The story of the Good Samaritan articulates God’s vision for the compassionate care of all people. When we fail to embody that vision, we are forgiven, held in God’s love, and called back to the task of loving our neighbors.
Vicar Bristol Reading
The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 15 C
Text: Luke 10:25-37
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This familiar parable from Luke is often called the “Good Samaritan.” It’s a Bible story so widely known that there are hospitals, nonprofits, and even romantic comedies named after it. It’s popular because it’s relatable. We can so easily see ourselves in its characters. The fear and pain of being attacked and abandoned or the relief and gratitude of receiving unexpected kindness from a stranger – these are such human experiences. Perhaps the most relatable of all are the priest and the Levite who walk by on the other side of the road without stopping to help someone in need. Hearing this story can evoke guilt, discomfort, and despair when we are reminded we are not always as “good” as the Samaritan was. It’s an effective parable.
And its central question continues to be powerful and relevant: who is my neighbor?
For whom am I responsible and to what extent? One need look no further than our country’s current conversation about borders and immigration to see how perpetually challenging that question still is. In the context of Luke, the question “Who is my neighbor?” is presented by a lawyer who sounds like he’s looking for a moral loophole. An expert in religious law, he already knows that anyone who claims to love God should love their neighbors. The imperatives to welcome the stranger, care for the poor, and protect the vulnerable were not new ideas in Jesus’ day and they’re not new in ours. But, wanting to test Jesus and justify himself, the lawyer pushes the issue, asking, “Who, specifically, is the neighbor I’m obligated to love?”
Jesus doesn’t answer him by quoting scripture or reciting rules; he tells a story about the messy realities of human interdependence.
The priest and the Levite in the story were religious authorities. They, like the lawyer, would have been familiar with the scriptural requirement to care for those in need. When they encountered the man by the side of the road, they may have known the right thing to do, but it’s the Samaritan who actually does it. He’s not reacting out of guilt or obligation. He’s not fulfilling a quota for number-of-neighbors-helped. He’s not calculating whether he can be compensated for his assistance. He feels for the guy. That’s the impetus for his response of care. He’s moved by this person’s needs. The Samaritan acts out of compassion.
We don’t learn much about the man in the ditch, whether he’s wealthy or poor, whether he’s a Gentile or Jew – we only learn about the way a stranger shows him mercy. In telling this story, Jesus turns the lawyer’s question around: It doesn’t matter who your neighbor is; it matters how you are neighbor to others. It doesn’t matter what kind of person is in need; it matters how you respond.
This story articulates God’s vision for how humanity should live together.
Everyone deserves care. There are no qualifications. No one is left alone in the ditch. Everyone’s wounds are tended to because we respond to one another’s needs with generosity and compassion.
There are no moral loopholes. This is what it means to be a neighbor. “Go and do likewise,” Jesus concludes. Go and embody God’s vision for a compassionate world. That’s it. That’s the directive. That’s how Jesus leaves the lawyer – and us.
That “go and do likewise” ending is a hard thing to sit with, especially for those of us who see ourselves in the Priest and the Levite.
It’s uncomfortable to come to the end of this story and ask whether we have actually “done likewise” to the Samaritan. We are reminded of all the times we have walked by someone we might have helped. We wonder if we have missed the eternal life the lawyer was seeking…
But the final word in this parable is not the final word of God. Even when we fail to realize God’s vision of compassion, there is no condemnation in Christ (Romans 8:1). We trust the promise that nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39) – not even whatever might cause us to walk by on the other side.
God’s promise of love is for all people, no exceptions.
It is for those who have been harmed, rejected, and left behind. It is for those who serve others out of generous compassion. And it is for those who don’t. That’s the astounding truth of grace. None of us is ever beyond God’s love.
Jesus leaves this conversation with the lawyer and continues on his journey to Jerusalem, his journey to the cross, and even in the face of death, he speaks words of mercy not judgment. Jesus speaks forgiveness to the ones who torture him (Luke 23:34) and acceptance to the criminals dying next to him (Luke 23:39-42). And, after he confronts the very powers of hell with love, the risen Jesus returns from the grave to speak peace to the disciples who denied and betrayed him (Luke 24:36). They failed to live up to God’s vision of compassion, but their inadequacies did not stop Christ from reconciling with them, empowering them with the divine spirit, and sending them out to proclaim the Gospel. Imperfect, cowardly, and flawed, they are forgiven. And they are still tasked to go out into the world and act with love.
It is the same with us.
No matter how many times we walk by on the other side, we, too, are forgiven and we, too, are called back to the task of being love in the world.
Standing firm in the faith that we are saved by grace and unconditionally loved by God does not mean we abandon the millennia-old commandment to care for our neighbors. On the contrary, it means that we are invited again and again to come back to God’s way of compassion. We are convinced that radical care for one another is the path that truly brings life.
We aspire to be the neighbors God has called us to be, the neighbors our world desperately needs. Yet even when we falter, we are still held in that love from which nothing – not even death – can separate us.