July 14, 2019
The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
At the outset I want to mention several sources that helped open up this familiar gospel story for me. One is The Jewish Annotated New Testament, second edition, co-edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler,[i] using their notes and an essay in it, “The Concept of Neighbor in Jewish and Christian Ethics,” by Michael Fagenblat.[ii] The second is Through Peasant Eyes[iii] by Kenneth E. Bailey, a renowned scholar of Middle East cultures, entitled “The Good Samaritan.” And, of course I did peek at the article “Samaritans” in Wikipedia!
The gospels of Matthew and Mark contain short passages in which an expert in the Torah, the text of the Five Books of Moses (Genesis through Deuteronomy) and the rabbinical interpretation and commentary on it, asks Jesus which commandment in the Torah is the greatest. Jesus responds, “Love the Most High God with all you heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and strength. That’s the first and greatest commandment and the second is like it, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The brevity of the anecdotes has led many Christians to believe — erroneously — that Jesus issued a new commandment.
Luke’s gospel changes and expands this anecdote into a test between the expert and Jesus. The expert’s question becomes, “What must I do to inherit everlasting life?” To the Torah scholars of Jesus’ day, especially to the Pharisees, the answer was faithful observance of the Torah’s hundreds of specific commandments that regulated a Jew’s activities, daily weekly, monthly, or yearly. To faithfully do everything required and avoid doing anything prohibited would bring salvation in the age to come, in which a person’s life will be eternal. The expert, probably a Pharisee, is testing Jesus’ authority: what does Jesus think an observant Jew must do or must not do?
If Jesus replies with a new commandment not in the Torah, the Pharisee can then cry, “Blasphemer,” and seek to have Jesus stoned to death. Or, if Jesus recites a commandment in the Torah the expert is fully prepared to prove why that commandment is not greater than another, disproving Jesus’ authority. So, the stakes for Jesus in this test are very high.
Jesus doesn’t answer with a commandment but tests the expert: “What is written in the Torah? How do you read it?” The expert responds with a two-part answer to avoid his own trap. First, he recites part of the Shema from the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy, the daily prayer of every Jew: “You must love the Most High God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind.” And then he adds, “And your neighbor as yourself,” lifted from the 18th verse of the 19th chapter of Leviticus, which reads: “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am your God.”
Jesus knows that some Torah scholars combined these two passages in their commentaries, so he tells the Pharisee, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you’ll live,” which is a direct quote from Genesis 42:18, the story of Joseph and his brothers in Exodus (and one which the expert should know). Bailey writes that translators in the Middle East render Jesus’ words as “Start doing this now and you will come alive” or “Keep on doing this and you’ll find abundant life now and in the life to come.” Bailey notes that Jesus is implicitly saying,
“You want to do something to inherit eternal life? Very well, just continually love God and your neighbor with the totality of all that you are.” There is no line drawn. No list of how much is expected…Rather, the requirements are left limitless. Jesus is also implicitly asking, “You know the answer, but are you acting on it?”
The expert avoided his own trap of specificity but ensnared himself in a different trap. Is it possible to love God with all one’s heart, soul, strength, and mind? Is it possible for you? It is impossible for me. Is it possible to love one’s neighbor as yourself? I know it is impossible for me; I’ve had several recent situations within our own beloved community where I haven’t fully loved a fellow Seeker.
The Pharisee hasn’t lived his faith by trying to meet impossible standards of loving God and his neighbor. His love has borders; he needs borders to limit his love to what is possible. He needs rules that command him to do this with respect to this person in order to love him or her but don’t require him to do the same thing with respect to that person outside the borders! I sometimes feel this way; I want to my love to have borders. It is too hard to totally love everyone.
Jesus’ command to “Do this and you’ll live,” is an implied rebuke to the expert that is directed at me, too. I feel shamed and threatened by it. I’m totally with the expert who must justify himself. I need an answer that will make me feel better about myself, an answer that I can live up to, an answer that has clear borders. I’m the expert seeking to justify the way he has lived his faith – the way I have lived my faith — by asking Jesus the second question, “And just who is my neighbor?”
If Jesus asked the expert to answer his own question as he had before, the expert could answer using the Leviticus verse, “My kinfolk and my friend,” and feel he has done right by the people within the borders of his love. If he follows most of his fellow rabbis he will also add, “And my fellow Jew,” because most rabbis extended the Leviticus verse to everyone included in God’s covenant with Abraham. He may even have known that many rabbis interpreted Leviticus 19:18 in conjunction with verse 34 of the same chapter: “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt…” And again, the expert could feel he has done what he needs to do. His mindset is to check through the borders of the commandments and make sure there is nothing he still has left undone with respect to his kinfolk, his friends, his fellow Jews, and possibly the Gentiles that he knows.
The question is always, “Who is my neighbor?” I know that when I ask myself who is my neighbor I start with my family. It’s easy to think of my nuclear family that way. But I’ve got some in-laws, one on my side and at least two on Sharon’s side, that are harder for me to think of as my neighbors. The tour guides I work with and the docents I see at some of the museums and the Cathedral – they’re my neighbors – just as my former colleagues in government were. The people who live near me – the ones I know I see as my neighbors, but those I don’t know I don’t. You fellow Seekers are my neighbors, as is Sarah, who’s in the Al-Anon office, and one of the managers at India House (even if I can’t remember his name). And I try to regard aliens among us, documented or undocumented, as neighbors and do right by them. But I confess I don’t regard members of MS-13 as my neighbors. What about you? Who do you think of as your neighbor? Do you put borders around your love of neighbor?
