The Summary of the Law and the Good Samaritan: "Go and do likewise" Luke 10:25-37, 11 July 2004
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Proper 10C 2004 Luke 10:25-37
Today we come again to one of the most familiar stories in the Bible – the lovely and very challenging, even unsettling
story of the Good Samaritan. Among clergy there is sometimes some grumbling when Good Samaritan Sunday rolls around because
at times there seems nothing new to say about it. But I have always been struck by the power and vitality of this passage.
It seems to speak to the Church in every age and stage of life. Diving deeply into the deep whirlpool waters of this scriptural
passage brings to the surface something to think about, to consider, even to act upon in the life of the Church and of each
one of us.
The Good Samaritan is, of course, too often used to make people feel guilty. But that is isogesis and a misreading of what
Jesus intended. But there are some interesting questions to consider when we think about Jesus, the lawyer, and the story
of the Good Samaritan.
The first one is this: with which character in the story do we identify: Jesus, the lawyer, the traveler, the priest, the
Levite, the robbers even, the innkeeper, or the Good Samaritan. One fanciful sermon concerned identifying with the Good Samaritan’s
donkey – which I thought was a real stretch – but perhaps not. And we could build a whole series of sermons around
which character we identify with – but not today. But as you reflect on the story it isn’t a bad way for each
of us to dive into those deep and dark whirlpool waters to find what is there that speaks directly to us and to the lives
Another question is this: Which of the characters is the story really about? I would narrow it to three – although
you could make a case that it is about all of them. But I think it is really only about Jesus, the lawyer who wanted to test
Jesus and who wound up being tested, and the Good Samaritan. And let’s open that up a bit by beginning with two of
the characters I don’t think the passage is really about: the priest and the Levite.
These two represent all of the respectable orthodox conservative religious people of Judaism. The Deuteronomistic and Levitical
laws of Moses forbid priests and Levis to touch a dead person. And in those days, a half dead person was well on the way
to being completely dead if found on that lonely road between Jerusalem and Jericho. Moreover, this road was obviously traveled
by Samaritans equally with the Jews and this half dead man might well have been a Samaritan. For the orthodox, a Samaritan
was equally as unclean as a dead man and a half dead Samaritan was doubly unclean. Their understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures
forbade them to touch him; it would be a violation of the law. And perforce, they could do nothing.
A story: many people found the TV series Seinfeld intriguing as well as entertaining, a symbol of the times. The last episode
was unsettling for many people for it was not quite the usual Seinfeld approach of being about nothing really. Some of us
may have seen it, but here is a recap of the main scene:
Seinfeld plays a would be comedian on the show and in the last episode, he has been given a contract from major network to
be the lead in a sitcom and the network is flying him and his friends, Elaine, George and Kramer to Paris as a gift. But
their airplane has mechanical problems and they are stuck in Lakeland, Massachusetts. While they are killing time wondering
around on the sidewalks in this quaint New England town, suddenly before their very eyes a car jacking takes place.
Being the kind of people they are they make fun of the guy who is being robbed. Kramer, who has a camcorder in his hands,
films the incident as a curiosity. The four never yell out, they’re only 10 yards away – 30 feet away -- and
they never do anything to help. They just stand there and watch. The car thief takes off with the car and the police arrive
on the scene too late to do anything about it. When the excitement is over Jerry suggests they get something to eat.
As they start to leave the scene the police officer comes over to them. He says, “Alright, hold it right there.“
Seinfeld splutters:” Wha’?” The policeman: “You’re under arrest.” Seinfeld: “Under
arrest? What for?” Policeman: “Article 223 dash 7 of the Lakeland county penal code.”
Elaine: “What, we didn’t do anything.” Policeman: “That’s exactly right. The law requires
you to help or assist anyone in danger as long at its reasonable to do so.”
George: “I never heard of that.” Policeman: “It’s new, it’s called the Good Samaritan Law,
Let’s go.” (1)
Is there an echo here of something called the Summary of the Law, something that Jesus and the lawyer were debating?
It is interesting that the Samaritan was likewise forbidden to touch Jews and dead people for fear of becoming unclean –
they also held to the Law of Moses in Deuteronomy, Numbers, and Leviticus. It was one of the few things that Samaritans had
in common with orthodox Jews. And it is interesting that Jesus would single out a member of a fringe group, a Samaritan,
to teach about the Summary of the Law. After all, just Sunday before last, Saint Luke told us that Jesus was not made welcome
at a Samaritan village as he journeyed toward Jerusalem, they same village about which he refused to let James and John cry,
“Anathema!” and rain destruction down on it from heaven.
