Good Samaritan

Matthew 22:37-39 and Mark 12:28b-33
William R. Clough, D. Min
Professor, Pastoral Community Counseling
Argosy University -Sarasota, Florida

This is, arguably, the most familiar of Jesus’ parables and one of the most popular to preach on. The one and only time any Commanding Officer ever gave me any advice on preaching was when I was guest preaching at Camp David and the CO said “I would never presume to tell you what to preach on but just to let you know, the last three chaplains who have been here preached on the Good Samaritan.” That seemed to indicate that this parable is not only exceedingly familiar, but also a popular passage for clergy to use to craft their best, their masterpiece sermon – which is not true in my case, which may become obvious as we proceed.

You’ve heard it updated: a man was on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho when a gang jumped him, beat him up and left him for dead. Along came a UN envoy and when he saw the man he said “That’s awful but I can’t take sides.” and passed by quickly. Then along came a member of the Israeli parliament who saw the man and immediately called – his speechwriter to say “Write me a speech that makes me sound tough on crime!” But then a Hamas fighter came down the road and said, “Enough already! I’m disgusted and I just can’t leave an injured person by the side of the road!” so he put the man in his truck, took him to the hospital and said “Take care of him, here’s my name and address. Send the bill to me!”

Retellings recover the shock value of the original parable.

And you’ve heard it interpreted: The priest represents the impotence of organized religion – for centuries we’ve had the opportunity to solve problems but have been just about as apt to make things worse or leave them the same. The Levite represents the impotence of government – big or limited – which has done no better. The Samaritan represents those who, day by day, act by act, minute by minute, actually make the world better.

Which recovers a point of the parable.

It’s important to notice that this parable is commentary on the Great Commandments and this is the third time the Gospels deal with the exhortations to love God and love one another.

Matthew 22:37-39 – Jesus just answers simply and directly: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Jesus replied: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'”

In Mark 12:28b-33 the answer is clearly classic Jewish morality: Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad “'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your strength.' [Deuteronomy 6:4-5] The second is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' [Leviticus 19:18] No other commandment is greater than these." And the Scribe agrees,
"Well said," he replied "You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other. To love God with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices."
And Jesus said “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.”

In Luke it’s not Jesus but it’s the Lawyer who gives the Great Commandments. He asks, Jesus asks back, and he answers rightly but, being a lawyer, wants clarification, hence the parable.

In Matthew the Great Commandments are an aphorism, the sort of summary we all agree on. A concise summary theologians love to expand on and preachers love to use to exhort the congregation to love or to seek eternal life. In Mark it’s a mutual, but undefined, understanding. It’s really easy to agree on ideals as long as we’re not pressed to turn them into policies. But finally, here in Luke, the Great Commandments are redefined. “Neighbor” is not defined by the characteristics of the neighbor “neighbor” is defined by your characteristics, by the condition of your heart, your mind, your spirit, your might, your transparency to the will of God.

We’re usually inclined to define neighbor by the characteristics of the person, something like “Neighbor” the person of Jewish descent who lives closest to you, not counting foreigners (see “stranger”) or people who have forfeited their right to “neighbor” status (see “exceptions,” which do include blasphemy, theft, murder – but do not include “jerky behavior by the person next door” which does not rise to the level of forfeiture of “neighbor” status.

When you define neighbor by external characteristics you stop thinking about human need and start thinking about human worthiness; you stop thinking about the love of God and start trying to discern who God loves.

Most sermons on this parable end up exhorting you to love God and love your neighbor but clearly, you already love God and neighbor or you wouldn’t be here. I mean, why show up to church unless you want to serve God in concrete expressions of love, and you want help and direction doing it.

You want to make a positive difference in life. You know there’s a lot of pain and suffering in the world and you want to help prevent, preempt, and heal it. You want to stop the oil spill, end world hunger, correct injustice, end slavery, comfort the sick, and help people live relationships that are healthy, harmonious, kind, just, and loving. That’s why we seek out and the church apprises you of opportunities to do all those things.

You want to make that difference by serving God. Without God, “doing good” ultimately devolves to looking out for number one, doing a job, or into the fragile enthusiasm of the moment. So we meet, as a congregation for mutual encouragement and feedback on what God wants and how best to provide it.

The problem is that being a “good person” is really vague and nobody’s very good at it. So we surround ourselves with other people to keep us honest, to keep us moving. We can do more as a group than as individuals so we get together with people who have similarly God inspired goals and are looking for particular places to help.

We want to get in touch, once again, with the wisdom that started it all. To be reminded of the calling we felt when we started, the ultimate purpose of life, to have the vision we share clarified, re-burnished. To once again see ourselves in light of eternity, in the grand march of God’s people, in the lineage of the prophets and saints, the people who really did make a difference by the grace of God.

Perhaps the ultimate answer to what you must do to have eternal life, full life, abundant life, in the truest sense of the term a good life is to get beyond yourself. After all, when confronted with a person in need, the first two people in this parable who encountered him asked, “What will happen to me if I stop?” But the third thought, “What will happen to him if I don’t?”