When I was a child, on the shelf next to my bed, I had a well-thumbed book with the title "Tell Me Why?" It was a thick book, the thickest I owned. Its pages were full of colorful illustrations and hundreds of short answers to the questions that children ask. "What are freckles?" "Why does soap clean?" "How do spiders spin their webs?" "What is quicksand?" At night, with only a flashlight for illumination, I would read through portions of the book. Most of the time I was not searching for an answer to a question that was puzzling me. I had never thought to ask, "What is quicksand?" But since it was a question that a child somewhere had asked, I was curious. Perhaps someday I would need to know the answer. Perhaps a situation would arise in which it would be crucial for me to know all about quicksand.
The Gospel of Luke is chock-full of questions that curious people put to Jesus of Nazareth. "Who can be saved?" "Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?" "By what authority are you doing these things?" Like the "Tell Me Why?" book, I suspect that Luke scribbled down the most urgent things asked of Jesus, questions and answers that the author thought might someday down the line save a reader's life. Today's story-the parable we know as the Good Samaritan-records one of the most famous of these inquiries.
The passage begins when a lawyer stands to test Jesus. A test? Hmmm. Why does Luke tell us that the attorney's question is a test? Well, perhaps the Gospel writer wants us to see the lawyer's question as a riddle-a brainteaser. It could be that this attorney is trying to embarrass Jesus by asking him an unanswerable question. On the other hand, maybe the lawyer is quizzing Jesus to test whether this rabbi is the "real deal." Does the Galilean, in fact, have the deep wisdom that the crowds say he has? Whatever his underlying motivation, Luke has us picture the attorney standing to face Jesus with an arched eyebrow. "Excuse me, Rabbi, I have been studying for the bar exam here in the state of Galilee, and when I get to the section on wills and bequests, there is one question that stumps me every time. What must I do to inherit eternal life?
It's a big question. To many people of faith, it's the most important question of all. What do I have to do to get on God's good list? What things must I accomplish to merit a hand-inscribed invitation to heaven? What must I do to inherit eternal life? It's such a fundamental question that you'd expect a rabbi to have a pat answer at the ready-especially when that rabbi was rumored by some in the crowds to be the messiah. But instead of a well-honed response that ticks down the requirements for heaven-instead of handing the attorney a tract that outlines the 12 easy steps to inheriting eternal life-Jesus turns his gaze on the lawyer and puts two questions of his own to the inquisitive fellow: "What is written in the law? What do you read there?" Immediately, the encounter changes. Now, the lawyer is on the spot. Suddenly, he's the one being tested. The answer to your question, Jesus suggests, is in the Bible. Surely you've been studying the Torah for your classes. What do you find when you read it? At this abrupt turn in the conversation, I imagine the attorney pausing, mentally rifling through all the tests that he has committed to heart. Perhaps he flashes back to all those nights when he smuggled scrolls of the law under his blankets to read by flashlight. If so, his study has paid off. For the lawyer swiftly offers a response that welds together two important themes in the law of Moses. Love God and love your neighbor. "Good answer!" says Jesus. 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. You have mastered your Sunday school lessons. You get an A. Love in this way, says Jesus, and you shall live.
This could easily be the end of the story. The lawyer answers well, and Jesus sends him forth to live a life devoted to loving both God and neighbor. But this is not the end, neither for the attorney nor for us. As is so often the case when the right answer is on the tip of our tongues, we waver. We shuffle. We hesitate. We point out obstacles that would make doing the right thing difficult. Truly, the most demanding journey is the hike from a right answer to a right action. That's why the lawyer suddenly seems so anxious. "Do this and you will live," says Jesus. Hold on! Do it? Love God and?neighbor? You can hear the screech as he stomps on the brakes. Wait just a billable minute. How big of a job is that going to be? This could get tricky. It could take over my whole life. Love God and neighbor? I need a little clarification here, Jesus. Tell me, who counts? Who is my neighbor?
Now this question turns the rabbi's head. The attorney asks, "How can I secure my eternal future?" and Jesus briskly responds, "You know the law." The attorney asks, "Who is my neighbor?" and Jesus leans into the man. "Ahhh, now we're getting somewhere. Somewhere beyond riddles and self-interest, somewhere that borders on the holy. Beckoning the lawyer ever deeper into the waters of faith, Jesus begins to tell him a story. A traveler was on his way to Jericho when he was beset by robbers who beat him and left him for dead alongside the highway. Now, by chance, a clergy person, a priest, happened to be walking down that same road. Good news, we think. Surely this guy will help the injured man. Yet, the priest, on catching sight of the bloodied body, chooses to pass by on the other side of the road. Huh? What kind of clergyman is this? The story messes with our expectations, and as it does, you may hear a funny sound in the background. It's the lawyer-gulping.
