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Jesus, story, and expectations

Luke 10:25–37

When we hear stories of Jesus, and parables, the stories he told, we come to those stories with expectations. I like to invite us to look for the unexpected, the new angles, even into the shadows …

In the story we hear from Luke, Jesus responds to a question with a story. Today, I’m asking us to wonder, where do we place Jesus in that parable?

What we expect

Perhaps the expected answer is that Jesus is the Samaritan, the example of a good neighbour. The one whose heart goes out to the person bleeding by the side of the road. The one who stops, offers care, invests their time and money in the healing of this stranger.

And this is no simple stranger. The Samaritans, remember, are an enemy of the people of Israel. They interpret the stories differently. They worship God differently. The Samaritans are ‘them’, definitely not ‘us’. Jesus chooses to make the example of a good neighbour someone unexpected, and made more obvious in this unexpectedness by the passing by of the two holy men of the people of Israel, the priest and the Levite. The Samaritan, as with outsiders like Moabite Ruth in older stories, is a well-known trope in our gospel stories. At the time, their presence in the stories would have shocked listeners to attention. Samaritans worshiped God in a different city, in different ways. But these people understand what God is doing here, why don’t you, who worship God our way?

I do wonder, even with the provocative trope of the Samaritan as exemplar Christ-like neighbour, is that the only place we could situate Jesus in the parable? What could we see of his teaching about neighbours if we look for the unexpected, if we locate him with another character?

An unlikely place

Shall we place Jesus with the inn-keeper? Hmm.

Though it is a caring one, it is a paid role, and that’s not Jesus, is it?

In the parable, the inn keeper is a tool, or more generously a partner with the Samaritan in the provision of care and healing. The inn keeper acts not out of benevolence themselves, but more as an extension of the generosity of the Samaritan, who pays for the care the inn keeper will give on the Samaritan’s behalf. This seems an unlikely place to situate Jesus, or at least not the point.

The holy men

What about with the holy men. From our two thousand years of receiving the stories of priests and Levites under the suspicion of a critical Jesus, this seems improbable.

I say improbable, but they are Israel’s holy men, and surely that’s where Jesus’ live audience might have expected to place Jesus in a story, right? Rabbi, teacher, healer, Son of God, prophet – holy man, yes?

But the priest walks on by. The Levite – member of the hereditary holy tribe of Israel – walks on by. And in this story’s set up, that is clearly not the right choice. Not the Christ-like choice.

Perhaps Jesus works with the expectations of his audience with these two examples – that shock factor, to wake the people up to the law of love that has become obscured by the practices and attitudes of holy men too caught up in the letter of the Law?

Have you been in a bible study when someone, usually well-meaning, has made excuses, given reasons, for the priest and the Levite to need to pass by?

A family needed the ancient Jewish equivalent of last rights. He was on his way to the Temple or some sacred ritual, could not be made ritually unclean for then he’d be unable to perform important functions for the community …

 

We want the priest and the Levite to be not quite so wrong, not so far from the Jesus-example of neighbour we see in the Samaritan. Why? Because very often, that is where we find ourselves in this story, as it plays out on our streets, in our neighbourhoods, on our doorsteps, every day. Subtly, unconsciously, we try to place Jesus with the holy men even when Jesus clearly does not place himself there. We know the ‘right’ answer here is to be with Jesus.

But in this story the priest and the Levite are tools in a classic storytelling three-part point. And we need to be reminded, first, that the point is not to condemn every person who has not had the capacity to help every person in need.

In the time of Jesus, you were most aware of the needs right before you. No social media, no TV, radio, or internet. Today, the needs of victims of the bombs falling in Ukraine, earth quaking in Afghanistan, sea levels rising on Pacific islands, are as close to us as the person physically across the street. And no, we cannot possibly meet them all, each one of us. We do not need to make the priest and the Levite less wrong so as to feel better about ourselves for the times we cannot, or do not, help someone in need.

That’s not to say this story should not confront and challenge us at all.

