A meditation on Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37):
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall 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.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
In the gospel according to Luke, at the very height of his time on earth, Jesus sends out missionaries and begins to intensify the message and momentum of his ministry. In the ninth chapter he sends the twelve. A short time later (chapter ten) he sends out seventy more. Jesus gives them power and authority with specific information and instructions concerning what their mission is and what they are to do. These first missionaries, the twelve and the seventy, are to bring the good news of his gospel. They are to heal the sick, curing diseases, and by their very word, presence and actions proclaim the kingdom.
He sends the twelve and tells them to travel light and be content where they are received. They return energized and astounded by what happens. Jesus then appoints seventy more of his followers and sends them off in pairs to the surrounding towns. He gives them the same instructions on simplicity and encourages them to remain in the place where they are received. Their mission is to proclaim the kingdom and cure the sick. So they go.
For those who were the enemies of the Christ, the chief priests, Pharisees, Scribes and even Herod himself, this escalation in the ministry of Jesus must have been disturbing to say the least. They already had this one lone prophet to contend with, his following and the crowds he was drawing. Suddenly, there were twelve others moving out into the villages. This development was followed by reports of even larger crowds (the feeding of the five thousand) and more miracles. Finally, there were three times the missionaries, working in pairs, all proclaiming this kingdom. It certainly caught the attention of King Herod and increased the sense of perplexity for the priests and elders. Their antagonism and animus would increase and intensify from this time forward.
It is in an environment of heightened proclamations of the kingdom, healings and spectacular miracles that the seventy return to Jesus. Two-by-two they joyfully proclaim spiritual victory. They celebrate before a delighted and effusive Jesus. The Lord rejoices in the Holy Spirit and gives thanks and praise to his Father in heaven, identifying himself as his Son and solidifying in the minds of his following that he and the Father are one. Jesus turns to his disciples, the twelve, and prophesies: Blessed are the eyes that see what you see!
It is during this ecstatic celebration that one lawyer stands up and asks Jesus a question. At about the same moment the memories of every Sunday school lesson and sentimental moral platitude descend and effectively close our eyes to observing the scene that will play out before us. Our familiarity will likewise deaden our ears to the slight quaver betrayed in the voice of the questioner: What must I do to inherit eternal life? It is not a trick question. It has no intent to foil or entrap. It is the crying song of every heart on earth.
I always want to give this lawyer the benefit of the doubt. I want to credit an underlying sincerity in his asking. It is understandable. It is easy to be caught up emotionally in such a moment. This man is not one of the insiders or a regular follower. He certainly wasn’t one of the sent missionaries and probably has only come into contact with Jesus for the first time. He wants to know how he can inherit eternal life. He wants to feel like he is a part of this kingdom he is experiencing being celebrated all around him. This is a wonderful thing. What preacher or evangelist, the world over, would not revel in such a rhetorical moment?
Very well, I concede, it does say he is testing Jesus. It might be possible to parse the meaning of that word but in another moment, he will also seek to justify himself. The heart of this man has yet to be transformed. He is working on it, I believe. Albeit; he is working too hard. The lawyer is testing the limits of the law and seeking his own justification because his paradigm tells him that the work of inheriting eternal life is dependent on his works and his actions.
There is one more benefit of the doubt, however. It says he wants to justify himself. Well, who doesn’t? Since he is working it out himself, he not only needs to know the minimum obligation, but the maximum requirements as well. He can neither afford to do too much and burn out or fail to do enough and fall short. Considering his paradigm, this is a serious and honest concern. Though, in his heart there is the desire for life.
Jesus respects his intelligence and experience and starts with the law. Love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself. So far so good! Where the questioner seeks to define and limit the definition of “my neighbor,” Jesus tells a story from the kingdom’s perspective that expands its meaning beyond measure yet, is practical and economical in its common sense.
A certain man… was traveling down the Jericho Road. He fell into the hands of robbers and was left half dead in the road. A priest came upon this poor man and when he saw him he crossed to the other side of the road and left him there. Likewise, a Levite came upon him and went on his way, passing by on the other side of the road.
