{The following was presented as a dialogue sermon by Rev. Laurie (“L”) and Rev. Rodger (“R”). The “shift in direction” in the middle of the sermon was suggested by Arthur McGill in his book Suffering.}

L: Our New Testament lesson . . .

R: Excuse me! Do I understand correctly, that you’re planning to tell us that old Good Samaritan story again this morning? Because my impression of these folks, by now, is that they’re pretty good Christians—they go to church, they know their Bibles. So that’s one story they’ve already heard, and know all about!

L: Well, yes . . . and no! We’re going to tell the Good Samaritan story—you’re going to help me—and while most of you have heard the story before, I think you’ll find that there is still something new to be learned from it when going over it again. As is generally true with the Bible, you can read the same passage again and again, and discover something brand new about it. Keeping that in mind, we’ll take a look at Jesus’ famous Good Samaritan story. In fact, I encourage you to listen for something you have never heard before, in this story. Rodger, you start, OK? It’s in Luke, chapter 10.

R: “Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’

L: Jesus said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’

R: He answered, ‘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.’

L: And Jesus said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

R: But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’

L: Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So, likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

R: But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. The he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’

L: Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’

R: The lawyer said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’

L: Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’”

R: While we have heard the story before, it doesn’t hurt any of us to review its basic teachings. First we look at the setting, the circumstances which brought about its telling. A lawyer comes to Jesus, and wants to know, in a nutshell, what Jesus thinks is most important for someone who is interested in pleasing God and inheriting eternal life. The answer Jesus affirms begins here, as his answers do elsewhere in the gospels, by quoting a very special Old Testament commandment: “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.” This commandment is one version of the Shema, a verse in Deuteronomy, chapter 6, which the pious Jews of Jesus’ time recited every day. It is one of the central commandments for those who would be people of God.

L: The four qualities listed in the verse—heart, soul, strength, and mind—were meant to sum up the totality of a person, to include everything he or she is. “Heart” stands for one’s emotional reactions, “soul” for vitality and consciousness, “strength” for physical strength and the will to live, “mind” for one’s intelligent and planning faculties. Basically, everything, every part of us, is to be devoted to loving God. That begins the central commandment of what it means to be a person of God.

R: But, that is not all there is: Jesus’ commandment continues: “and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This is also a quote from the Old Testament, this time from the book of Leviticus, in chapter 19: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

L: The Jewish scholars of Jesus’ day also put a lot of effort into analyzing exactly what this commandment meant, although that was not quite as much a part of their daily ritual as the Shema was. Much of their analysis went into the question: What is meant by the word “neighbor?” In that verse, “neighbor” seems to mean one’s fellow Israelites, or fellow believer, because it specifies not holding a grudge against one of “your people.” Later in Leviticus, however, the rabbis found that definition extended to include a non-Israelite or non-believer residing in the territory of Israel, in other words—a sojourner.

But that was about the limit of who “neighbor” was: one’s fellow believers, or any of their guests. Outsiders were not considered “neighbors;” Gentiles, that is, all non-Jews, were certainly not considered neighbors. Here is one rabbi’s commentary on the subject: “The Gentiles, and those that are keepers of sheep amongst the Israelites, and the like, we are not to contrive their death. But if they be in any danger of death, we are not bound to deliver them—for example, if any of them fall into the sea you shall not need to take them out. For such a one is not they neighbor.” –Well, that’s fairly clear, wouldn’t you say? Another Jewish group, the Essenes, said “love all the children of light, but hate all the children of darkness”—that is, unbelievers. That comment also shows that there were definite limits placed on who counted as neighbor.

R: That question, of course, is the one which also concerns the lawyer, when he hears Jesus’ first response. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know I’m supposed to love God with my whole being and my neighbor as myself. But who is . . . my ‘neighbor’?”

L: Obviously, the lawyer wants to know Jesus’ definition, his limits on who counts as neighbor and who doesn’t. Does Jesus agree with the rabbis? Is his definition the good old Old Testament one, as they interpreted it, one’s fellow believers, and any guests in the land?

