Sunday’s gospel (Luke 10:25-37) occurs immediately after the seventy disciples had returned from being sent out to the towns where Jesus was planning to go (last week’s gospel). We assume that some of the disciples are within earshot of this morning’s exchange when an expert in the law came to test Jesus by asking, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
While the story of the Good Samaritan draws most of our attention, and rightly so, Jesus’ gentle way of teaching with questions and stories…not theological or ethical lectures, is, itself, profound. It is Jesus’ manner of dealing with the expert that grabbed my attention.
I imagine that Jesus paused for a moment and looked into the man’s eyes then answered with a question of his own. What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
He answered, “‘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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
While Luke tells us that the expert in the law came to test Jesus, Jesus did not dismiss the question as insincere, but used it as a teaching moment. He tapped into the man’s expertise in the law as the basis for his own question, What is written in the Law?
When the man answered, Jesus credited him with a correct response.
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus might have replied, “everyone” or “anyone you encounter”. Instead he told a story and ended it with another question.
“A man was going … to Jericho when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him… beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. When a priest who happened to be going down the same road saw the man, he passed by on the other side. A Levite also passed by on the other side when he saw him. But when a Samaritan… saw him, he took pity on him. He … bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he …brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
Samaritans lived in the region between Jerusalem in the south and the Galilee in the north. They developed as a people after Assyria captured the northern kingdom of Israel in 721 B.C. Some Jews intermarried with the Assyrians. They mixed Hebrew and Gentile practices. The Samaritans had their own unique copy of the first five books of scripture as well as their own unique system of worship.
By the time of Jesus the Jews and the Samaritans did not deal with one another and were frequently at odds. In John’s gospel, when Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well she said, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.) (John 4:9)
Broadly speaking, Jews regarded Samaritans negatively, so Jesus’ choice of a Samaritan as the hero of his story would have been ear-catching.
Aside from the expert in the law, any of Jesus’ disciples who may have overheard the story would have been intrigued. Their travels may have taken them to Samaritan towns since they would have been on the route to Jerusalem. They may have been welcomed or rejected, but even if they were welcomed they had probably gone with some apprehension. So, in a sense, Jesus was speaking to them too.
Then Jesus asked, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
In other gospel passages Jesus had called challengers vipers (Matt 3:7) hypocrites (Matt 23:13) or whitewashed tombs (Matt 23:27). He must have discerned an element of sincerity in the question from the expert in the law, even if it was tangled up with a degree of self-importance. Rather than reject him, Jesus capitalized on the sincere part in the man’s heart.
Jesus tapped into the expert’s own knowledge and gave him a new frame of reference…and a story worth repeating. Jesus didn’t mock or embarrass him in front of his disciples, instead he gave him something he could use in his own discussions of the Law. In doing so, Jesus may have made him a messenger-carrier.
Jesus’ parable about the Good Samaritan was a story of loving your neighbour, but the way he treated the expert in the law was an act of love.
I wonder if the expert reflected on a version of Psalm 51:7 later, as he recalled the exchange with Jesus: you look for truth deep within me and make me understand wisdom secretly.