Lent: The life found beyond prejudice
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
He answered, “‘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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side.So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him.The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
In this story the expert in the law wants to test Jesus. He’s not asking this question because he’s searching for an answer; rather he’s wanting to catch Jesus out. But Jesus turns the question back on the teacher… well – what do you think? And the expert in the law gives the appropriate Jewish answer: Love God, and love your neighbour as you love yourself.
Jesus commends him for his answer, but that’s not enough, because now the direction of the test has been reversed; he started out trying to test Jesus, and now he’s the one who is being tested, so he seeks to justify himself. He wants to define the boundaries of neighbourliness. Essentially, the question “who is my neighbour” is a nice way of phrasing the question, “who is not my neighbour?”
In the story Jesus tells, two religious men see this victim but decide for whatever reason that they will avoid intervening. They cross the road, they carry on, they don’t have the time, they don’t want to be put out, they don’t want to lose their convenience, their resources, their energies, their time. And the Jewish story-telling convention of the 1st century is now for the heroic character to enter, a hero who is usually characterised an ordinary Israelite. But in this story, Jesus names the hero as a Samaritan.
For Jewish religious folk in the 1st century, Samaritans were despised. They were descended from the northern kingdom of Israel but they had mixed with the Assryians and other foreigners, so they were no longer pure Jews. No longer the people of God. No longer one of “our people”. They were considered foreigners, and their religious identity had also been compromised. They were not faithful to God in the right way, didn’t follow the right collection of scriptures, didn’t worship on the right mountain, didn’t believe the right things.
So they were both the ethnic and religious other.
It is this Samaritan who enters the story to be the hero. This would be a shocking twist for the audience. No-one would tell the story this way.
The obvious inference in this story is that we should be like this Good Samaritan. The final instruction in this story is to “go and do likewise”. Jesus asks us to consider that life is found in the giving up of our own preferences, our own convenience, our own time, our own resources, in order to serve another; to offer help to someone in need; to be moved with compassion. It is this cost, this letting go, this losing something, in which something new is found. The first two characters carry on by, hurrying on their way to somewhere. But the Samaritan stops, and gives out of himself… and the claim of Jesus is that this is the way to life. If you want to save your life, you lose it, but if you’re willing to give up your life for the way of Jesus, then you find it.
But not only does the Samaritan get held up as the person who will experience eternal life, the fullness of life, this life is spread to the victim on the side of the road. He, too, experiences life as a result of this act of compassion and generosity. His life is now changed, he has been restored. The life of the Jesus way spreads, it moves outward. It is not just a personal experience, it is something that moves between us, among us, beyond us. We give up our need to cling to all of the things we think we want, and in doing so, we find that life spreads beyond us into the lives of others.
REFLECTION: In my own life, how do I see the fullness of life grow and move outward when I choose to put aside my own convenience for the love of someone else?
More than this first invitation, however, the challenge in this story is that life is also found in the giving up of our prejudices and judgements about the ‘other’.
The profound shock here is that the ethnic and religious other is the one who shows compassion. This story is a pointed way of saying: you need to examine the ethnic and religious prejudice and exclusion that you hold. This needs to change! Jesus challenges the entire notion of trying to decide who is my neighbour and who isn’t my neighbour. Who is in and who is out. Who is one of “your people” and who isn’t. Jesus exposes the fault in the question itself.
Although the Torah instructed the nation of Israel to love the foreigner (as they would themselves) they had come to use their religious and ethnic identity as a means to exclude and marginalise others…which history tells us, is an alluring and tempting pathway. They had become so blinded by racism, religious superiority and their fear of the other, that they had distorted their own religious framework to exclude people from the expression of their love.
So if we frame this in our Lenten journey, what needs to be given up here, so that we might experience life? Perhaps is our judgements and our prejudice? Our prejudice often makes us feel better about ourselves, because we’re in and they’re out. But when we give up this way of seeing and dividing the world, we are able to experience the real transformative kind of life that God desires for us.
REFLECTION: If Jesus was telling me this story, who would he choose to fill the role of the Samaritan?