R: Jesus answered, as he so often did, with a parable: A man on a journey fell into the hands of robbers who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest, and later a Levite, came upon him but passed by on the other side of the road. Priests were those who conducted the religious rituals at the Temple—made the sacrifices, led the prayers, represented the people before God. Levites were those entrusted with what were considered the more minor services related to the Temple rituals—cleaning the brass and silver, playing the instruments in the background, lighting the candles, ringing the bell.

Both, then, were representatives of the Temple, representatives of religion. And both were accorded, due to their professions, a privileged status in society. They were respected, the upper class, the elite professionals, sort of above the common people. They would not be expected to pay attention to a lowly anonymous victim of robbers, any more than the president of the country club would be expected to sit down on the street corner and chat with a homeless panhandler. It was partly a class thing: a person who stopped to help would have to ignore the expected behaviour based on social customs; they would have to risk looking foolish, or being gossiped about.

L: And there were other reasons they would be expected to keep going, too. The priest and Levite would have been very aware of certain religious regulations which would come into play as well. It’s no accident that Jesus described the man as “half dead.” By looking at him from a distance, one would not be able to tell if he was dead or alive. And if they approached, and looked closely, and he turned out to be dead, they would, by Jewish law, now be “unclean” for several days, because any association with a dead body made a person unclean, according to the law—just as if one had committed a sin. Unclean people could not enter the Temple for several days, until their “uncleanness” faded. As strange as that may sound to us, it was their God-given law. Obviously, then, the priest and Levite risked being “dirty” and not even being able to do their jobs, if they stopped and helped. A person who stopped to minister aid would have to ignore the expected behavior based on religious regulations; they would have to risk being symbolically outside the church for a while.

R: The Samaritan, of course, risked all this. His people too would look down upon him if he crossed class lines to help a lowly Jew. For Jews and Samaritans disliked each other, and considered each other to be about the lowest form of human life. He too would become religiously unclean if he came close to a dead body, for the Samaritans also followed the laws of the first five books of the Bible.

And the Samaritan had even more reasons to stay away: The hostility between Jews and Samaritans went back several centuries, so far that it was embedded in in the cultures. It had become racism. Samaritans considered all Jews lowly and despised, and vice versa.

L: The Samaritan would also have to ignore all the history he had been taught, about how the Jews were really pagans, since they did not worship at the only place Samaritans believed one could legitimately worship God. He would have to ignore the teachings about how the Jews weren’t really part of God’s people at all, since they had been shipped off to exile and, in Samaritan eyes, disinherited.

And too, he would have to ignore all the stereotypes one learns when one is taught that someone is an enemy. He would have to transcend all the hateful lessons he learned about Jews in general, in order to see one individual in need, and then help him.

R: And he did. He overlooked class distinctions, religious regulations, racism, history, and stereotypes, and saw only a person in need, a person he treated with love, a person he treated . . . as a neighbor.

L: By describing a relationship between a Samaritan and a near-death Jew, Jesus has greatly  extended the definition of “neighbor” far beyond the old one of one’s fellow believer or fellow townsperson or honored guest. “Neighbor” has amazingly become anyone in need, even one regarded as enemy, even one whose assistance requires breaking the rules.

R: And that’s the Good Samaritan story. Jesus, in the words of Arthur McGill, “has tried to show us how we should go about loving our neighbor. He has tried to explain what it means in practice for us to be Christians and to serve others. He has tried to teach us how to be a neighbor to other people. {After all}, after presenting the Samaritan to us, Jesus does say, “Go and do likewise.”

L: “But that is not the point of the story.”

R: Yes, that is . . . what do you mean that is not the point of the story?

L: Well, that’s certainly one interpretation, and a very good one, but there’s more to it than that.

R: Come again?

L: While Jesus does say “Go and do likewise,” act like the Samaritan did, he has also tried to teach us something else.

R: {sarcastic} Please explain. This should be good!

L: What was the question with which the story started?

R: “Who is my neighbor?”

L: And what was the question with which the story ended?

R: “Which of the three was the neighbor?”

L: And what was the answer to the two questions?

R: “The one who showed mercy. The Samaritan.”

L: Not the man on the side of the road? The one who needed help?