You see, any first-century attorney would quickly recognize both the priest and the Levite in this parable as people who would also have a deep knowledge of the law. Like the attorney, these clergy knew the law well enough to have the right answers come to mind under pressure. They also knew the law well enough to make it work for them. What does God's law say? What case has precedent here? In this story, a religious man finds a bloodied body lying by the road. What should he do? What does the law dictate? Well, there are passages that say love your neighbor. There are portions of the law that call on people to help those in need. Of course, if you wanted to avoid the messy roadside situation, you might also recall that there are verses that instruct a priest not to approach a dead body. As is so often the case, there are conflicting precedents within the law. Surely Jesus knows this, so why does he ask the attorney, "What do you read there"?
Perhaps Jesus is reminding us that Scripture can be used to justify some pretty ungodly behavior. We are probably not surprised when he portrays the clergy in the parable as the culprits. Are we? Over the course of history, preachers have quoted the Bible to prop up slavery and to support the persecution of the Jews. Even today, you don't have to channel-surf for long to find ministers who sprinkle their prescriptions for America with bits of Scripture as if such snippets provided an excuse for the meanness of their message. "What is written in the law? What do you read there?" These questions challenge all of us to give careful thought to the way that we read the texts of our faith. All too often we use verses of Scripture to license whatever benefits us. We appeal to the Bible and find-surprise, surprise!-support for our perspectives, our way of living, and, yes, even our prejudices. The parable cautions us. Just because you've got the good book in hand doesn't mean that you've cornered the market on holiness. As Luke points out, even the devil can quote Scripture.
American writer Harriet Doerr once commented that a good story is like discovering something you didn't know you'd lost. It's finding an answer to a question you never asked. Perhaps this is what happens to the lawyer on hearing Jesus tell this story. Like my "Tell Me Why?" book, the lawyer came to the rabbi with one inquiry but left with an entirely new question, one that just might save him from the quicksand. What do you read in the law? How do you interpret? What's in your heart when you go to the old texts? Are you reading out of self-interest? Are you looking to locate the minimum requirements? If so, you are in luck. For a well-read person can use the law to justify all sorts of dubious actions. Heck! If you wanted to, you could even rationalize sidestepping a man bleeding by the side of the road.
This, of course, brings us to the central figure in the parable. Jesus gives us a sketch of the third traveler to pass by the aftermath of the highway robbery simply by mentioning his nationality. He is a Samaritan. In other words, he is an outsider. Samaritans were from the other side-the wrong side-of the tracks. They were also unorthodox. They did not share mainstream Judaism's beliefs about God. So, the next person we see jogging down the road is a foreigner who we know has a strange take on God. There's no way he'll feel a compulsion, religious or otherwise, to help someone in a ditch. And, yet, Jesus tells us that this man is kind. Maybe he's not able to quote Leviticus at the drop of a hat, but he is hospitable. The stranger makes the trip from right answer to right action. And is it just me or does he seem to go about this act of charity with a lightness of heart. You might even call it joy.
In Anne Tyler's novel "Saint Maybe," the main character, Ian Bedloe, takes on the responsibility of raising three children after their parents-his brother and sister-in-law-die. It is a big job, an all-consuming responsibility. He is a Good Samaritan, and it changes the path of his life. Sadly, Ian takes this burden on because he believes that raising these children is God's punishment for his youthful indiscretions. Over the years, all of the diapers, the sickness, the squabbles, all of the care, begins to turn Ian bitter. Finally, one day Ian confesses his guilt and bitterness to a pastor. "This is my life? This is all I get? It's so settled! It's so cut and dried! After this there's no changing! I just lean into the burden of these children forever??"
It takes time, a lot of time, but slowly Ian's perspective changes. As his heart softens, Ian concludes that God was not punishing him for past sins but blessing him with a life full of love. At the end of the novel, Ian holds another baby in his arms, his own child, and he thinks to himself, "This doesn't feel like any eight pounds. It felt like nothing, like thistledown-a burden so light it seemed almost buoyant." A burden becomes buoyant? An obligation becomes a blessing? A responsibility becomes that which lifts us like a balloon to new heights? I guess it depends on how you look at it.
"Which of these three," Jesus asks the lawyer, "do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" "The one who showed him mercy," said the lawyer. "Right answer! Right again," responds Jesus. And, then, extending a hand to pull the attorney free from the bog of selfishness, Jesus says, "Go and do likewise." And the story finally ends. Or does it? We are left wondering. Has Jesus just placed the burden of endless service on the attorney? Probably. But if you stare at the attorney long enough, you may see Jesus blessing him, giving him a chance for meaningful life, maybe even a life steeped in the eternal. "Go and do likewise." I guess it does depend on how you look at it. What do you read?
Let us pray.
Give us the wisdom to recognize
your repeated attempts to pull us from the quicksand;
and give us a faith that will empower us to go and do likewise,
that we may be blessed with fullness of life, and even, we hope, joy. This we pray in the name of the One who reaches out to all of us, even Jesus Christ, our Lord.