The point of this story is to answer a question: who is my neighbour? The context of the question, as the version we heard puts it, is to find a loophole in the great command, to trick Jesus into making a mistake, or into giving this lawyer an excuse with the priest and the Levite for passing by.

When we pass by on the other side

As tools in the point Jesus is making, the expected examples of neighbour – the leaders of the community, the scholars of the law – do not enact the great command. Jesus is clear – not only do these two not pass by, they cross to the other side, they seek to avoid the man. Their passing by is an intentional, deliberate choice, not to be a neighbour to this person. Even if they couldn’t stop, if they had no capacity in time or skills or means to help, the priest or the Levite could have at least passed by beside the beaten man, met him in the eye, even stopped for a moment and offered a word of comfort, an apology, or their presence for a moment, while they waited for someone with a greater capacity to help.

walking shadows

I lived in Edinburgh for three years, in the Old Town – the centre of things – from where I could walk just about everywhere I needed to go in the city. When you walk everywhere through a city centre, inevitably you walk by those who are homeless, are begging on the street. I was also a member for those years of a congregation that had a community centre partnering with homeless and unemployed people with skills development, employment opportunities, and community. That partnership brought stories of those folk living with homelessness and unemployment among us regularly. I heard the pain, the dehumanising pain, it causes someone forced into begging on the street, when they greet passers by and are down right ignored. The not giving of money is far less a bother to these folk than to constantly be made invisible.

After hearing such stories, even when I couldn’t spare the few pounds in my purse, I tried always to meet people in the eye, and / or reply to their greeting with a hello, a sorry mate, I can’t help today. To at least give the gift of being seen and acknowledged as fellow humans.

Who am I to love? the lawyer asks Jesus.

Who do you see? Jesus answers. Love them.

Whatever love looks like in that moment, with whatever your capacity is at the time, love who you see.

Unexpected neighbours

And now, at last, an unexpected place for Jesus in the story, perhaps. What if Jesus is, in this parable, the person beaten and robbed and left bleeding on the side of the road?

[sarcasm] That doesn’t sound like any part of Jesus’ experience, does it?

What if Jesus is the one we are to love? The one who needs us to be his neighbour?

Again, [sarcasm], this does not sound like anything Jesus says elsewhere, does it?

What if the command to love neighbour and self is actually part of the call to love God, is how we love God?

Yes, likely the Samaritan is offered by Jesus as the exemplar to follow when it comes to being a neighbour – one who sees their fellow human and loves. Yes, this is Christ-like behaviour, how Jesus behaves again and again. That is where we may choose to place ourselves in the story.

This is not a story that says every person must bind the wounds of every victim of abuse.

It is a story that says every person you see is someone to whom you are neighbour, someone to love.

The Samaritan enacts the teaching of Jesus, to be neighbour, to love his neighbour – and thus, enacts God’s love.

Even more than that, though, this is a story that shows us every person is someone from whom you may receive neighbourly love – even if they’re a stranger, an alien, one who worships God differently from you.

Jesus, then, as the beaten man is also an example for us. An invitation and a challenge to be open to the gift of love from neighbours who are ‘other’.

I am so moved to see Sikh communities in Australia providing food in situations of natural disasters many times in recent years. People of different faiths and none receiving care from a minority group within our community, if not in this case an enemy as Samaritans were to Israel.

First Nations people in Australia, so overlooked and made ‘enemy’ for so long, offer hospitality through welcome and smoking ceremonies, by telling the stories of this land and its Indigenous culture. We, the late comers, are, not too soon, learning to receive their gifts of hospitality and healing.

Unexpected. Yes, the unexpected is God’s way, isn’t it? Moabites, Samaritans, Sikhs, First Nations exiled in their own lands – unexpected people acting as neighbours, enacting the Way of Love better than the people of the Story themselves …

Who was a neighbour to the man who was robbed?

Not the one we expected.

Where is Jesus in the story?

Not where we expected.

Do you want to enact the Law of Love, the Great Command? Look for love in unexpected places. Look for your neighbours across the boundaries that we put up between us. Look for Jesus in the people we meet, love them, and receive their gifts of love.

Amen