This is a sermon that I preached twelve years ago. It's my take on the parable of the Samaritan. For my interpretation, I must credit Kenneth E. Bailey's marvelous book on the parables, Through Peasant Eyes.
On the edge of the road is the victim, stripped naked, bloody, dying. A priest comes by. He’s going home. He’s just done his two-week’s service in the temple. He sees the body, and he keeps far away. He’s not a bad guy; he’s just keeping the rules.
According to the Torah, in the book of Leviticus, a priest touching a dead body makes himself unclean, and then he can’t perform his priestly duties. Getting clean again means going back up to Jerusalem for a week of special rituals, and he’d have to buy a heifer to sacrifice, which is not cheap, etc. etc. If God wanted priests to go around helping half-dead people, why would Leviticus have those rules? God wants priests to have good boundaries and keep themselves unspotted.
A Levite comes by. He too has just finished his two week’s service in the temple. He too goes by. The rules for Levites are not as strict as for priests, not in Leviticus. But under the pharisees the rules were getting stricter, and the laws for priests were being applied to everyone. These were the laws that this young lawyer was trained to be an expert in. The opinion was that if God didn’t want priests to touch dead bodies, then it must be bad for Levites too.
But at least the Levite first takes a closer look. The victim is stripped naked, so you can’t tell by his clothing whether he’s Judean or Galilean or Nabatean or something else—where he’s from, and his rank and class. Such categories mean everything, even today in Brooklyn. It’s how you know who is responsible for him.
Because also in Leviticus, there is a verse that says you should love your neighbor as yourself. That means responsibility. And who is your neighbor? The meaning of neighbor-ness, neighbor-hood, was debated, but there was consensus that it was someone close to you, connected to you, of your own group, and of your own religion. You can’t be responsible for everyone. Mutual responsibilities were all worked out.
The Levite is not a bad guy. He’s just doing what we do every day. From what he could see he had no connection to this guy. And because he’s only a Levite instead of a priest, he doesn’t have a horse, so how’s he going to get the guy anywhere? What’s he supposed to do, sit and wait for some other person with a horse to come along, and help them both? There’s nothing he can do.
A Samaritan comes by. By definition, a Bad Samaritan. For Judeans, there was no such thing as a Good Samaritan. They were worse than Gentiles, they were the hated half-breed heretics who occupied some of the Promised Land. There were Jewish prayers that God would destroy the Samaritans. The only good Samaritan is a dead Samaritan. It’s quite a button that the Lord Jesus is pushing here.
He lays it on thick. He has the Samaritan anoint the victim with oil and wine. Specifically priestly and Levitical things to do. The Samaritan offers the ministry that the priest and Levite would not do because of the regulations of their ministry. You sense the judgment of Jesus here. Not against his native religion, per se, but on how his native religion was developing, so that it didn’t do the very thing it was supposed to do. But with the judgment there’s also an invitation.
At the end of the parable Jesus turns the definition of neighbor in Leviticus 180 degrees around. It’s subtle–you almost miss it. The neighbor in question is not the victim, but the Samaritan. Jesus is redefining neighbor-hood. Neighborhood is not a state nor a status, it is an action. Neighborhood is not a matter of your adjacency, but your activity. You are the neighbor of every next person that you meet. Your neighborhood is what you bring with you. You are always in your neighborhood. You demonstrate your neighborhood by loving every next person you encounter.
There is also something deeper here. Notice that in the young lawyer’s summary of the law, the verb “to love” is given only once. “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.” It is a single act of love. There is no division here between the vertical and the horizontal. It is a single act of love. It’s not like you love God, and you also love your neighbor. Rather, your love of God is exercised in how you love your neighbor. And if you bring your neighborhood with you, that means you must regard every next person you meet as standing for God.
You find it impossible to love every next person that you meet. You find it impossible to love God that much, with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and all your mind. But the God whom you love incompletely loves you back completely. Absolutely. And this love of God can flow through you. God loves your neighbor through you. You pour on your neighbor the oil and wine. You give your neighbor a place of rest. And God has worked through you.
It’s not your love you love your neighbor with, it is the love of God for you that you love your neighbor with. You love God so that God might love the world through you. You love your neighbors so that they might know the love of God through you, and that by loving you they too might love God back.
Now, what does this have to do with eternal life, which is how the lawyer got the whole discussion going? Let me tell you a story. I have been trying to develop contacts among the Muslims of Brooklyn. I had gotten the name of an Imam who heads a Bangladeshi mosque on McDonald Ave. So last Monday I called him and asked to meet him and maybe have an interview. He has a full time job with the Transit Authority, but he could see me after his sermon on Friday, at 2:30. That’s my day off, but I agreed.
So on Friday, two days ago, my daughter Anni and I did a cycling trip around Manhattan. It was already 1:45 by the time we got back to Brooklyn. I suggested I ride straight to the mosque. Anni had planned to join me, but she said she wanted to shower first and change her clothes. So that’s what we did, and I’m so glad I took her advice.
We got to the mosque ten minutes late, and waiting for us was not just the Imam, but ten of the leaders of the Bangladeshi community of Brooklyn. They welcomed us into their mosque, and then they took us to dinner at a Bangladeshi restaurant, and we ate biryani and talked and drank tea and talked. Some of the people of their community were suffering under the Patriot Act, they are being rounded up and deported, which is what I was interested in, but what these people wanted to talk about was Christianity, and the church, and the Bible. It was a wonderful afternoon, and they were so grateful to us that we had cared to come to them and visit them.
What does this have to do with eternal life? As we sat there among them, I did not feel at all that it was my job to convert them to Christianity. And I did not feel that by not doing so I was letting down the Lordship of Jesus Christ. It was my job, as a servant of the Lord Jesus, to cross the road, and look at them, and love them, and come to them where they were, and sit with them, and eat their food, and share with them the love of God that I feel in me. This is the love that is stronger than death, this is the love that overcomes the world, this is the life of the world to come. This is eternal life, and already we can live in it.
Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.