Art by John August Swanson. "Good Samaritan," limited edition serigraph, hand printed, 2002, 10 3/4 x 30 1/2 inches.
It’s a classic lawyer’s mistake, asking a witness a question in open court without knowing in advance what the answer will be. Even novice litigators know not to do that. With the jury and judge looking on and listening in, if you ask an imprecise, open-ended question, who knows what the witness will say, what unexpected testimony, what pesky evidence or unwanted information might leak into the trial with unpredictable consequences?
But that is precisely the beginner’s blunder committed by the well-known Torah attorney who shows up in the tenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke. At this point in Luke, Jesus has “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51) and is beginning the long journey to the city of his destiny, the city of his death, the city of his glory. But before Jesus has barely started down the road, this lawyer steps into his path, momentarily stalls the journey, and tries to turn the road into a courtroom and Jesus into a defendant.
Luke says the lawyer intended to put Jesus to the test, and to do so, he asks two questions. The first one is a sure bet, a good lawyer’s ploy: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” No surprises there. The lawyer already knew the answer; in fact, everybody listening knew the answer. The answer was so obvious, so much a part of the conventional religious wisdom, that Jesus could hand the question back to the lawyer. “You’ve asked me a question, but you already know the answer,” Jesus said, in effect. “It’s right there in the Scriptures, isn’t it? What do you read there?”
So the lawyer then answers his own question, with the response that could have been predicted all along: “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.” The lawyer says this with his grown-up lawyer’s baritone, but we can almost hear the voice of the little boy within. These are not words he learned at law school, not truths he acquired at the Scribal Academy. These are words he learned at his mother’s knee, words he learned in Sabbath School, words he whispered to his father before bedtime prayers. These are words that children are taught to recite because these words are the very heart of the Torah – love of God and love of neighbor, that’s what life is all about.
“You have given the right answer,” Jesus confirms.
So, why didn’t the lawyer just stop there? Why didn’t he leave well enough alone? He had asked his question, gotten the right and expected answer, entered it into the court record, and made his point. His point, by the way, was to make Jesus seem blandly conventional, to make him admit in open court that he was heading up to Jerusalem not really to do anything new or dangerous or revolutionary. No, the lawyer wanted Jesus to confess publicly that, while he might seem a tad unorthodox, a bit intense perhaps, whatever he was doing as he made his way from village to village, he was really just waving the flag of the slogan we’ve been saying since we were kids – love God and love your neighbor. In the Torah, of course, love of God and neighbor are radical concepts, all embracing. But they so quickly settle into commonplace religious respectability. Love of God and neighbor become “go to church and be nice to others.” God first, others second, me last. There’s no “I” in “Team.” We’ve recited this in Vacation Bible School just before the punch and cookies. Even Miss America contestants have gotten the message, smiling and professing that they “love God so much” and they also love “all the people.” So, what’s to fear in that? Move along, folks. Nothing to see here. Point made.
But the lawyer didn’t stop there. He ran the stop sign and asked that second, open-ended, fatal question: “Who is my neighbor?”
Why did he ask it?
Perhaps he thought the answer to this second question would be as predictable as the response to the first, that this follow-up query would simply be a way to drive even deeper the stake he had already planted with his first one. But actually I think the lawyer posed this second question because he sensed that Jesus had subtly shifted the ground beneath him. When he asked that first question, it was clearly Jesus who was on trial, Jesus who was being asked to name the essence of the Torah, Jesus who was being cross-examined about the nature of his mission, Jesus who was being judged by public opinion. But Jesus refused to answer the question, instead turning it back on the lawyer. “So, what do you read in Scripture? What’s your answer?” In one breathtaking move, the court is turned upside down. The lawyer is now in the dock; the lawyer is now the one on trial. No longer the solicitor prosecuting the case, the lawyer is now the accused defending his righteousness. So, the lawyer, now suddenly the defendant, seeks to do what every accused person desires. As Luke puts it, he wanted to “justify himself.” And so he asks the one question he believes will do just that: “Who is my neighbor?”
He thought he knew what Jesus would answer, and he assumed that the response would shine a light on his respectability, would show him for what he was, a man on the right side of things. There is no need for us to be cynical about this lawyer, to think of him as malicious or as a hypocrite. In fact, the chances are good that he would not risk this public test of self-justification if his life were not honorable and virtuous. He likely was a person who practiced what he preached, who lived out the Scripture in his everyday life, who showed hospitality toward his peers and charity toward the less fortunate. He probably expected Jesus to say something like, “You know what the Scriptures teach. Your neighbor is not only your kin in the next house but also the stranger, the sojourner, the orphan, the poor in your midst.” And to this the lawyer could honestly say, “Well then, good. I show compassion to all of the above.” On the chessboard of “love of God and love of neighbor” as understood in his setting, he was no doubt well-positioned.
