Year C; Proper 10FB, 7.10.2022
Luke 10:25-37 The Good Samaritan
You might remember that two Sundays ago the gospel reading was from Luke chapter 9, describing Jesus and his disciples traveling through the hostile territory of Samaria on their way to Jerusalem. They were looking for hospitality from this enemy community. It should have been no surprise that they were soundly rejected. The Samaritans kicked them out, and in return James and John wishing to exert their newfound heavenly authority and power eagerly asked Jesus if they could call down fire from heaven and destroy these wretched people. Jesus calmly rejected their request. “That’s NOT what your God-power is for.”
This week, we are treated to one of my most favorite and beloved parables. Luke’s gospel returns to the subject of the Samaritans. Jesus makes an example of a compassionate Samaritan. To the Jewish crowd and the lawyer who asked Jesus to tell him who was his neighbor, this story would have been jolting to them. The Good Samaritan is the story of the reversal of enemies. A Samaritan who gives unbridled care for a Jew who was left nearly dead from a wanton attack of robbers on the most dangerous road between Jericho and Jerusalem.
Jesus tells this story after a lawyer, a Jew well-trained in the law asks Jesus what he can do to earn eternal life? Already, the lawyer is jumping to a transactional proposition. “How do I earn this status?” “What can I do and for whom can I gain what I want?” Amy-Jill Levine, a Jewish New Testament scholar that I often quote writes in her commentary on this passage that “…this question is misguided. ‘Eternal life is not a commodity gained by a limited action; it is a gift freely given.”
Jesus responds. He quizzes this lawyer on the essence of the law. And the lawyer gives the answer: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” This was a familiar commandment to most Jews and not a high bar for the lawyer to be able to recite it. Jesus said, “…do this and you will live” and left it at that. Possibly, Jesus turned around and started to go on his way.
But the lawyer wanted to know what was meant by “neighbor.” In Hebrew, the word means one who is near, one who dwells nearby, or one who is a fellow citizen. But the story Jesus tells includes a traditionally hostile person, and the two on the road to Jericho, the injured Jew and the Samaritan are strangers. They are two very unlikely people coming together in a very unlikely way.
The story points to loving more than your neighbor. You must love your enemy with even more care than you would give one of your own. That’s a breath-taking reversal for those in Luke’s community listening to this parable. It’s also an uncomfortable place that Jesus puts us when danger and enemies seem to surround us at every intersection of life.
Art sometimes helps us move in and through uncomfortable places. I took a 19th-century European Art History class my senior year in college as an elective and to help raise my terrible GPA a bit. In my science classes, I always had trouble memorizing chemical formulas, pharmacology, and pathogens for my exams. But something about the visual content of art, drawings, paintings and sculpture captured my imagination and I always scored very high on my Art History exams. I loved learning about the neo-classic artist, Ingres; the romantic artist Delacroix and the Impressionists, Renoir and Degas.
There is a painting by Eugene Delacroix of the Good Samaritan that I visit every now and then in my Bible art book. This painting is intimate and energetic in detail. Notably, the painting includes nothing of the two holy Jewish travelers who passed by the beaten, robbed, dying man, one of “their own.” Since the Levite and priest were not even drawn in the painting, Delcroix seems to say that they don’t matter much, though in the story, Jesus wants to make a point of their hypocrisy.
There are just three characters in the painting. They are front and center. They are located in kind of a dark cavern which seems to depict the danger of the road. There are two men and a horse. At the 9am Family Service, the congregation thought the horse was a mule, since the story says it’s a donkey. Maybe…those long-ish ears!
One man is wearing a wide red headband, much like the men dressed in Algeria where Delacroix visited to paint the local people. This man is large, ruddy-looking and muscular. He is wearing a very nice belted red tunic and black mid-calf leggings. He is leaning back, face turned to the left while he lifts a very pale, sickly-looking man up on the horse. The two men are locked in what could only be seen as an embrace; the sickly man seems to gasp as he looks slightly upward. The large man dressed in red is leaning back holding on tightly to the sickly man and bracing himself to lift him up to the horse.
What I love the most is knowing the story, and that the strong man dressed in red is the Samaritan, the enemy. And they are embracing so that the injured man can get on the horse and be moved to a place for his recovery. I can imagine that these two are so close together that they are breathing on each other.
Imagine being so close to your enemy that you can feel and smell his breath! Imagine, too, that these enemies are perspiring on each other….I TOLD you that it’s an intimate painting! Finally, there is the beautiful, stately horse. It’s the Samaritan’s horse. Its bridle and decorations are elegant. Its majestic head is cocked just to its left, seemingly curious about “what’s going on back there?” but patiently waiting while the two men struggle to load the injured man onto its back.
What I hear in this parable and what I see in this magnificent painting is the power of God. The disciples earlier wanted to use their newfound power to rain down fire on those hostile and inhospitable Samaritans, “our enemies by tradition.” But in the story of the Good Samaritan, the power is between these two men, and that power is God’s love. In fact, I’m tempted to call the enemy-Samaritan the image of God.
Dwelling with this story and the amazing good news Jesus was always teaching about the way of God’s love, prompt me to ask, “What if my enemy is God trying to get my attention? What if the enemy is the one I’ve never considered as a friend or one who might care about me more than his own?”
Jesus asks, “Which of these three, do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Note that even after Jesus shone a beautiful light on this story of neighbor-love, the lawyer still couldn’t bring himself to say the word, “Samaritan.” And we hear nothing more from this lawyer who, in the end couldn’t really be serious about the answer.
Amy-Jill Levine concludes her Jewish-informed commentary of the Good Samaritan with this question for us all: “The issue is not ‘who is my neighbor?’ but ‘can we recognize that the enemy might be our neighbor and can we accept this disruption of our stereotype?” The Samaritan put on God’s mercy, generosity, and love for the sake of saving the injured Jew. What a clear disruption, even obliteration of his stereotype!
How are we called to this same disruption of our own stereotypes?