R: Right. Not the man on the side of the road, the one who needed . . .

L: That’s right! Not the man on the side of the road! When Jesus asks, “Which one is the neighbor?” the answer is not the one who needed care, the one in need. Instead, the neighbor in the story is not the person who needs to be taken care of, like the sermons and lessons always say, but the person who takes care, the caregiver, the Samaritan. The answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” is the one who takes care of others!

R: So when we ask the question, “Who is my neighbor?” the answer for us isn’t just the person by the side of the road, the person who needs our help, either, is it?

L: The answer is also the person who takes care of us, the helper, the Samaritan, no matter what our opinion of them has been to this point. The neighbor . . . is the person who takes care of us. Get it?

R: Well, this could be an even harder lesson for Jesus’ listeners to accept then, couldn’t it? It’s one thing to be the magnanimous hero/rescuer, swooping down to help a poor victim. It would have been much harder, for Jesus’ Jewish listeners, to think of the hated Samaritan as the hero, and to envision having to be helped by him, putting oneself into his hands.

L: But that’s the other thing the story asks us to do: put yourself not in the place of the hero/rescuer, but in the place of the person on the side of the road. You see, it is now you who are helpless; you can’t do anything for yourself. You are dying. And now you ask, “Who is my neighbor?” The person who approaches you is the last one on earth you want it to be, the last one on earth you want to touch you or in which to be beholden. You have to accept their help.

R: One application of this story is that Jesus is the Good Samaritan. We are the near-dead people by the road, far from eternal life, and he comes in a form we’d never expect—a baby, a poor carpenter, a challenger of authority—and we, to live, must accept that help. This parable, like many others, including the Prodigal Son, becomes a parable of God’s love. And it points out how much trouble we have, sometimes, accepting that love.

L: A second application is, as we have said, that our neighbors are those who care for us, not just those we stoop down to help. It can be much more comfortable giving help, being the strong, generous one, dishing out assistance and feeling good about it, than having to accept the assistance, as the weak person who feels like we’ll owe them something in return, especially to someone we’ve never liked.

Imagine, if you will, being the person receiving food at the food pantry or soup kitchen rather than helping there; or receiving money from people who know you’re desperate; or receiving a ride to church when you’ve always been so independent and driven yourself. Imagine giving up the idea that you’re strong and independent and on-your-own-two-feet and never needing anyone else. Jesus also tried to teach us how to be that person in the parable, how to perceive those who give us help, whoever they are, as beloved neighbors. Our neighbors are those who pray for us, give us kind advice, help us materially in times of crisis. To be a person of God, one is to love God and love one’s neighbor, including the neighbor who helps us. That is also what the story is all about.

R: In a movie called “The Doctor,” William Hurt plays Jack McKee, a heart surgeon who, in one of the opening scenes, lectures interns on how doctors must not get too close to their patients, must not develop feelings for them, or care too much about their feelings, lest it “interfere” with their efficient surgery. Jack McKee is a successful surgeon, in terms of people fixed, money made, and having a good time doing it. He is strong, he is independent, he can do what he wants. He is the one who fixes others.

L: But Jack McKee learns that he has a cancerous tumor on his voice box, one day, and suddenly he is “Jack McKee, patient,” as well as doctor. He suddenly needs other people; a surgeon he’s always made fun of for caring too much; the wife he’s always kept at arm’s length, not close enough to make him feel vulnerable. And, for the first time, a patient, now a fellow-patient, becomes a friend, a friend he can’t do without. Jack struggles, and resists, and hurts . . . and finally accepts these people as his neighbors.

R: And he discovers that a world where one is strong and independent and needs no one is not only impossible—we all reach the point someday where we need others, and we need God;

L: Jack also finds that that world is good. It is good to love those in need as neighbors; it is good to love those who care for us as neighbors. To love them as ourselves.

R: To love them as ourselves.

L&R: Amen.

R: Let us pray: God, sometimes we are a stubbornly independent people, not wanting to admit that we could benefit from another’s help. Lead us to be just as open about receiving assistance, and appreciating it, as extending it. Lead us to welcome love extended in both directions Amen.