A Samaritan was also traveling on this road. He was the most unlikely of individuals. Unlikely to be thought a hero, unlikely to have any noteworthy or noble acts attributed to him. Samaritans, as most everyone knows, were marginalized and looked down upon in Israel. Where a temple priest or a Levite, similarly a Pharisee or Sadducee, would be thought in the highest esteem a Samaritan would be seen as a lowly opposite.
So the Samaritan would have been judged. Yet, when he came near the man in the road, he saw him and was moved with pity. He went to him, dressed and bandaged his wounds, lifted him up, took him to an inn and cared for him. He left the next day after providing for his ongoing needs.
Who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?
The man was in the road. He was in the Samaritan’s road… literally in his way. The Samaritan saw him, was moved with pity and showed him mercy.
The Samaritan did not judge the situation. He did not wonder if this was a typical Jew who despised him. He did not wonder what this poor man might have done wrong to wind up in such a plight. He did not consider that this man might have deserved what had befallen him. Neither did he assume responsibility for the crime situation on the Jericho Road, or undertake to provide care for victims of violent crime in Judea or thereabouts. This one individual left home that morning on his way to Jericho (presumably). The incidentals of his life are unknown to us and unimportant to the storyteller. He was traveling from one place to another, with his animal, would conduct his business or trade and then return to his home. He didn’t think he was leaving on a mission when he left and didn’t think of himself as a missionary after the day was over. All he did was respond to the situation, the need, his neighbor who was in his way. The Samaritan saw him, was moved with pity and showed him mercy.
Hurricane Katrina stuck the Gulf Coast in August of 2005. I worked in a Relief Camp east of the Bay of St. Louis for the better part of a year. The reality of people in your way, in the road, needing help, was real and tangible. Throughout the first five months of clean-up and recovery we would send out dozens of volunteer work crews every day. Their job was to go into the community, to homeowners, to neighbors and help them in any way they could. The need was immediate and it was overwhelming. Work crews would often head to one home in the morning and end up helping two others before the afternoon. Sometimes they merely saw someone that needed help and they stopped. Our relief camp would house 140 volunteers a day, plus campers and tents. The camp population would turnover every four to seven days. Tens of thousands of church groups and 300,000 individuals in the first year came to the disaster zone on the Mississippi Coast because the sight of their neighbors abandoned on rooftops, stranded on highway bridges and swept from their communities told them that this was in their way. These were common, everyday churchgoers, often empty-nesters and retirees, from everywhere. If I could characterize their thought process that brought them to the Gulf I would say they didn’t think about it at all. Nobody told them what to do; they just came. It was in their way and they responded. Then they went home, others came, some returned…even stayed. They were moved with pity and showed mercy and kindness on a scale that is nearly impossible to describe, even to this day.
What these missionaries did was incredibly simple. They were sent, they came and every day they went out and helped the person they found in their road: one broken and beaten person at a time. There was little planning. It became an almost natural response to the most unnatural of events. House by house, street by street, debris and wreckage were removed, houses that survived were cleaned and secured and the immediate state of emergency slowly eased.
As the first five months folded into long-term recovery the many governmental, religious and non-profit organizations devised many plans for the types and amounts of aid they would be able to give. At its worst it was a limiting of assistance that hinged on who was the most qualified and how much could or should be given. It always stuck me that in the face of 150 square miles of devastation in Mississippi and 150,000 internally displaced* New Orleanians that any discussion of whom might qualify or where the blame should fall was just another way of crossing to the other side of the road: to see but, make a big wide turn and turn away.
Two men of prominence, means and importance, with considerable effort managed to avoid helping the man in the Jericho Road. One individual was moved with pity and showed mercy to him. The quality of the mercy characterized by the Samaritan (or hurricane volunteers and countless other saints) is very easy to qualify. Mercy is given in the manner that we can only hope and pray that our neighbor will show to us if we should ever find ourselves swept away or befallen on the Jericho Road.
