Good Deeds

The parable of the Good Samaritan.  One of the three most famous parables Jesus ever told, all three of which, coincidentally, appear only in Luke.   The parable of the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, and the rich man and Lazarus.   These three parables have escaped the boundaries of the church, Christian teaching, or Christian preaching.  They have escaped  just being a part of church culture to become part of the wider culture and teaching.

Jesys was a master storyteller, and his forte were deceptively simple and deeply subversive parables.   Deceptively simple because they appear to be simple, but never turn out to be so.   Jesys spoke as a poet and storyteller.  As a composer of parables, he rarely used plain language.  In fact, when he finally did speak plainly the night before his betrayal in the upper room, his disciples were surprised and said “Ah, now you are speaking plainly and not using figurative speech!” John 16:29 ESV  This was clearly not the way he ordinarily spoke.

In our modern, post enlightenment world, we prefer, plain, prosaic, technical language for teaching.  We prefer the language of the manual, the 5 easy steps, the how-to.  This is the model we prefer, and we can become frustrated when this is not what we get.  But Jesus doesn’t use this kind of model, he doesn’t speak in the language of the manual, the 5 steps, the 4 laws, the how-to.  He instead prefers the artistic medium of story, parable, and poetry.  Remember, the poetic and the prophetic are related.

If you were to encounter the public speaking ministry of Jesus, it would be more like going to the theater than going to school.  If you go to school, you get lessons, line by line, 1,2,3, this is how you do it.  When Jesus spoke publicly this is not what you got.  It was more like a theatrical performance so that when he was done you had to wonder about what you had just heard.

This story of the Good Samaritan has become so famous, just about everybody knows something about it.  If you live in western civilization, you are at least familiar with this story.  It has become so famous that it has almost entirely lost its meaning.  It has suffered from its fame.  It’s fame has made it familiar and misunderstood.

The point if the parable of the Good Samaritan is NOT to be a Good Samaritan.  Stay with me, I have something to say here, but you’re going to have to work with me.  The point of the parable of the Good Samaritan is not to just be a Good Samaritan.

Now, don’t misunderstand – there is nothing wrong with being a Good Samaritan.  Please, by all means, when the opportunity arises, go be a Good Samaritan.  But that’s not the point, AT ALL.  When we make the point of the parable “I helped a guy with his flat tire on the beltway today, I was a Good Samaritan”, we have missed the point altogether.  It loses all its punch, it’s not subversive, and we don’t learn the lesson Jesus wants to teach us.

If you want to have ears to hear, if we want to really hear what Jesus is trying to say, we must keep two things in mind throughout the entire parable

1).  Jesus crafted this parable in response to a question about eternal life and love of neighbor.  “And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”  That’s the context, never forget the context.

2). He’s speaking to an audience of Jews.  Jews and Samaritans HATED each other like poison.  They loathed each other, they were deeply entrenched in hostility.

A lawyer (Torah scholar, someone expert in application of the Torah, not a lawyer in our sense of the word) is suspicious about Jesus, especially his practice of radical hospitality.   We’ve seen how Jesus constantly receives everyone at his table, even those who are not supposed to be received according to the laws of taboo of the time.  This Torah scholar is suspicious of Jesus’s practice of radical hospitality.  He thinks it’s too broad, too wide, too liberal, too inclusive.  He decides to engage Jesus in a public debate, a very legitimate thing to do in Jewish circles at the time.

His motive in asking this question is to expose Jesus as being too broad in his hospitality.   And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”   What must i do to get in in the life in the age to come?  I want to be in on it.   We know there will be a resurrection, I want to be a part of that.

To which Jesus answers his question with a question (a very Jewish, rabbinic thing to do).  “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?”   So, you know the law, you’re an expert, sum it all up for me.

And 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.”    The Torah scholar has this exactly right!!!   He and Jesus are in complete agreement on this point.  Jesus has himself said this exact same thing.  And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”   

All this has just been a setup.  And now the Torah scholar is ready with his trap!!  Remember, he is trying to test Jesus, to challenge him.  He has a follow up question.  But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”   What the Torah lawyer is going to do now is expose Jesus as being too generous, too liberal, too generous, too broad with his love.  This scholar thinks he knows how Jesus will answer, and he’s ready with his arguments.   What he expects Jesus to say is “Love everyone.  Everyone is your neighbor.  Love the Romans.  Love the Samaritans, love the Gentiles.  Love your enemy.”

But that’s not what Jesus does here.   The lawyer expects Jesus to say “everyone is your neighbor, you gotta love everybody.”   What Jesus does instead is entirely brilliant.

It’s brilliant because the lawyer has his prepared argument.  He knows what Jesus will say.  (Every good lawyer knows you don’t ask a question without already knowing the answer!). And he knows how he’ll respond when Jesus does.

Here’s one example of a rabbinic commentary from the first century to the question “Who is my neighbor.”  This was a question which came up all the time, by the way.  These people were serious about studying the Torah!  If you could reduce the law and the prophets to “love god, love neighbor”, you can bet they would sit around for hours debating about exactly “who is my neighbor?’   One popular rabbi, a contemporary of Jesus, Sirach, taught – “If you do a good deed, know for whom you are doing it.  Give it to a good man.  Give nothing to a godless man.  And do not go to the help of a sinner.”

He expects Jesus to say “love everyone.  Everyone is your neighbor.  Jew, gentile, Roman, Samaritan, they are all your neighbor.”  He is prepared to say “Yeah, but that’s irresponsible and naive.  Sirach says we have to be careful, because If we help sinners we might be aiding and abetting sin.  We might be helping sin to fluourish.  We have to very careful about who we define and treat as a neighbor.  We need to careful, judicious, conservative, economical with who we identify as our neighbor.”  The lawyer is ready for Jesus to say who we should treat as our neighbor, he’s got his response planned out, he’s got his argument against him.  Except Jesus doesn’t do that.  There’s no point in coming to loggerheads and arguing endlessly back and forth.  Jesus is much too smart for that.

Here’s a piece of timeless advice for you – never get into a public debate with Jesus.  He’s merciful, but you will end up looking stupid.   For some reason, we argue with Jesus all time, don’t we?  We’ve identified all kinds of “enemies of Christianity”, and we spend much time, energy, and treasure fighting and arguing with them.  We live coming to loggerheads with those who disagree with us, we think it means we are living into the persecution and suffering of Jesus just because we are always engaging in arguments with the world around us.  We are always engaging these “enemies of Christ.”   We have our swords, our pet bible verses, and go to war with them, chopping down those sinners, all those people we count as enemies.

Yet, Jesus doesn’t engage like this.  He responds with a parable.  He responds with story.  He responds with poetry.  He gives a story which has become beloved to us today.  We love it, mainly because we don’t understand it.  We think it gives a way to be a “good guy”, we can go out and do a few “good deeds” and call ourselves following Jesus.  Good deeds are good to do.  But let us have ears to hear, Jesus doesn’t let us off that easily.   I will show what I mean tomorrow, that’s enough for today.

“And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And 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 answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, 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, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.””

Luke 10:25-37 ESV

John Lewis

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