The parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the most familiar ones Jesus tells. St. Luke shows us that the parable comes out of some clever byplay between Jesus and a lawyer -- a lawyer who wants Jesus to tell him that he is already doing everything he needs to do to get eternal life.
The point of the parable is unmistakable. We are supposed to show mercy to everyone who comes across our path. That is mercy in the sense that Christian love is mercy. Christian love is doing what is best for the other person without any regard for how we will gain or lose from acting that way.
A man is beaten up and robbed and left for dead by the side of a road. Another man comes along and helps him out. Simple. If we want to act in a loving and neighborly way -- the way Jesus wants us to act -- we will act that way. Simple.
The way Jesus tells the story puts two extra things to think about alongside the simple and basic lesson. The first is the character of the priest and the Levite. A priest came down the hill, saw the man, and passed him by on the other side of the road. A Levite -- a priest's helper -- did the same thing.
They are the bad guys in the story, in the sense that they did not do what the third man did. But their badness is complicated by the fact that they did not think to themselves simply, "I don't want to get involved in a messy situation -- and nobody is watching anyway."
The complication is that under the Hebrew Law they had a perfectly good reason not to get involved. The beaten man looked as if he might be dead. If either the priest or the Levite touched a corpse, he would become unclean and forbidden to perform his religious duties.
So the priest and the Levite thought they had it made. They didn't want to get involved, and they had a godly reason not to get involved. But among the other things Jesus teaches here is the clear message that there is never any godly reason not to get involved with someone who needs your help.
The other twist in the parable is that the hero is a Samaritan. That doesn't seem surprising to us, necessarily. We assume that if most people were asked what word comes to mind when they hear the word "Samaritan," they would probably say, "good." But Jesus' audience hated Samaritans.
The Jews around Jerusalem believed that the Samaritans used to be Jews, but they sold themselves out to the Assyrians when they were conquered seven centuries earlier. The Assyrians intermarried with the northern Jews and, in the view of the southern Jews, polluted the bloodline.
So to make a Samaritan the moral hero of a story was to attack a very deep-seated ethnic prejudice. Jesus is clearly suggesting that he doesn't think any more of ethnic prejudice than he does of religious rationales for not loving one's neighbor.
Jesus tells the lawyer -- and us -- to act as the Samaritan did. But we are no different from the priest and Levite. We don't particularly want to do that, so we hope either that we will never run into such a situation or that we will be able to think up a reason why we don't have to do our obvious duty.
But the nagging thought remains -- I want eternal life just as the lawyer did. Jesus tells the lawyer to act as the Good Samaritan did. Maybe I should.
St. Paul addresses this issue in today's epistle, taken from Galatians. He says that God made some promises to Abraham and his seed, his main descendant who is Jesus Christ. The promises were that Abraham would have many descendants and a land in which they could live. We get in on the promises, because we are literally part of the main descendant. We are members of the body of Christ through our baptism.
The commandment to love one's neighbor -- the issue in the parable -- comes from the Old Testament Law. St. Paul says that the Old Testament Law came along after the promises. But the law did not cancel the promises, and one does not have to obey the law perfectly to inherit the promises. If there is something you have to do to get someone to make good on a promise, then it isn't a promise at all.
The point is that God knows that we are inclined to be more like the priest and the Levite than we are like the Samaritan. He gives us his law and he tells us such parables to remind us of that fact. He also wants to remind us that Jesus died precisely because we don't live up to the Old Testament Law, and we don't always act as the Samaritan did.
We should admit the truth about ourselves and ask for God's forgiveness and his help to do better the next time. We can go through that process without being afraid. We know Jesus has died to forgive us already, so God has said already that he won't send us to hell just because we are not perfect.
We are free to obey and to try to do better, because we are thankful, not because we are afraid. What shall I do to inherit eternal life? Try to show mercy on everyone, and ask for forgiveness when you don't. Simple.
The Collect:Almighty and merciful God, of whose only gift it cometh that thy faithful people do unto thee true and laudable service; Grant, we beseech thee, that we may so faithfully serve thee in this life, that we fail not finally to attain thy heavenly promises; through the merits of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.