There is an old joke: A genie told a man, “I’ll give you three wishes. Whatever I do for you, however, I must do twice as much for your worst enemy.” Now the man thought about it, and about how horrible his worst enemy had been to him, and he finally decided on his three wishes. First, he wished for 1 billion dollars. He received a billion dollars, and his enemy received two billion. Then, he wished for a lavish mansion on a rugged coast. He received his mansion, but his enemy received one twice as large. And finally, he wished to be beaten half to death.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus tells a story about a man who was beaten half to death.
It’s a famous story that has become a part of our cultural vocabulary. In the very last episode of the the TV series Seinfeld, Jerry was arrested for breaking the “Good Samaritan” law.
It’s pretty obvious what Jesus was telling us. That’s the point of stories!
But let’s take a few minutes to go a little deeper. Maybe you’ll learn something that you can use to amaze and astound your friends the next time someone says the phrase, “Good Samaritan.”
Jesus is having a conversation with a lawyer. No lawyer jokes, please. This lawyer was an expert at the law, a scholar and not an attorney.
There were a multitude of laws in the scriptures, multiplied with a multitude of interpretations and a multitude of applications by rabbis over the ages. The Talmud, a compilation of these interpretations and applications, is several volumes long.
It all got very complicated. That’s why you needed lawyers.
Which of these laws is the most important? Love God. And love your neighbor.
Jesus didn’t make that up. It was current in Jewish thought. The lawyer knows it.
The scholar’s answer came from two sources:
Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Deuteronomy 6:4-5
You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Leviticus 19:18
Being a good lawyer, however, he wants to nail it down further. Who is my neighbor? We need legal precision.
The scholar correctly understood that the ONE secret of eternal life had TWO parts, but he misunderstood how to use them. He thought of them as a boundary markers: stay within the lines and you’ll be OK. He needed to know where the lines were so that he wouldn’t cross them.
For Jesus, however, loving God and loving one’s neighbor were not just the most important rules; they were the purpose of every rule and every activity.
So Jesus tells a story.
A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. Down is the operative word. It’s a 3000 foot drop in elevation in 17 miles. Jerusalem is in the mountains. Jericho is at the same level as the Dead Sea, several hundred feet below sea level.
It’s not only a physically demanding journey, it’s a dangerous journey. Highwaymen hide in the rocks and nooks and wait for unsuspecting and unprotected travelers.
The traveler is attacked, and is left half dead.
Just what is half dead? That’s not easy. It’s one word in Greek: hēmithanēs, halfdead. Almost dead. Not quite dead.
In The Princess Bride, Miracle Max says of the dead hero Wesley, “It just so happens that your friend here is mostly dead. There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead.”
In Monty Python’s Quest for the Holy Grail, the cart rolls through the town, with the crier shouting, “Bring out your dead. ” One fellow brings out his half dead father who complains, “I’m not dead yet.”
Halfdead. It’s one foot in the grave. It’s a slender thread connecting the person with life.
A priest comes by. A priest serves in the temple in Jerusalem, making the sacrifices and operating the religious institution that is at the heart of Jewish national life.
A Levite comes by. A Levite is a temple helper. He doesn’t offer the sacrifices, but he makes things happen.
And they see this halfdead fellow, and they pass by on the other side. Both of them.
Maybe they were busy. Maybe they were just too important to get their hands dirty. Maybe they thought the bandits were still nearby. Maybe it was even a trap. Maybe they thought this half-dead fellow would be all-dead soon (although Amy-Jill Levine says that the popular notion that there was an issue of ritual purity involved just isn’t true). Maybe they just didn’t want to get involved. Dealing with this fellow would cost them time and money.
And then a Samaritan passes by. The Samaritans had some pretty messed up, wrong-headed ideas about how to worship and serve God. The Jews and the Samaritans didn’t exactly get along. They had common ancestors, but they had long since begun to hate each other. One opinion in the Talmud – some lawyer’s opinion – was that a Jew was not even obligated to try to save the life of a Samaritan.
But this Samaritan gets his hands dirty and his clothes bloody as he bandages the victim’s wounds. And he puts the victim on his donkey. He walks. The victim rides. And he takes him to an inn and spends the night watching after him. And he gives the innkeeper 2 days wages – enough to keep him in the inn for quite some time – and he promises to pay even more.
Not only is the theologically suspect Samaritan the hero of the story; the properly religious priest and Levite are the villains. This would be shocking to Jesus’ audience. (It’s not quite the same, but think of Jesus making a Muslim the hero of a story today).
But wait a minute – isn’t the most important commandment to love God? Doesn’t loving God rightly have priority over the command to love one’s neighbor? The Samaritans didn’t love God properly! How could a Samaritan be the hero of this story?
Except in Jesus’ mind, apparently, these two halves of one commandment don’t conflict with each other.
Sometimes, we play one off against the other. Sorry neighbor, I have to do this thing for God. Sorry God, I have to do this thing for my neighbor.
Jesus had a strong dislike for those who failed to love their neighbors on the pretense of serving a higher good.
Matthew 5:23-24 says,
Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.
Mark 7:10-12 says,
For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban’ (that is, a gift devoted to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother.
Love God, and love your neighbor. It’s that simple and that complicated. Even with these two commandments, we sometimes try to be legalistic nit pickers. And sometimes we’re just very narrow in our application of them.
In the first church I served, one of the leading member’s pet phrases was, “Charity begins at home.” Maybe so, but it doesn’t end there. Jesus gives us a bigger vision of love that is extravagant and uncalculating.
Jesus loved us extravagantly. He got his hands dirty and his clothes bloody. He lifted us up and carried us to safety. He paid the price for our salvation.
In Jesus, the commandment to love God and the commandment to love our neighbor come together perfectly. For the debt we owe God, we pay at least partially to our neighbor.
We love others, not merely as we love ourselves, but as Jesus loved us.
The apostle Paul, as he sums up the Christian’s response to what God has done for us, says:
Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 13:8-10)