Don’t you wish the rest of the Bible focused on love as much as today’s Gospel lesson? You can read passage after passage, or just try listening to the readings on Sunday morning, and more often than not you wind up wondering, “Just what the bleep am I supposed to do with that?” So isn’t it a relief to hear a lesson that tells us, “All you’re supposed to do with that is love; love God with yourself; love your neighbor as yourself. Do that, and you won’t go wrong.”
Actually, a lot of people knew that. Jesus knew it. The lawyer knew it too. That’s why Jesus answered the lawyer’s question with, “You tell me. What does the law say we must do?”
We forget that Jesus was not the only teacher to make the whole Bible be about love and compassion, about letting others matter just as much as we matter. It was a popular teaching in his day. The rabbis of Jesus’ time loved to challenge each other to come up with their own versions. Once a non-Jew came to Rabbi Hillel and said “Teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” Hillel said: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to others, the rest is commentary; go now and study” (Tractate Shabbat, 31a) Some rabbis liked to quote the prophet Micah: “God has told you, O mortal, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8; Tractate Makkot, 24a)?
In fact the ancient rabbis, Jesus, Paul and other leaders of the early Church were so convinced that love was the meaning of the Bible that they didn’t hesitate to play fast and loose with passages that didn’t look loving to them. If a passage looked hateful to them, they said it wasn’t literally true. It must be an allegory or parable or some other figure of speech. The idea that literalism is the only Christian way to read the Bible is actually a pretty recent notion, and a sad one, because it opens the Bible to all sorts of hateful interpretations. Jesus and this lawyer knew better. The meaning of the Bible had better be love. If a passage doesn’t look like love, then make it look like love. They were both on the same page about that.
But the lawyer wasn’t satisfied, and he just couldn’t stop himself from asking another question: Just who is my neighbor? Just who am I supposed to love as much as I love myself? Just who is supposed to matter to me as much as I do? That’s where things get interesting, and if we pay enough attention, that’s where they get more than a little unsettling too.
Jesus once again answers a question with a question, only first he tells a story we all know and love. But he uses the story to get the lawyer, and us, to answer his question: Can we spot the neighbor in this story? If we can, what does that tell us about neighbors?
It is a story we all know and love, that is, as long as we don’t pay too much attention. Somebody like us gets beaten almost to death and left on a roadside. Two people like us, but who are in helping professions, refuse to help. Instead help comes from somebody we don’t even want to help us, somebody we’ve been conditioned to fear, to loathe, even to hate, somebody who’s also been conditioned to fear and hate us.
That’s how Samaritans and Jews felt about each other. When Jesus tells this story, he’s in Samaria. Samaritans have turned him away from their villages more than once, and that makes his followers mad enough to wish them all dead. Generations of conflict lie behind all this. The disgust and anger and fear are mutual.
Amy-Jill Levine, a Jewish New Testament scholar (yes, there are Jewish New Testament scholars) suggests this updated version: “The man in the ditch is an Israeli Jew; a rabbi and a Jewish member of the Israeli Knesset fail to help the wounded man, but a member of Hamas shows him compassion” [Amy-Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus (New York: HarperOne, 2006), p. 149].
Imagine yourself left beaten in a ditch. Imagine me or another minister going out of our way not to help you. Then imagine the sort of person you despise and fear going out of the way to take care of you. And don’t try to say there’s nobody you despise or fear. We’ve all got somebody on that list—maybe a suicide bomber, or maybe an immigrant you fear will take your job, or maybe some guy in a MAGA cap, or maybe an ICE agent hammering on your door this morning. And that person feels the same way about you. That’s the sort of person who helps you—somebody who triggers your disgust, or even fear, like a knee-jerk, no matter how much you work at loving everybody.
That’s your neighbor. Can you love this person as much as you love yourself? Can you see God’s image reflected in this person? Can you love God with your whole self in this person? Do that, and you won’t go wrong. You’ll live the life we are all meant to live. Such a little thing to ask—or maybe not.
For Jesus, to love God is to love your neighbor, but to love your neighbor is to love your enemy—the one who disgusts you, and whom you disgust in return. Frankly, it takes nothing short of a miracle to get me or you to love this neighbor.
But that’s the sort of miracle we get in this story. The Samaritan was conditioned not to feel compassion for this enemy of his, but something breaks through his conditioning, and he’s moved by compassion anyway. It’s not walking on water, but I’d still call it a miracle. We don’t ever hear about the wounded traveler’s reaction, but we do hear the lawyer’s reaction: while he still can’t bring himself to say “Samaritan,” he has to admit, against all his conditioning, that somebody he despises is his neighbor after all. Again, it’s not walking on water, but I’d still call it a miracle. And it’s the same miracle that happens when we let this story break through our conditioning.
Something calls to us when we see somebody in desperate need. Something calls to us again when we see somebody we despise hearing that call just as strongly as we do. What is that something that calls to us? Is it our common humanity? Sure, but this story invites us to see the very face of God in our common humanity.
God is the One we kill off as our enemy again and again, every time we loathe or hate somebody. But God is also the One who inexplicably shows up afterwards to embrace us again and again, until we begin to see that our enmity is futile. Jesus’ story of this neighborly enemy reflects that deeper story.
Listen to this version:
A man was going from Galilee to Jerusalem. When he got there he was beaten, crucified, and not just left for dead but actually killed. Those you’d expect to help ran away instead. And that would have been the end of the story, but then along came one who had known our rejection, our loathing, even longer than this man had. And that mysterious stranger raised him—and us, his murderers, with him—into a common life that defies our wildest imagination. That, our faith declares, is the ultimate miracle that moves us every time compassion breaks through our upbringing.
Something called the Samaritan beyond his deep-seated enmity, and then called a skeptical lawyer beyond his own deep-seated enmity toward Samaritans. Today it calls us to name our own deepest enmities and to move beyond them. It takes a miracle for that to happen, and it takes not just an “it” but a “who.” But that’s the miracle that happens every time we share bread and wine to celebrate the living embrace of the God whom we have killed.
Love God with yourself. Love your neighbor as yourself. And above all, count your enemy as your neighbor. Do that, and you won’t go wrong. See God do that now, here, and everything will come alive.