Today’s gospel lesson is one of the most beloved of Jesus’ teachings. I would guess that for us here today, this is not the first time we have heard it. The “Good Samaritan” is a well-known idiom in the English language and most people understand it for its meaning even if they do not understand its reference to this particular passage from Luke.
So for those of us who know this text, how do we listen to it today and how do we gain from it, when its meaning is so well known?
The lawyer in this gospel was also one who knew his scripture well. The passage began by him asking Jesus, “What must I do to achieve eternal life?” As was Jesus’ style, Jesus replied by asking a question of the man, “What is written in the law?” The lawyer answered quickly, drawing both on Deuteronomy and Leviticus, “Love the Lord your God with all heart, and all your soul, all your strength and all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself”. He knew the correct words to say but then by asking Jesus his next question, “Who is my neighbor?” he demonstrated that he really did not have a complete understanding of the words he had memorized.
So even as well-known as this passage may be for us, we need to hear these stories again and again. As a favorite collect says, we need to hear them, to read, mark and inwardly digest them because their message taken as a whole is what living a Christian life is all about.
My question then this morning is for you to reflect on what being a neighbor means to you. Specifically think about who has been a neighbor to you? What person or persons have taught you how to act as neighbor? Where have you seen a Good Samaritan in your midst? How do you put yourself into this morning’s gospel?
I’ll begin with a brief sketch of some biblical background before diving into the Gospel for today. Across the Bible, the movement of the plot is almost always from activity to rest, from work to sabbath, from journey to destination, from exile to home. In Genesis, God creates the world for six days and then rests on the seventh. Abraham is called away from his ancestral lands to journey as a stranger on his way to the land that God promises to his and his descendants. And a once wayward Israel, taken away captive to Babylon, returns to the Lord in repentance, and in so doing is allowed to return to Jerusalem, to return to home. In Scripture, labor or effort or movement is never the end goal in and of itself. It is always a means to the end, which is ultimately the eternal rest of the vision of God.
And so today, just a little further down into Luke 10 where we get our Gospel lesson this morning, we find this recurring theme again. Martha is distracted by her many tasks and frustrated with her sister Mary, who instead “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.”
Martha asks Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me. But the Lord answer her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
From this brief exchange, Christian thinkers from across the centuries have found deep metaphors for the relationship between the active life and the contemplative life, so-called, the life of Martha and the life of Mary, respectively. And just as Jesus suggests, the contemplative life, exemplified by Mary’s posture of relaxed attention, is the better part. Jesus’ teaching here sits upon this foundational theme in the whole of Scripture that I’ve set out so far: we are taught here to move from many things to the one thing, from distraction to undivided contemplation of God, just as God himself moves from work to rest in creation; Abraham, from wandering to promised land; and Israel, from exile back to the Holy City of Jerusalem.