Just then a religion scholar stood up with a question to test Jesus. “Teacher, what do I need to do to get eternal life?”
He answered, “What’s written in God’s Law? How do you interpret it?”
He said, “That you love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and muscle and intelligence—and that you love your neighbor as well as you do yourself.”
Looking for a loophole, he asked, “And just how would you define ‘neighbor’?”
Jesus answered by telling a story. “There was once a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. On the way he was attacked by robbers. They took his clothes, beat him up, and went off leaving him half-dead. Luckily, a priest was on his way down the same road, but when he saw him he angled across to the other side. Then a Levite religious man showed up; he also avoided the injured man.
“A Samaritan traveling the road came on him. When he saw the man’s condition, his heart went out to him. He gave him first aid, disinfecting and bandaging his wounds. Then he lifted him onto his donkey, led him to an inn, and made him comfortable. In the morning he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take good care of him. If it costs any more, put it on my bill—I’ll pay you on my way back.’
“What do you think? Which of the three became a neighbor to the man attacked by robbers?”
“The one who treated him kindly,” the religion scholar responded.
Jesus said, “Go and do the same.”
– from The Message
Life’s full of rules. And there’s at least two kinds. There’s rules, and there’s rules.
There’s the rules that keep us straight. Don’t drink and drive. Pay your child support. Don’t lie when you sell your car. Don’t steal from widows and orphans and their pension plans with fancy Wall Street maneuvers. Pay your taxes, pay your fair share of taxes. Get your shot and wear your mask. Rules that keep us safe.
Then there’s the other rules, the rules that separate people by labeling us good or bad, in or out. Rules and laws about separate drinking fountains, rules about who can marry and who can’t, rules that deny some people the right to vote. These are the rules that don’t keep people safe, they’re rules keep people down.
I’m into rules, I’m a rule-follower, but there’s rules and there’s rules. I’m a lawyer, and we make the rules, so ouch…
Why don’t people like lawyers? Because lawyers talk down and tell us no, unless you have enough money, and then money talks, and the answer is, we can make that work…
So maybe this story from Jesus is the first great lawyer joke. (Didja hear the one about how Jesus schooled the lawyer?)
The lawyer asks about the rules, quotes the rule verbatim, nails it, love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself, and Jesus says, there you go.
Mind you, this isn’t a one-on-one, on-the-side conversation, people are listening. The lawyer and all the rule followers, and then there’s the crowd, average people some who’ve been on the wrong end of a rule.
The lawyer, since he’s an expert, he can’t stop himself. In court we call this mistake asking one question too many. He’s looking for loopholes, maybe he wants to get off on an eternal-life technicality. Anyway he asks for an explanation, expecting a long-winded, carefully constructed, footnoted, legal dissertation on where the line is, just exactly who is a neighbor and who isn’t.
And Jesus tells a story, darn it.
Stories have heroes and villains. You know this story. The hurt man, and three people who come up on him on the road.
And there’s a twist. The villains are the rule-followers! Now, they have legit reasons for not stopping, safety and purity standards, and the rules say you can’t get in trouble if you just pass on by. But it’s a rule that rules out helping the hurt and hurting.
But then there’s the one who does the right thing, the hero, and he’s a Samaritan.
Let’s talk about Samaria.
I’ll just remind us about Samaria. It’s just a name to us from a real long time ago in a place we’ve never been. We’ve gotten used to talking about good Samaritans, and there’s nothing shocking about that name and place any more, at least to us. But if I were a good Jew way back when, a good Jew who was kin to Jesus, who was also a good Jew, if you and I were good Jews back then, we wouldn’t have anything to do with Samaritans and Samaria. If I even said the name “Samaria”, I’d spit on the ground to spit the bad taste out of my mouth.
Even though I’d never been to Samaria. I’d never been there, since it was sinful and contaminating just to set foot across the border into that land. Because they were Palestinians to me as an Israeli, and we had despised those people for generations. Even though I’d never admit to speaking to a Samaritan, since a word- or God forbid, a handshake- would leave me ritually polluted. Because to Jews like Jesus, the Samaritans were Untouchables.
In that system, there’s no such thing as a Good Samaritan. That’s an oxymoron: the only good Samaritan is a… you get the idea.
Here’s a thought. Imagine this, maybe a Samaritan was there, and he heard Jesus tell the story. Maybe a Samaritan was in the crowd, listening in. If a Samaritan was there, he was where he didn’t belong, and he knew it.
People gave him dirty looks. They locked their car doors when they saw him coming. Taxis wouldn’t stop for him. They wouldn’t serve him at restaurants. They wouldn’t sell him a house in their redlined neighborhoods. They pulled their kids close to them and away from him when he walked by.
So he’s as shocked as anybody to find that the hero of the story is a Samaritan. But just like there’s rules and there’s rules, there’s shock, and there’s shock and awe. Jesus’ punchline is good news for Samaritans, or for you if you ever dated a Samaritan, or your uncle is a Samaritan, or your friend is a Samaritan,
And you know better, rules or no rules, that the rule requiring you to hate Samaritans isn’t all that, it’s a lie.
Now imagine this, visualize this. Can’t you just see Jesus, telling the story to the lawyer, but looking past him and smiling at the Samaritan, to let him in on the joke?
Jesus’ point is that God’s rules aren’t about rules and lines that separate people. Faith isn’t what you believe about others, it’s what you believe in, it’s what you do.
In my off hours, I spread a little good news via The Way of Mission. It’s a website, you can look it up, full of scripture, songs, videos, and stories of grace, mission, hope, and choice. Not just to believe about, but to believe in, to follow Jesus to extend grace and hope to a hurting world full of people who’ve been hurt by the world. Making a choice not to believe about, but to believe in, to do, to be on mission with Jesus across the lines in the Dream of God.
Back to this lawyer joke, at the end, notice that the lawyer acknowledges the hero, he talks out of the side of his mouth about “the one” who did the right thing, but he still can’t bring himself to say the name Samaritan.
He can’t spit the name out, but he clearly got the punchline. He got Jesus’ definition of neighbor anyway.
A neighbor is one who does the will of God, no matter who they are to you and your rules, and so a rule that segregates God’s people is meaningless. What’s meaningful is love and generosity and risk and grace. There’s no rule against that.
There’s rules, and there’s rules. Let’s keep the rules that keep us all safe, and ignore the rules that keep us apart.
As Jesus says, you go do the same. Amen.
*Chris Sanders preached this sermon at Ridgewood Baptist Church, Louisville, Kentucky, on August 22, 2021.