But what about the lawyer? He could quote the Law of Moses as well as anyone. He knew the Summary of the Law; he quoted
it to Jesus. But he didn’t have a clue about what it meant. It required him to think, to step beyond the narrow little
confines of the hundreds of rules in the Law of Moses, to be prepared to do something that would make him uncomfortable, something
he was not ready to do.
So when the lawyer quibbled, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus told him the story of the Good Samaritan. And asked
“Which of these three, do YOU think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” It was
a measure of the discomfort the lawyer felt at being forced outside of his little narrow legal box to think for himself about
this question that he could not say the words, “The Samaritan.” He just couldn’t quite get there. But
Jesus told him to go and do likewise.
Nor should we be good Samaritans, to love our neighbors, no matter how unclean they might seem, for any other reason but that
Jesus, God himself on earth, told us to do it.
Often we feel really good when we’ve helped someone. That’s good as far as it goes – but here’s an
interesting story about feeling good and gratitude -- or not
Peter Hawkins, formerly of Yale Divinity School, and then Professor of Religion at Boston University reflected about putting
it into action:
“"Go and do likewise." Apparently, eternal life is this easy to inherit -- a virtual no-brainer.
“At least until you actually try to do likewise. Twenty years ago in New York, a friend and I were walking uptown along
Madison Avenue after a performance of Alec McGowan’s one-man Gospel According to Mark. For two hours we had watched
McGowan bring the story to vivid life with no sound of music, nary a prop and only the scripture itself as a script. The
effect was stunning. We left the theater like those women who fled from the empty tomb in terror and amazement. Rather than
being frightened, however, we were exhilarated. We had heard the old story as if for the first time and were swept up into
its rapid-fire world of word and action.
“Then the door of a bar opened and a very drunk man stumbled out in front of us. We were stunned, as was a third passerby
who had the presence of mind to grab the man before he hit the concrete. The man didn’t want to be helped; nor could
I find anyone in the bar who wanted anything to do with him. Should we leave this foul-mouthed drunk alone, as he asked us
to do, or lead him home?
“What Would Jesus Do? With the Gospel of Mark still ringing in my ears, it was not possible to do what one normally
does in New York when a door opens and someone hurtles forth. The challenge of the Parable of the Good Samaritan was palpable
in the air that night. At least it was for my friend and me, if not for the fellow who had joined us. Of such is the kingdom
“What we hadn’t counted on was that the man we’d rescued and brought back to his gorgeous Upper Eastside
townhouse was not interested in the kingdom coming. He wanted a drink; he wanted a smoke; he didn’t care if he burned
the whole building down; he wanted us to get the hell out.
“It was time to go, but there was really no way we could act on the impulse. We were stuck inside the parable along
with the Samaritan. Commandeering an address book, we called every Manhattan listing only to be told over and over again
by former friends that the man we were calling about was a drunk, a bully, spoiled and abusive -- in short, everything we
had discovered about him on our own. There was nothing to do but flush away the matches, drain the Scotch, allow him to pass
out in exhaustion and keep watch until dawn. When we tiptoed out, I left behind my name and telephone number. "Please call
if you would like to talk." He never did.
“We received no gratitude from the person we’d helped nor a Neighbor of the Year award from the Upper Eastside
block association. I was even denied the chance to be smug: I knew all along that I had tried very hard to get other people
to take over the job and felt some glee in the fact that no one was willing to consider our ward as someone worthy of rescue.
“Nonetheless, I wonder now if I stepped into eternal life without knowing it -- by doing, however grudgingly, what
had to be done. Could the word of the Lord truly be that close?” (2)
Jesus never said that anything he asked us to do would be easy or simple. But he did say this: “You shall love the
Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. This is the
first and great commandment. And the Second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as your self. There is no other commandment
greater than these.”
1. Told by Johnny Dean in “And who is my neighbor?”, 1999, eSermons at Christianglobe.com for Proper 10C 2004
2. The Christian Century, June 20-27, 2001, p. 13. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. This
material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock at textweek.com for Proper 10C