I mentioned in the July Messenger that as I look across the months remaining until my retirement, I’ve naturally started reminiscing a little about my 28 years in ministry. I was thinking the other day about a Bible study I once led and one of its participants. I’ll call her Maggie. Maggie was a very simple person, and you always got the feeling life was coming at her pretty fast, but she liked to sit with us and listen, even when she didn’t really follow all the ideas.
In the method we used, the final question every week was “what is God calling you to do in response to what we have read?” Depending on the passage, people would say things like “buy canned goods to give to the food pantry” or “pray about forgiving the co-worker who hurt me.” But every week, as regular as clockwork, Maggie was the first to respond. She would inevitably furrow her brow in thought, and then, with a hint of nervousness, as if she might be wrong, week after week give the identical answer: “Help people?”
I had to smile, but over the years I came to treasure Maggie’s weekly reminder for us to help people. And when our Gospel today is the story of the Jewish man who was left for dead by robbers and the Samaritan who assumed all the burden of his care, I expect the majority of sermons we’ve heard on this passage have given essentially the Maggie Interpretation of what it means: Help people. A good answer. Or sometimes, a little more specifically, help people, even those who are different from us. Also a very good answer.
It strikes me, though, that even though that is part of what Jesus wants to say here, if it were all he wanted to say, the whole passage would probably be rather different. The lawyer approaches Jesus, Luke tells us, to test him. He knows that irreligious people, people who do not fully keep the law, even Gentiles, are flocking to Jesus. He has heard rumors that Jesus may have challenged some customs that are based on Scripture. So, he thinks, it’s time to see just how dangerous this teacher is.
And here is his test case question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He’s likely hoping for Jesus to say something that directly contradicts the Bible. But Jesus’ reply is, as usual, effortlessly dazzling. “You’re the lawyer, you tell me; what does the Bible say?” The lawyer can’t very well recite the entire Torah, so he reels off one of the commonly accepted Jewish summaries of it, one Jesus himself quotes elsewhere in the Gospels. “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."
“OK. Do that,” says Jesus, “and you will live." Just obey those two commandments fully, and God’s life, his own nature, will be yours. It’s a brilliant move, because it cuts right to the heart of what the problem was in Jesus’ day and still is in ours: reducing the shocking vision of radiant wholeness God generously offers us down to something more manageable, to some kind of finite, controllable duty we can be expected to adhere to.
For most people Jesus interacted with, their technique of reduction was to turn the vision God had given them into a list of detailed rules. If they followed all these rules diligently, they could see themselves as maintaining acceptability before God. Contemporary people sometimes do that kind of thing as well, but I think more of us now reduce God’s vision of wholeness down to a manageable size by heading in the opposite direction, shrinking it into highly generic platitudes on which nobody could ever evaluate you: be a good person, help people, be true to yourself. But the real vision God offers is so much better than any reductionist answer.
The summary Jesus draws out of the lawyer challenges both our generic platitudes, and his specific rule keeping, with a vision that is so deep and beautiful and uncompromising it takes your breath away. “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." Do that, says Jesus. Do that?! It sounds wonderful, but has anybody other than him ever done it even once? Does any of us love God authentically, with every fiber of our being, every minute of every day, bringing all our intellect and all our heart into that love? Does any of us meet the needs of our neighbor, every time, with every bit as much pleasure and foresight and care and thoroughness as we meet our own needs? One of us? Ever? If you say yes, I won’t believe you.
It’s an impossibly high standard, but that’s the whole point. Jesus is trying to show, by comparison, the ridiculousness of our cramped, boring little reductions of what God sets forth into something we can handle. Trying to show that that the only way we can fully live is to admit we alone can’t fully live, and to accept help from the outside, to accept God’s life as a gift that bridges that gap for us.
That’s what Jesus is trying to help the lawyer see with his “Do this and you will live” answer, but it doesn’t work; it’s not enough yet to put him off his self-justification project. The man thinks, still, that there must be some way to reduce this glorious vision down to an ordinary rule he himself can manage without God’s help from the outside. So he decides to debate the nature of the obligation conferred by the term “neighbor.” “Who precisely counts?” And in response, Jesus tells one of the most famous stories in the Bible. I would love to know what story he would have told if the lawyer had asked about a way of reducing the other half of the commandment, the loving God part, to something manageable. I’m sure that story would have been equally great. But what we have is this neighbor story, and, again assuming that you’ve heard many sermons pointing out that the story recommends helping people, which it does, I’m not going to focus on that.
If Jesus wanted only to convey that we should help the less fortunate, especially those different from us, the Samaritan would have been the one who was robbed and beaten and left for dead, and the Jew would have come along and helped him. The Jew is the obvious person for a Jewish lawyer to identify with and emulate, if emulation is the main point; a hated Samaritan is the obvious less fortunate stock-character outcast whom a well-meaning, religious Jew should help. But that’s not the setup. In Jesus’ setup, the Jew, the fortunate one who has the law, who normally would be the helper, is the guy in the gutter, penniless, useless, unable to do anything to improve his situation. The only way he can live is to accept help from outside. That’s how Jesus wants the lawyer to see himself: he’s not the noblesse oblige privileged person looking for someone he can help, but someone who desperately needs a loving neighbor to save him.
So Jesus paints his picture: the Samaritan comes near to this impotent wounded human; with deep compassion he reaches out to lift him up. The Samaritan puts him on the donkey he himself was riding and leads him down the Jerusalem road; he gives him shelter and stays with him through the night, paying for everything out of his own pocket since, however self-sufficient the man thought he was and whatever status he thought he had, there’s no way now to avoid admitting that he has no way to buy his own life back. In an astonishing act of grace the Samaritan even leaves an extra pile of money, and promises to return and keep on paying and paying and paying, no matter how deep the depths of this man’s inadequacy turn out to be, until he is fully whole.
You rarely hear this now, but is it really any wonder that for centuries, the standard interpretation of this parable was that the Samaritan is meant to be Jesus himself? That’s what the church fathers thought it meant. When God in the flesh came to save us, he journeyed down our road and found us lying in the ditch, weak and broken and unable to go on -- trying so hard to hide that embarrassing fact from ourselves and everyone else, trying so hard to create a reductionist scheme that we can agree to pretend is all there is to wholeness, so we can escape the shattering beauty of God’s true wholeness.
Jesus gave everything for us, laying out riches superabundantly above what could ever be needed, paying a debt we could never pay ourselves so that we could live. Live now, and live forever. Is it any wonder. Is it any wonder he tells the story that way? Is it any wonder he first makes sure to root it in a command so sweepingly perfect that it leaves us flat, knowing full well we can never fulfill it? He doesn’t just want the lawyer to follow different rules or more rules or fewer rules. He wants him to see that shattering beauty and say “Jesus, help me.”
Christian neighboring works far better when “Jesus, help me” comes before “Help people.” Yes. Of course we’re supposed to help people. But to help people in Christ, we first have to let Christ help us. That’s what gives us the humility, and the open hearts, and the recognition of our own weakness, that can keep us from noblesse oblige. Only when we can admit that we too live by unconditional mercy, will we be truly free to extend mercy without conditions to others. When that has happened for us, that rescue, that free grace, then we are truly able, as Jesus finally gets around to saying, in the very last verse of the story, to go and do likewise.