At the end of the story Jesus is almost finished. One presumes that he has spoken loud enough for others to hear. We know the lawyer has listened well. Which of these do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers? Jesus respects and honors him by inviting his participation in the moral of the story, in the kingdom. The lawyer does not go away sad and dejected. Instead, he replies with what appears to be a more open heart: The one who showed him mercy.
In the forested countryside of North Holland, some 80 kilometers east of Amsterdam is a wooded nature preserve called the Hoge Veluwe National Park. At its center is the Kröller-Müller Art Museum. The Kröller-Müller is a wondrous private collection of modern art with a keen eye for its famous and lesser-known Dutch participants. In the permanent collection there are a number of extraordinary Neo-Impressionist (pointillist) works. Surrounding them are major Impressionist paintings and collections of Cubism, Constructivism and the artists of De Stijl that preceded and followed this seminal era in the late nineteenth century. At the heart of the museum are no fewer than fifty paintings by Vincent van Gogh.
On a side wall in the Kröller-Müller is a painting of The Good Samaritan. Van Gogh painted it in early 1890 in his cell at the asylum in St. Rémy. It was the last year of his life. The painting is subtitled After Delacroix. While at the asylum he often painted versions of paintings he remembered or could view in a book of black and white reproductions (Millet, Rembrandt et. al.). When it came to the human form, Van Gogh insisted on painting from a model, these reproductions (by artists he deeply revered) served as his model while he translated their originals with his own stroke and singular deployment of color.
The composition is dominated by the Samaritan and the unfortunate man. In the immediate foreground they occupy the very center of the canvas. His nakedness has been covered in the vibrant blue of the Samaritan’s garment. The Samaritan is bearing the man’s full weight across his chest; his back is arched, head straining to the side as he struggles to lift him onto the horse. The Samaritan wears a round cap whose bright center is the only red in the painting. This sanguine tonsure is encircled by a ring of pure white. Van Gogh hated the use of idealized symbols in painting (halo, nimbus or the like). This white rim mirrors the bandaged crown of the one being lifted up: the one whose sallow face is arching heavenward.
The road is narrow. That is the second thing you see. It is barely wide enough for a horse and a man to stand in. It is a path, really. There are mountains in the distance reaching skyward to either side. A river falls down through the canyon along a deep ravine to the right of the road. The road sits on high ground above the ravine and winds along a cliff or escarpment.
The place where the man has fallen holds his empty treasure chest and a few shreds of clothing. There are hints of rust on the ground. His body would have filled the ocher walkway that is this Jericho Road. The amount of space between the road and the drop-off over the ravine and its river below is very small. It is grass and turf, no more than a meter wide. Crossing over to the other side of the road takes effort. It is difficult. To avoid the man in the road you walk along the edge of a cliff, it is dangerous. Crossing over to the other side of the road is always dangerous. A thin precipice cuts the difference between a neighbor and your own peril.
Two walking figures are disappearing into the distance as the road falls away toward Jericho. The second one appears to be reading something, head down, like a commuter on the train. The first one is farther still, at the edge of xanthein and green. He catches light from somewhere, if not he would be lost in the mass of mountainsides: blues, black and gray. All his color is gone. He is left indistinguishable. He is fading away.
Jesus answers the question of who is my neighbor by telling a story which asks who was a neighbor to the one in need? Love your neighbor as yourself. The definition of neighbor is everyone! There can never be any doubt of that in the eyes of God. The story portrays one unlikely person who loves a stranger as he loves himself. If you love your neighbor as yourself, you are, yourself, a neighbor. Our love and care for the other is to be a neighbor to the one in need. While the definition of neighbor includes all of humanity, nothing more seems to have been required of the Samaritan than to respond to the need in front of him, the man that was in his road. Implicit in the Lord’s reply to the lawyer is that while the answer is everyone the response is individual. The Samaritan did not, after all, leave the innkeeper and go looking for more robbery victims. He responded to the need in front of him. Then he went on with his life. Go and do likewise.
Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Copyright © 2007
* Definition of Internally Displaced Persons (IDP’s): ”Internally displaced persons are persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized state border.”
Source: UNHCR, Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement