baptist’s preaching in Luke 3:10,12,14) “What should we do?” “She believes that concrete, action-oriented question is the fundamental question answered by the study of Torah. That study is “is not aimed at timeless ethical doctrine but at the concrete situation of those who ask, What is the action God expects, here and now?” She believes that this parable belongs within “the rich Jewish tradition of active compassion as an expression of love for God. Love for God and doing justice go together.”
Other parables that feature this same emphasis include the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, another parable unique to Luke (16:19-26) and the parable of the Judgment from the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew.
There are several things the parable of the Good Samaritan doesn’t tell us. It doesn’t tell us that the man in the ditch was a Jew. It doesn’t tell us why the priest and the Levite did not stop to help him. Some scholars have theorized that their ritual purity regulations prohibited them from contact with a corpse. Did they assume he was dead, or did they get close enough to see that he was still alive, but still decide not to help? We don’t know. The parable doesn’t tell us why the Samaritan was moved with pity. It does spend quite a bit of energy specifying the concrete actions he took to help the injured man.
The emphasis in this parable is not on helping us determine whom we are to view as our neighbor and to whom we are to show love. Its focus is on the kind of people we are to be, active neighbors, as we live on the lookout for those in need of help. The parable says, of all three observers of the man in the ditch, that they “saw him.” The first two engage in a twofold action. They “see him” and then, in response to that sighting, they “pass by on the other side” The response of the third person was threefold. He “saw him,” he was “moved with pity” and then he then took concrete action to express his compassion and assist the injured man. This parable is not a general lesson in loving humanity or loving one’s enemies. It is a specific scenario in which a teaching about active compassion, shared by the Hebrew Scriptures and the teachings of Jesus, becomes a deed.
The sequence of seeing, having compassion, and acting is a common one in the gospels. In Luke’s gospel when Jesus “saw” the woman weeping at the death of her only son, he “had compassion for her” and brought her son to life (Luke 7:13). When the father “saw” the prodigal son “still afar off,… he had compassion on him..” and ran and embraced him (Luke 15:20). Matthew and Mark repeatedly tell us that Jesus himself, when he “saw” the crowds, had compassion on them and healed, fed, and taught them (Mt 9:36; 14:14; 15:32; Mk 6:34; 8:02). In the parable of the last judgment in Matthew 25:31-46, what makes some blessed is the fact that, though they didn’t realize it, in seeing the poor and helping them, they saw and helped Jesus. By contrast, what makes others cursed is that they never really did see Jesus suffering and in need because they never saw the poor.
A final thing the parable doesn’t tell us is whether the lawyer did as Jesus told him to, “Go and do likewise.” (10:27) As contemporary people characterized by the same combination of sincerity and shallowness as the first century lawyer, the outcome of the parable is now up to us.
 Luise Schottroff, The Parables of Jesus, Fortress Press,2006), 132-33.
 Schottroff, 133.
 Schottroff, 134.
Alyce McKenzie is Professor of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology. Visit her Expert Page at Patheos here.