Most people in our culture, even if they don’t identify as Christian, have at least a passing familiarity with this passage from Luke 10:30-37. When asked what the story is fundamentally about, Christians and non-Christians alike will almost always say it’s about how we should treat one another.
But if a nice little moral about being kind to one another were Jesus' only purpose in telling this tale, the story itself would be totally redundant. Just a few verses before it, the lawyer to whom Jesus addresses the parable (i.e. the antagonist in Luke’s narrative), has already stated how one should treat another person. Pretty much everyone in the Jewish world already agreed that that was plain for anyone to see in the Hebrew Bible, “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." And Jesus thought no differently than anyone else on that point. So he gives the lawyer a proverbial pat on the head and a metaphorical cookie for answering correctly, and that should be that.
Anyone who has ever led a Bible study or preached a sermon knows that if you want to keep people happy and sociable, ask them the softball question, “How should you treat another person?” But if you really want to see them squirm in their seats, ask, “Who counts as a person?”
Or rather, who doesn’t count as a neighbor worthy of your care and concern? We all know how to treat the people inside our circle of obligation. The question is, Who stands outside that circle? Is it the person from another race? Another class? Another nationality? Another religion? Another sexual orientation? All of us already teach even our three year olds how they should treat other people. You don’t need clever parables for that. The good Christian (white) families who turned a blind eye toward the banking practice called “redlining” in the 60s and 70s all probably would have agreed that we are called to love our neighbors. What they weren’t so sure about is who should get to be our neighbors.
“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers…” the story begins. The anonymity of all the main characters is important. They are identified by only the vaguest of class and social distinctions: a traveler (most definitely a Jew, given the geography of his pilgrimage), some thieves, a priest (the highest religious status among Jews), a Levite (a second tier religious leader), a Samaritan (a person expected to be a rival rather than a helper toward a Jew), and an innkeeper. By not over-characterizing the actors in the story Jesus invites the lawyer to put himself in one of their places.
He doesn’t see the trap coming. Do any of us?
We would expect the lawyer to put himself in the place of either the priest or the Levite, good upstanding Jews in an almost obsessive pursuit of eternal life, just like himself. But this lawyer is sharper than that. He thinks to himself, “Aha, Jesus, you're inviting me to side with the Samaritan. Alright. I’m not afraid to go there, no problem. I’m an enlightened thinker after all, not a racist Samaritanophobe. In my psych classes in college, we used to do these kinds of exercises all the time, ‘perspective taking,’ I believe it was called. And naturally, I agree with you a hundred and ten percent. Deplorable, really, what those banks did to the Samaritans.” You can almost see him smirking on the inside, proud of himself for anticipating the twist and being two steps ahead of Jesus.
But Jesus has another card up his sleeve. He interrupts the lawyer’s self-congratulations with one last simple question: “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
Did you catch what he just did? Jesus has put the lawyer in the place of neither the priest, nor the Levite, nor the Samaritan—the three healthy and well-resourced individuals with the choice to help the poor man. The lawyer, in Jesus’ eyes, is like the half-dead man on the side of the road.
Here, this whole time, he has fully taken for granted that he himself stands inside the “us and them” circle with Jesus. Being a thoughtful and self-aware chap, he wants to justify himself, “Surely, I’m no racist. Who should we bring into the circle with us, Jesus? You want to include the Samaritans? No problem. I can go along with that.”
But with the subtlest of tweaks in grammar, Jesus has shifted the tectonic plates beneath this lawyer’s “us and them” world. The lawyer should not be asking, “Who can I bring into my ‘us and them’ circle?” He should be asking, “Will Jesus include me in theirs?”
As a white, anglo-saxon, protestant, North American, heterosexual male, I have to think this story kind of leaves me lying in a ditch somewhere with the lawyer. My question to the rest of the world cannot any longer be, Are you my neighbor? It has to be, Will you still have me as yours?
Peace and Cheers,
Jared Witt is a pastor in the ELCA and, along with Aaron Schmalzle, is a Founding Director of Castle Church Brewing Community and Castle Church Faith Community.