Friday, September 20, 2019

The "Good" Samaritan: What We Know

When I listen to people expound on the Good Samaritan, I notice that they will usually miss two important things: the beginning and the ending. (We’re in Luke chapter 10 here.)

An “expert in the law” asks an important question at the beginning, before the “Who is my neighbor,” one. He asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life.”

This question, we are told, is to “test” Jesus.

Test accepted, smiles Jesus.

This question, remember, is before the question that everyone thinks about when discussing this story.

The “eternal life” statement everyone at least makes a passing reference to, but the word no one seems to pick up on is “inherit.”

“What must I do to INHERIT eternal life?”

Lawyers do understand something about inheriting and what an inheritance is.

To inherit something legally means certain conditions must be meant.

For instance, it requires a death. A death in the family. An inheritance needs to be from one specific family member to another one or several other families or somehow related. A very specific condition really. 

So, at least to me, it is a curious word to use in that context. Of course, the connotation is that eternal life is always a positive thing. Although, since the man asking the question is a lawyer, he would also know that you can be “disinherited” from the person who left the inheritance. He or she can take you out of the will.

These are absolutes. Laws if you will. So, eternal life has some absolutes and the “family of God” is involved. You can be disinherited. Or never really identified with the family of God.

The questioning lawyer is a smart chap to me. Jesus asks him for his interpretation of the law of Moses. He gets it right; and Jesus appears to be impressed.

So, what does it mean that the lawyer wanted to “justify his actions?” Well, the law exposes our downfalls; our weaknesses. We can say we love God with all our heart, souls and might, but in reality, who actually does that? We can say that the basis of our existence is to love our neighbor, but you haven’t met my neighbor (rhetorical answer). 

In reality, my actual neighbor is someone I could never “love,” even as I love myself, but we do get along. I don’t really mind him. Mostly because I can ignore him for the most part. There are lots of things about myself and other people that I ignore just to survive.

Now the person that gets robbed on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho, is not given any particular designation: i.e., he’s not a Jewish person or a anything like that. Apparently, he represents everyone. We all have hard times.

He gets beat up pretty good. Unable to rescue himself from the difficult situation. A humbling experience really, if you’ve ever been in a place where you need another’s help just to get out of some initial, difficult problems.

Again, Jesus is describing “who is my neighbor?”

The story goes on:
Along comes a priest. Someone steeped in the rules. A man of scholarly ambition. Looked up to and admired, well, at least for his position. Especially admired by himself. Worships himself let’s say.

Passes on by. We are not really told why.

Next comes a Levite. A true “rabbi” if you will. Loves to hear that name applied to him in the town square. Thinks very highly of himself. So highly in fact, that well, when it comes to someone is real trouble, well, he is anything but a neighbor. He has his own definition of who does and doesn’t need help; and this person in front of him definitely falls outside that range. But he is well versed in the law; so the guy is great at justifying his actions. And well, let’s go so far as to say, he is just being true to himself.

And then we have our hero: the Samaritan. Text doesn’t even say good really, because people love to add their own monikers and slants to the stories in the bible. Not entirely a bad thing to do that, unless it is completely off base, which, in this case, well, good is not something the Jewish populace thought Samaritans were.

No, the Samaritans were the enemy. Definitely from the wrong side of the tracks. Not good at all. They worshipped the wrong things; had their own temple, so on and so forth.

So, one thing that can be done with stories, is that you can abstract what this would mean for the reader or the audience.

The audience is supposed to think of a cult or people of faith that they don't particularly believe are getting much right, either politically or religiously.

So the “good” Samaritan is not really good in the eyes of Jesus’ audience. But he is good in getting past his own prejudices and not seeing another human being as beneath him or his way of thinking. He is good at seeing another human being who is having real problems, no matter their societal affiliation, religious persuasion or political party.

Perhaps you are or know someone who has trouble looking past say their own political prejudices.

As for myself, I try to stay on what is true. So when I come upon this type of situation, I will see it for what it is. Now, it could be someone whose beliefs or demographic or political persuasion is not my own, but what I need to be seeing is a hurting person. That is paramount to being a good neighbor.

But that is commentary, not sticking with the story. So, on with the story:

The importance is not in exactly who the robbed man is or what his labels are. In fact, (truth) that is the point of the story. The contrast is obvious: the Samaritan actually does help. Not just think he’s helping or has a romanticized view of interceding in people’s lives, but rolls up his sleeves, and gets in the mess. He has actual compassion; goes over to the victim and lends an actual hand. Takes him to an inn, pays the fare. Is going to come back when he is better, so on and so forth.

The story appears to have two main points: the first being is to step outside of what you think “religion” is and actually does. The lawyer was trying to justify himself because he thought the law, or actions, is what helps people. Jesus is putting that notion to rest. Even though the Samaritan’s actions are important, it’s the fact that he goes beyond “what” religion is purported to do. The Samaritan is breaking all his own the rules, as it were. He gets involved. He forms a relationship with the man who was robbed. He goes above and beyond the call of duty. Messes are messy; no one likes them. True help is difficult. It will take away from what a person thinks is important and place it on someone who truly needs the aid. Could be rich; or poor. What does economics have to do with it?

Try to understand, this isn’t pleasant or fun or something anyone looks forward to. It is messy, hard work to, in truth, help people. Religion fails miserably at it. A works-based faith is the farthest thing from actual help that there is; that appears to be is what the parable is telling us.

The last thing is the ending. Jesus asks who is the man who was robbed actual neighbor?

The lawyer says: “The one who showed him mercy.” 

What quality of mercy is the lawyer referring to?

The point Jesus, and the lawyer is making, is your heart for looking beyond your own way of thinking so that when true problems arise, a Christian can roll up his sleeves and get into the mess?

A true, neighbor, according to the lawyer, knows true mercy and demonstrates it in reality.

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