Christianity 201

January 1, 2015

The People Whose Name You Can’t Speak

The Parable of the Good Samaritan

25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’[a]; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b]

28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii[c] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

NIV Footnotes:

  1. Luke 10:27 Deut. 6:5
  2. Luke 10:27 Lev. 19:18
  3. Luke 10:35 A denarius was the usual daily wage of a day laborer (see Matt. 20:2).

Each of us, myself included, carries baggage into a new year. Perhaps family or work events surrounding the holiday season left you upset or angry with relatives or coworkers, or inflamed relationships which were already hurting. That’s the topic of today’s thoughts.

Today we are drawing on the writing of an author who I feel has much to say to us, despite his recent associations and proclivity to controversy. (That in itself is a microcosm of the text he’s writing on.) For that reason, I thought I’d put the credit and link at the very end, though you’re free to scroll down.

The Reason Why People Miss the Point of the Good Samaritan Story

Let’s take a look at a familiar story from the Bible, shall we? How about the story about the Good Samaritan? Because everybody knows that one. It’s about the importance of helping people who are in trouble, right?

You could make it about that. And that might be helpful. But you’d be missing the point of the story. Most people completely miss the point of the story. 

Here’s why: Jesus tells this story (It’s in Luke 10) in response to a question. And the more you understand the question, the more you can see just how brilliant and provocative the story is. 

The question is asked by a lawyer, who wants to know What must I do to inherit eternal life?

A couple of truths about this question this lawyer asks:

First, the lawyer doesn’t want to know. He already has an opinion. That’s what lawyers (which means scripture expert) did in the first century: they had opinions about the scriptures which they spent hours discussing. Or more realistically- debating. This man is not new to the game, he’s one of the elite, a long standing member of the religious establishment. It’s important to note that whatever Jesus says, this man will have something to say in response to it. 

Second, when the lawyer asks about eternal life he’s not asking about life after you die. What happens when you die was not something people in Jesus day talked much about and it wasn’t something Jesus taught about much at all. In the first century world that Jesus inhabited the focus was this life, this time, here and now. Not life after death but life before death. So when you had a chance to interact with a great spiritual teacher or rabbi, that was one of the first questions you would ask them–How do I have the most/best/fullest life right now? 

Eternal life was a phrase people used to describe a quality of life, the kind that comes from living in harmony and peace and connection with God. 

Jesus, of course, responds like a good Jewish rabbi, asking the man what the Torah teaches. Jesus responds this way because in the first century Jewish world that Jesus lived and moved in, the answer to how you have the best, most full and vibrant life was believed to be in the Torah (That’s the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures. Genesis, Exodus, etc…) How does it teach you to live? 

The lawyer isn’t surprised at all by Jesus’ question to his question–

let’s pause here and note that Jesus responds to his question with a question. This, once again, was not at all unusual for his day. Jesus is asked lots of questions in the gospels, and he responds to almost all of them with…a question–

he isn’t surprised because life revolved around the Torah and so Jesus’s answer-that-is-really-a-question is how he would have expected him to respond. The lawyer then quotes Deuteronomy and Leviticus about how loving God and loving your neighbor are the most important things you can do–they’re how you enter in to this particular kind of life that they called eternal life

Jesus then says to him That’s cool.

Well, not exactly. But pretty close. Jesus responds You’ve given the right answer; do this, and you will live.

Which is the end of the exchange, right?
What else is there to talk about?

The lawyer asks a question, Jesus asks him a question about his question, he answers the question about his question, Jesus tells him he got it right. Conversation over. 

Except it isn’t.
(By the way, we aren’t even to the Good Samaritan part yet and you can already smell something is up, can’t you…?)

Another parenthesis, just for good times:

(When people say the Bible is boring, I always know they’re saying that because they haven’t actually read it. Because if you actually read it, and enter into the stories, and the depth and background and context and innuendo and hyperbole, the one thing you will not be is bored…)

But the conversation isn’t over, because the text reads

But wanting to justify himself, the lawyer asked Jesus And who is my neighbor?

