The Good Samaritan

July 10, 2022 — Rev. Brent Gundlah

As churches go, the UCC isn’t big on rules — and that’s even more true here at Holladay UCC. There isn’t really any particular doctrine you need to profess or adhere to in order to be a part of this faith community, and that fact alone makes us different from some others — not necessarily better or worse, just different. You can travel pretty light, bringing along only a love of Creator, Christ and Spirit — and a love of one another — and be at home here.

While we’re generally averse to rules, we also need them — to some extent. So when the UCC first formed in 1957, even our church of few rules managed to come up with some. I mean if people are going to gather and affiliate with one another for any length of time, they need to know what they’re getting themselves into.

The UCC memorialized some of these in its Constitution. If you want to understand what a group of people professes to believe, have a look at its constitution; and if you want to understand what a group of people is really all about, have a look at how those people actually live in relation to what they say they believe.

As is the case with many such documents, the UCC’s Constitution has a Preamble, an introduction laying out some big ideas. This Preamble explains that our church: “acknowledges as its sole head, Jesus Christ, Son of God and Savior”; that it “looks to the Word of God in the Scriptures, and to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, to prosper its creative and redemptive work in the world”; that it “claims as its own the faith of the historic Church expressed in the ancient creeds and reclaimed in the basic insights of the Protestant Reformers”; and that it “recognizes two sacraments: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion.” These are some of the foundational premises of our church.

But there’s a statement among all these other statements about the things our church acknowledges, looks to, claims, and recognizes that’s worth considering, which is this: “[The UCC] affirms the responsibility of the Church in each generation to make this faith its own in reality of worship, in honesty of thought and expression, and in purity of heart before God.” In other words, this church is not about following some rules, it’s about doing some work. 

I wrote about this statement in my most recent Pastor’s Corner, and it was definitely on my mind as I was thinking about today’s passage from Luke’s Gospel, the parable of the Good Samaritan.

As this familiar story begins, Jesus fields a question from a lawyer. “‘Teacher,’ he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?’”

He’s not the kind of lawyer who’s going to put you in jail or get you out of jail; he’s not going to write your will or sue your doctor for malpractice. This guy is an expert in religious law.

And it’s hard to tell whether his question to Jesus is an earnest one. Does he really want to know what he must do to inherit eternal life? Or is he trying to set a trap in order to discredit Jesus? Maybe he’s just initiating a debate with a fellow rabbi about the Law, which rabbis often did. All of these possibilities are certainly… possible.

Jesus responds to the lawyer’s question with two questions of his own; he asks him not only “What is written in the law?” but also “What do you read there?” These questions are related, but they’re not just two versions of the same basic one.

Our pew Bible’s translation of the second — “What do you read there?” — kind of misses the mark. Another way of rendering this is: “‘How do you read it?’”

Looked at this way, Jesus is really saying: “Tell me what the law says and tell me what it means for you.”

Unsurprisingly, this lawyer absolutely nails the first question. His answer to what is written in the law is a verbatim quotation from the Torah: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus, being the good sport that he is, credits the lawyer for the correct response he’d memorized.

But the lawyer never actually answers Jesus’s second question. Instead of doing the interpretive work that Jesus asks him to do, the lawyer throws it back on Jesus: “wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’”

Now this lawyer may be a bit lazy, but he’s no idiot. If loving one’s neighbor is how one inherits eternal life, then he needs to know who his neighbor is; his question to Jesus is perfectly rational and very human. Having rules to follow can make things so much easier.

What must I do to inherit eternal life? Love my neighbor as myself? Okay, who is my neighbor? Give me a list — I want names. And I’ll do my best to love them, but that’s it; I’m a busy person, you know. Just tell me what I need to do and I’ll do it.

But that’s not the way this works, and so Jesus doesn’t give the lawyer the answer he desires; instead he offers him a story.

A man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho is robbed, beaten, and left for dead by the side of the road. A priest and a Levite both see him there, but they walk right by. These two are important people and so perhaps they have more pressing things to do. Or maybe they are afraid that it’s actually a trap and they’ll end up getting robbed and beaten themselves. For whatever reason, they just keep moving along.

A Samaritan happens by next and he reacts to the situation very differently: “When he saw the man, he was moved with pity,” Luke tells us. This Samaritan tends to the man’s wounds, gives him a lift, and pays to put him up in a hotel.

“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” Jesus asks the lawyer.

“The one who showed him mercy,” the lawyer responds.

Jesus says to him, “Go and do likewise.”

A lot of you have heard this story before, and you know that the term “Good Samaritan” is commonly used to refer to anyone who helps someone in need. But the danger of a familiar story sometimes lies in its familiarity. We think we know what it says, we think we understand what it means, but it’s repetition has worn off its rough edges — like stones that come out of a rock tumbler all pretty and smooth.

If someone were to ask you what the moral of this parable is, there is a good chance you would tell them something like, “We should stop and help people in need instead of walking right past them.” And this wouldn’t be the worst thing because we should, in fact, do that. But this completely overlooks how provocative and scandalous Jesus’s story was in the context in which he told it.

You see, for Luke’s audience, a Samaritan was the most horrible person they could possibly imagine — close your eyes and picture who that might be for you. And so this wasn’t simply a story about helping someone who needed help; it was a story about being helped by the person you despised more than anyone — and having to see that person as your neighbor, whom you are called to love.

This would have been a tough thing to hear — in the story the lawyer can’t even bring himself to utter the word “Samaritan” after he’s just acknowledged the man’s goodness: When Jesus asks the lawyer who was a neighbor to the man in need, all he can say is, “The one who showed him mercy.” Old hatreds run deep and die hard.

And that’s why what Jesus does here is so clever. The man wants a dictionary definition of “neighbor” so that he can follow, to the letter of the law, God’s command to love his neighbor. Instead of giving that to him, Jesus invites him to plumb the depths of his own prejudices and biases and hatreds to find his neighbor waiting for him there.

This answer, of course, changes with time and circumstance. If someone had asked Moses the very same question that the lawyer asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” the example of the Samaritan wouldn’t have even occurred to him because the Samaritans, as a people, didn’t even exist then. Maybe it would have been an Egyptian if Moses were the one telling the story. The name “Samaritan” simply doesn’t conjure up the same kinds of feelings for us as it did for Jesus’s contemporaries because our context is so different.

This story is so timeless because it compels us to ask who our Samaritan might be. And asking this of ourselves is part of what being called in each generation to make this faith our own means.

So, who is that person, right here in this time and place, that you would rather die than help or be helped by? Is it the one who doesn’t look like you, the one who doesn’t talk like you, the one who doesn’t love like you, the one who doesn’t worship like you, the one who doesn’t vote like you?

Come on, who is it? Who is the one you look down upon more than anyone? Who is the one you hate more than anyone? Because that person is your neighbor, the one Jesus is telling you to love.

And if you don’t like it, don’t get mad at me. Take it up with Jesus.