But Jesus did not respond as expected. He did not congratulate the lawyer as a man of good standing. To the contrary, he buckled the lawyer’s knees and threw him into a ditch. He did so by telling a story, a parable. “A certain man was going down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho…,” he begins. Because this “certain man,” as he is called in the King James Version, is generic and everybody had traveled that Jericho road from time to time, Jesus was, in effect, saying to the lawyer, “Imagine that you were heading down the old road from Jerusalem to Jericho and then a terrible thing happened to you. You fell into the hands of robbers who stripped you, beat you, and left you for half dead.” In short, the lawyer, who Luke says “stood up to test Jesus” and wanted “to justify himself,” now finds himself face down beside the road. No longer in the stance of righteousness, he is now in the posture of dire need. Sometimes preachers are prone to portray this lawyer as puffed up with pride, as a man who thought of himself as holier-than-thou, and, thus, take great satisfaction in Jesus’ knocking the lawyer off his high horse. But that seems to me to be a near miss. The issue here seems less like pride versus humility and more like “standing” versus “moving.” Like most of us who want to be respectable, this lawyer had found a place to stand. The lawyer depended upon the concepts “love God” and “love neighbor” to remain fixed and stable, a system of religious justification, and, again like most of us, he had found a sweet spot in that religious system that allowed him to be satisfied with himself and his life. He was, in short, a person who did not need to move, and when he asked “Who is my neighbor?” he expected Jesus to re-inscribe that system and, thus, to show that the lawyer was already standing in a good spot, that he was, in fact, justified.
But Jesus proclaims a kingdom on the move. His face is set toward Jerusalem, toward the place of suffering, and rejection, and killing, and resurrection. He is on the move toward the cross and toward a lost humanity. Jesus was not born to justify the righteous; he was born, as the angels over Bethlehem proclaimed, to be a savior. In Jesus, the system is not standing still. God is moving toward humanity in mercy and calling humanity to move toward God in repentance.
And that is why Jesus throws the lawyer into the ditch beside the Jericho road. He is not doing violence to him; he is, instead, using a parable to disclose the man’s true condition. He is showing that this lawyer, who thought he had a righteous place to stand, has nowhere to stand in his own strength but is in fact, like all the rest of us, lying face down and naked by the highway. The lawyer wanted to be seen as already righteous, but Jesus showed instead that he was simply a member of the human race, in desperate need of rescue. Jesus undermines the lawyer’s standing in order to show that the lawyer, like all the rest of humanity, needs not to stand his ground but to see the face of grace, and then to move, to repent.
It is important to keep in view that the story Jesus told the lawyer was a parable, not an example story. If it were an example story, then the moral would be, “The Samaritan did a good deed, now go imitate him in your life.” To which the lawyer could no doubt have replied, “I already do. I do help the wounded and weary in life. I am good person like that Samaritan. I care for my neighbor.”
But what Jesus told was a parable, not an example story. And what the parable did was to generate an experience, to cause the lawyer to see himself for what he was, a man in deep trouble. And, in his trouble, none of his expected resources were of help -- the priest didn’t help him and neither did the Levite. Only the Samaritan, the despised Samaritan, the one by whom the lawyer would not want even to be touched, only the Samaritan lifted him up, dressed his wounds, cared for his life, helped him move from a place of death to a place of life. To be rescued by the Samaritan – and this is the point – is like being a man who wants to “justify himself” but is instead rescued from distress by the grace of Jesus Christ.
By telling this parable, Jesus ironically gave the lawyer a great gift, a work of kindness, even though the lawyer may not have thought so. What Jesus did was to invite the lawyer to see himself in a new way, to see himself not as one who stands at a distance and defines the term “neighbor” objectively, but as someone who might himself need to be neighbored -- as a wounded traveler in need of rescue, as a wandering and lost lamb unable to find his way home. As New Testament scholar Robert Funk pointed out,
The future which the parable discloses is the future of every hearer who grasps and is grasped by his position in the ditch. …The poor traveler is literally the victim of a ruthless robber. So were the poor, the lame, the blind, and others whom Jesus drew to his side. In fact one has to understand himself as the victim in order to be eligible.
In other words, the real answer to the lawyer’s question “who is my neighbor?” is that you have no idea who your neighbor is until you, yourself, know how needy you are, and in that need receive the unexpected grace of being neighbored by God. This is actually good news for the lawyer, because, as Jesus said later, there is a whole lot more laughter and joy in heaven over one lost sheep brought home than over ninety-nine righteous folk who don’t think they need to move, who don’t need any repentance.
The moral of Jesus’ story is not to imitate the Samaritan because you are already a good person. The moral is that only when we have had the experience of being rescued by grace can we really become like the Samaritan, and like Christ himself, in showing mercy and compassion.
Several years ago I visited a Christian congregation that had a remarkable record of working for interfaith understanding and mutual ministry. In a time when suspicion and mistrust among people of different religions ran high in their community, in a time when “who is my neighbor?” ceased to be asked at the inter-faith border, this congregation had courageously modeled tolerance, hospitality, understanding, and love. The pastor told me why. It seems that the congregation worshiped in a sanctuary that had been built during the Great Depression, after a disastrous fire had destroyed their previous building. One of the stained-glass windows in the rebuilt church had a small Star of David worked into the pattern. The pastor explained to me that, if one looked through this Star of David to the outside world, one could see, a couple of blocks away and framed by this symbol in the window, the synagogue that had offered its building to the church as a place of worship after the fire, the synagogue whose members had, during a time of economic distress, helped raise the money to rebuild this Christian church. In short, looking through that Star of David was like looking up, wounded and vulnerable, from the Jericho Road to see mercy coming from an unexpected source. To be neighbored like that changes everything. To be neighbored like that takes “self-justification” off the table. Having been lifted from the ditch in the arms of divine mercy deepens gratitude for the power of grace and heightens commitment to “Go and do likewise,” to show mercy to a world now filled with neighbors.
Tom Long grew up in Decatur, Georgia, on Gardenia Lane, a cul-de-sac with small houses bought on the G.I. Bill, kids on bikes in the late afternoon, Patti Page on the radio, and Elvis rumbling on the horizon.
 Robert Funk, Language, Hermeneutic, and the Word of God (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), 214.