The story of the Good Samaritan is probably the best-known parable told by Jesus. The parable is like what Mark Twain says about the whole New Testament. “That is one book you hope everybody else reads.” It comes as the answer a question from a faithful Jew, a lawyer, who asks, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The lawyer recites the two great commandments to love God and love your neighbor that we recite every Sunday. Jesus responds, “Do this and you will live.”
But it seems like the questioner wants to test Jesus and perhaps wants to be sure he’s headed for heaven. So, he questions Jesus further. The scripture says he wants to “justify himself.” And he asks, “And who is my neighbor?” The lawyer’s question was rather academic. In Jesus’ time the question of who should be treated as our neighbors was being debated as it still is today. Gentiles, non-Jews had entered Palestine. The man wondered, “Should Greeks, Romans, and Syrians be treated as neighbors?” And what about the Samaritans?
Like some of the people who lived in rural areas and could not keep the ceremonial laws of diet, bathing and worship as much as those in the urban areas. The lawyer wants to make a deal, to find out just how far he has to go to carry out this “neighbor” concept.
The lawyer is like a king who wished to be the best archer. He was a good king, but his heart’s desire was to be the best archer in the whole world. So, he began to practice archery with the bow and arrow at a very early age. By the time he was in his late teens he could hit the bull’s eye about half of the time. But for him that was not good enough. So, he sent out a message to all the kingdom that he wanted a teacher, a master archer to train him and better his marksmanship.
And so, for years he studied with the best in the land. His percentage improved to 75 percent hitting the bullseye.
Word of his passion spread beyond his kingdom and one day a master archer from a far land arrived and said he would help him. Much to the king’s surprise, the man did not concentrate on form, or the quality of his bow and arrows, on on the king’s stance, strength, or coordination. Instead, he taught the king to concentrate, to center himself and to close his eyes before letting the arrow go toward the target. The king was dubious, but to his surprise he was hitting the arrow 85 percent of the time.
Then at the master’s insistence, he began to think of himself as the arrow and as the bow and he improved still more to 90% but he was stuck there. And yet his dream was to hit the bull’s eye 100 percent of the time.
Years passed and he went about his duties as king. One day as he was riding in a small, out-of-the-way village he spied a number of bull’s-eyes drawn on the side of a barn. Amazingly, every single one of them had an arrow dead center. As he continued to ride though the small town, it seemed every building had a number of targets and every single one of them was centered with an arrow.
The king was elated. Here was the teacher who would help him master his bow and his aim. The king stopped and asked and found to his surprise that the master archer was a young man, only 12 years old. The king sought him out and shared his hope with him and immediately the boy said he would teach the king.
Off they went to find a barn. The two stood at a good distance from the building, and the boy proceeded to tell the king how to stand, look at the barn, take aim and let the arrow fly. The king took aim and then stopped. He turned to the boy and said, “But there is no target.” And the boy smiled and said, “I know. That’s the best part. After you let your arrow go, you paint the target around the arrow.” That’s how the boy always hit the mark dead center. (Parables: The Arrows of God by Megan McKenna, Orbis Books, 1994, pp. 144-145)
This is one of those turn-around stories where we might feel cheated or set up. Likely, the lawyer felt that way when Jesus told his neighbor story. It takes his responsibility deeper than the minimum effort. It requires more than a transaction; it requires a depth of mercy to the lowliest person he could imagine.
At this point some parable, background information is helpful. The setting of the parable is the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, a distance of about 17 miles. It goes from 2000 feet above sea level in Jerusalem and to 800 feet below sea level in Jericho. It’s a strenuous hike and would take a walker more than a day. To get from one city to the other you’d have to go through a thief-infested wilderness via serpentine paths of ravines, wadis, and treeless mountains. It was known as a dangerous place where thieves attacked unwary travelers. The main characters in the story are a Jewish priest, a Levi which was a Jewish scholar, the man attacked by thieves, and a Samaritan, the hero of the story.
One scholar framed this parable as three questions, the lawyer says, “What’s in it for me?’ the priest and the Levi say, “Not my problem.” And the Samaritan says, “What can I do to help?”
Martin Luther King Jr. frequently preached this parable to describe three life philosophies, 1) the robber “What’s yours is mine.”, 2) the priest and the Levi, “What’s mine is mine.” And 3) the Samaritan, “What’s mine is yours.” The hero of the story is the Samaritan. Jesus knew the Samaritans were hated, they had intermarried with foreigners, and they worshiped not at Jerusalem but at their own temple on Mount Gerazim. And worst of all, the Samaritans had desecrated the temple of Jerusalem in a was between 9 and 6 BC.
There are many interpretations of this parable, but I would like to look at it from the perspective of Jesus soon to face his death, and yet trying to lead the lawyer to a greater understanding of the law of love. Jesus’ story suggests the lawyer is asking the wrong question. Rather than asking “Who is my neighbor?” He should be asking, “What kind of neighbor am I?” Do I only do what will get me rewarded, or do I operate on the law of love? A person who loves God will respond with compassion and mercy to any human suffering. Jesus says, sharing your love makes you a neighbor.
In this way, Jesus is perhaps best represented in this story by the Samaritan and we are best depicted as the helpless victim, unable to save ourselves and totally reliant on his mercy. Some scholars even suggest that the church is the inn where the injured man is taken, and the oil and the wine are sacraments. But the main idea of this passage that a learned man questions Jesus about how to earn eternal life and yet Jesus is showing him how to live a faith-filled life today. Jesus tells a story about salvation based on unmerited love. We too need a savior who will rescue us and we can trust Jesus to save us. Selfishness lives in all of us. We all sin and fall short of what god requires of us.
Jesus can free us from our self-centered orientation. The good news is that Jesus calls us to love not just those who are like us but those who are different. When we too are lost in the pit of calamity, injustice or fear, when we are beat up by the world, Jesus embraces us, heals our wounds and saves us from the injuries the world has inflicted on us, restoring us back to life and health. By mercy, by grace, by the power of his love, Jesus came to save all of humanity. Seeing Jesus as the Samaritan makes the point that we are saved by grace not law.
Maybe there’s somebody in your life who is like a Samaritan to you. Maybe you’d like to be more like Jesus, but you don’t think you can do it. You might have to start over, to lose face, to be reborn. And that’s maybe what we need. To have the heart of Jesus. We may not hit the target 100% or even 90 or 80 percent of the time, but let’s pray that God will give us the heart of Jesus so that when we see someone in need, when we are in need ourselves, we may come to Jesus and find life today and forever. Amen.