Ohhhhhhhhhh. Interesting…the dude had an agenda all along! It’s a set up. All that question and response and love your neighbor blah blah blah was all a set up! The lawyer has an issue with Jesus, he disagrees with Jesus, and his questioning was to get to the point of conflict. Which has something to do with who your neighbor is. It’s as if he says

Yeah yeah yeah, we can do Torah all day and agree that loving your neighbor is how you get eternal life but we both know that you and I, Jesus, don’t agree on who our neighbor even is…

At which point Jesus then launches into a story about a certain man who was going to Jericho from Jerusalem and was beaten and left by the side of the road. A priest comes along and passes by on the other side-

let’s stop there.
That’s funny.
The road between those two cities was a trail a few feet wide. With a cliff. Jesus is being funny here because there was no other side.

Then a Levite comes along and does the same thing. 

The priest and the Levite are the bad guys, right?

Nope. The man on the side of the road has been beaten, hasn’t he? Which means he’s bloody, correct? And according to the Torah, if you have contact with someone else’s blood you would be considered ceremonially unclean, correct? And if you’re a priest or Levite, to serve your people, to be true to your God, to contribute your part to the community, you can only do that if you remain ceremonially clean, correct? So when they come across the man, they each have a to make a decision

Do I help just this one man and in the process make myself unclean which means I can’t serve for a period of time?

You with me? Any telling of this story that makes them the bad guys misses the point. Which we’re about to arrive at…

Then, a third dude comes along. Let’s pause for a minute and point out that it’s only logical for the third person to be a lawyer who then helps the wounded man. Then Jesus would have made his point to the lawyer about how your neighbor is anyone who is in need that you are passing by. Which is how a lot of people tell this story. 

Which completely misses the point.

It isn’t a lawyer who comes along, it’s a…wait for it…Samaritan. And teachers of law and lawyers hated Samaritans. This is the last character the lawyer would have expected to enter the story. Samaritans were the TalibanPedophilesWhoKickPuppies of the day. This hatred went way back, generations back, and it ran really, really deep. But in this story that Jesus tells, the Samaritan helps the man. 

This story would have been next to impossible for the lawyer to hear. A good Samaritan? In our day when people use the phrase Good Samaritan it is said without disgust or irony or most of all disbelief. It’s not an oxymoron now. It was then. A good Samaritan was impossible. It didn’t exist in their minds. Jesus then finishes this story in which a Samaritan is the hero and asks the lawyer 

Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers? 

Boom! Do you see how insanely brilliant and clever and subversive Jesus is here? Please tell me you see it-because the whole thing started with the lawyer asking Jesus a loaded question, didn’t it? And so what does Jesus do? He tells a story that appears to ramble way off into the deep weeds, then a shocking character enters the story and ends up the hero, and then Jesus turns the table on the lawyer and asks 

Who was the neighbor?

The answer is The Samaritan, right? Yes, that’s correct.

But how does the lawyer answer?

The one who showed him mercy.

Oh man. The lawyer can’t even say the word Samaritan. That’s how deep his hatred goes. He can’t even say the word. 

Have you ever noticed how people often refer to the person they used to be married to as their ex? How rarely you hear them actually say the person’s name? Names connect us. Names bond us. Names create intimacy. If feels terrible to forget someone’s name, doesn’t it?

But this lawyer, he can’t even answer Jesus’s question by saying the name. He simply replies the one

That’s your neighbor.
That’s who you’re called to love.
That’s where the eternal life is found.
In loving your neighbor, the one you hate, the one you despise, the one you wish didn’t exist, the one who’s name you can’t even say.

Now obviously some people we avoid. Some people we have boundaries with. Some people are so toxic and dangerous and hurtful, some people have done so much damage to us we have to keep our distance. We love them from a distance. That’s all part of being healthy. But even then, we forgive so that the hate and bitterness won’t eat us alive.

Do you see why I began by talking about the point of the story? You can make it about roadside assistance, which is fine, and maybe even helpful, but Jesus is calling us to something way bigger and higher and deeper and transcendent. Jesus is calling the man to love like God loves. Which means everybody. Even those you hate the most. Jesus is challenging the man to extend divine love to those who are the most difficult to love. That’s where it’s at. That’s the answer to the question. That’s where the eternal life is.

~Rob Bell, part 74 in a continuing series, What is the Bible.