5th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 10C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 

St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on July 10, 2022 (Proper 10, Year C)

“Just then, a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.” Thus begins the famous Parable of the Good Samaritan. And I don’t know about you but when I hear this, my mind immediately goes to lawyer jokes and ambulance chasers. I hear “lawyer” and all I can think about is Better Call Saul

But this isn’t the litigious legal profession we’ve all come to know and love. This lawyer wasn’t some tax attorney or corporate lawyer. He’s not an assistant state’s attorney or a defense lawyer. The lawyer who stood up to test Jesus was an expert in the Torah. He studied the law of Moses and looked to it for interpretations of religious law. There were no billable hours involved here. Rather he played an important role in the community and was respected for his ability to decipher complex legal questions. 

“Just then, a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.” That word “test” signals that this wasn’t the most earnest exchange. More like the lawyer was trying to trip Jesus up, catch him in his words, make him look like a fool. Because if you see yourself as a gatekeeper to the law, and along comes a seemingly un-credentialed teacher spouting new interpretations, it’s in your best interest to discredit him. To take him down a peg or two.

The lawyer starts innocently enough, asking Jesus what one must do to inherit eternal life. That’s a fair question, kind of a softball. And Jesus points him back to Scripture. To the obvious answer that in order to inherit eternal life you simply have to love God and love neighbor.

But here’s where it gets murky. The lawyer asks Jesus, ‘and who is my neighbor?’ And through this follow-up question, I think he was really trying to narrow the definition of “neighbor.” He was seeking a loophole to limit just how generous and compassionate people of faith were expected to be. I mean, you can’t be a neighbor to everyone — that’s just not practical. It’s fine to help some people out, but there must be limits, right? The lawyer was looking to find the bare minimum that one must do in order to “inherit eternal life.”

Of course, Jesus doesn’t traffic in bare minimums or strict legal interpretations of compassion. Jesus broadens rather than limits, he expands rather than constricts, he opens hearts rather than closes them. And he explains all this not by citing statutes or delving into legal minutia, but by telling the story of the Good Samaritan. When the law says “love your neighbor,” as a symbol of radical inclusion, the natural next question for anyone who wants to limit the scope is indeed to ask, “and who is my neighbor?” Because then we can start excluding people — people who don’t look like me or act like me or think like me.

The story Jesus tells in response to the lawyer’s question is powerful on its own — often our takeaway is to be kind to strangers. But in order to really comprehend its power, it’s important to note just how jarring this would have been to its original hearers. The first two people who pass by the injured man, the priest and the Levite, would normally be the heroes of such a story. They were the good guys! The respected members of society, the leaders, the establishment, the ones expected to make wise decisions, the ones who were the most faithful and Law-abiding citizens of anyone in the community. And they don’t come across very well. The good guys are decidedly indifferent, even sinful in their lack of compassion shown to the man left on the side of the road. 

Now, they had their reasons. They were busy and important; there were ritual purity laws to consider. Of course, we see that legalistic interpretations that transcend grace aren’t very holy. But it all falls to a Samaritan, an anti-hero, to do the right thing. To act with compassion. To demonstrate what it means to love one’s neighbor; to truly love one’s neighbor in a way without boundaries or limitations.

To those who heard this story, the phrase “good Samaritan” would have been an oxymoron. Jews and Samaritans had a long history of enmity. They saw each other as religious heretics; their armies had battled; they wanted nothing to do with one another. So the identities of those involved in the parable matter. It’s what makes this such a radical story. It would still be a nice lesson about compassion if we didn’t know the nationalities or religious affiliations of those involved. But we do. And the fact that Samaritans and Jews hated each other is what packs the parabolic punch; especially as the original audience, like Jesus himself, was Jewish.

So this is a well-loved story, but when we really examine it, it’s also convicting. We, too, like to see ourselves as the hero of the story. We can all think about a time we helped a stranger. Maybe we called 911 after witnessing an accident or gave someone a couple bucks on the street. And it made us feel great! But I bet we can think of even more times when we failed to help someone in need. When we passed them by. I know I can. The truth is, we spend more of our lives as the priest and the Levite, rather than as the Good Samaritan. That doesn’t make us bad people. It just shows that we can always do more and serve more and care more than we do. When we open our eyes and our hearts, there are always more neighbors out there.

Which is why this story is also one of the most challenging parables of Jesus. It demands much of us. It forces us to think beyond our small circle of family and friends. It broadens the definition of a neighbor to include the entire world. And that’s hard to wrap our minds around. Especially in a world that feels so divided, where vilification rather than compassion rules the news cycle and impacts our daily interactions.

No one ever said following Jesus was an easy path. It continually takes us out of our comfort zones and challenges us to expand our hearts, making room for those we’d frankly rather not. But that’s the Christian life. Standing up for what is right and offering compassion to everyone we encounter on the journey. And who is my neighbor? It’s the entire world.


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