But Jesus neither answers the expert nor questions him. Instead, he tells a story about a traveler that everyone present would assume was a Jew. They knew that the 17-mile road down from Jerusalem to Jericho was dangerous because of the bands of robbers who lurked there, so they wouldn’t have been surprised that the Jewish traveler was victimized. They knew that other Jews might help him if they could identify him as a Jew by his clothes or by his speech, but he was left naked and couldn’t talk because he was beaten half-dead. Who would help him? If they had been the traveler, who would help them?
The first to come is a priest. Bailey writes that as a man of elevated social status the priest would have been riding and could have helped the victim to safety. The priest would apply the Torah’s commandments to ascertain his duty. But what if the rules were unclear, if you couldn’t tell whether the victim was within the borders of “neighbor.” Levine is emphatic that the priest doesn’t avoid the victim out of concerns about potential religious defilement. She writes that the priest passes by because he didn’t know whether the person was a Jew, and whether the victim was observant or a sinner.
The second to come is a Levite, a Temple functionary but socially and religiously inferior to a priest. The Levite is probably walking, so he can’t take the victim to safety and remaining with the victim endangers himself. Bailey writes that a Levite would always follow a priest and probably saw the priest avoid the victim. If the Levite stopped to help the victim he would be subtly criticizing the interpretation of the Torah of his superior, a priest.
Levine points out that as soon as Jesus mentions a priest and a Levite, everyone knows the third person to see the victim will also be a Jew. According to Levine, the story’s shock is that the third person is not only not a Jew, but is a Jew’s most hated enemy, a Samaritan. Samaritans claimed descent from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, specifically from Ephraim and Manasseh, two of Joseph’s sons. The Samaritan would be within God’s covenant, a neighbor.
The hatred between Jews and Samaritans was so fierce because not only because they were kinsmen but because each knew themselves to have the only true interpretations of God’s commandments and knew the other to have false interpretations of God’s commandments. Samaritans insisted that they followed the original tradition of worshipping in the temple on Mount Gerizim, the holy place to which Joshua led the Israelites when they entered the Promised Land, and that their priests followed the lineage of priests from Eli, the second last judge of the nation of Israel and the mentor of the prophet Samuel, the last judge. In the Samaritans’ view King David was wrong to establish Jerusalem as a rival holy place. In the Samaritans’ view Solomon was wrong in building the Temple in Jerusalem and in replacing the high priest descended from Eli with another, Zadok. And finally, but not least, they claimed that when the Jews of the southern kingdom returned to Judea from their long captivity in Babylon they brought back a Torah that had been changed by importing false doctrines into it. Jews were not neighbors.
Jews responded that the people claiming to be Samaritans weren’t kinfolk at all, that when the Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel they killed or deported all the Samaritans and imported Gentiles so that they weren’t descendants of Abraham. Moreover, God had cursed Eli’s sons for violating the Torah, so Eli’s descendants had no legitimate claim to priesthood. And Jews accused the Samaritans of profaning the Temple in Jerusalem during the Greek persecution. They are the true faithful, not Samaritans. Samaritans are not neighbors.
The hostility between Jews and Samaritans was deep. Samaritans wouldn’t provide hospitality to Jews en route from Galilee to Jerusalem for a religious pilgrimage. This had just happened to Jesus and the disciples in verses 51-56 of the preceding chapter. With this fresh in their memory, I can imagine the disciples’ angry reaction when Jesus made a Samaritan the hero of the story.
I asked for the passage in the Hebrew Scriptures to be substituted for the one in the lectionary. It goes back more than 700 years before Jesus, when the kings of Israel and Syria had attempted to replace the king of Judah with a puppet king. Levine points out that what the Samaritans did then is exactly what the Samaritan does in Jesus’ story. As an expert on the scriptures, the expert should have known this story. Further, Bailey points out that Jesus’ story echoes phrases in the first ten verses of the sixth chapter of Hosea, and the expert probably knew this too.
Jesus doesn’t imply that the traveler and the Samaritan had a preexisting relationship, or that the Samaritan likes Jews, or that the Samaritan is religiously observant. Jesus doesn’t say that the Samaritan is the traveler’s neighbor because there is the (disputed) kinship tie. Instead, in the shocked silence, Jesus asks his question: “Which of these three, in your opinion, was the neighbor to the traveler who fell in with the robbers?” Which one did something neighborly, regardless of their relationship? The expert can’t bring himself to say the hated word “Samaritan,” so he replies – I suspect grudgingly — “The one who showed compassion.” Jesus ends the encounter by saying, “Then go and do the same.”
The question is not who is and who is not my neighbor. The question is to whom must I become a neighbor? As Bailey notes, “I must become a neighbor to anyone in need. To fulfill the law means that I must reach out in costly compassion to all people, even to my enemies…”
Fred Taylor, one of Seekers Church’s co-founders, says this parable is a bad news/good news story: the bad news is that your life is like being left for dead, the good news is that people you’d expect to help you come along, the bad news is that they don’t help, the good news is that a third person comes along and helps you, the bad news is that he’s your worst enemy. And that’s good news!
For someone here, the person who is your worst enemy because you know you have the right faith and that person has the wrong faith – say, a right wing evangelical like Franklin Graham or Joel Osteen – that’s the person who will act neighborly to you when you need it. For someone else the person could be Pope Francis. For yet another, it could be a supporter of Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. For me, it’s probably a fervent supporter of President Trump.
That person is my neighbor? I’m to become neighbor to such a person? To him (or to her)? I can’t even bring myself to say that person’s name! That person is outside the borders of my love.
[i] New York: Oxford University Press, © 2011, 2017, pgs. 136-137.
[ii] Ibid, “The Concept of Neighbor in Jewish and Christian Ethics,” pgs. 645-650
[iii] Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman Publishing Go., © 1980 in Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes: A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke, combined edition, 1983, pgs. 33-56