An expert in the Law stood up to put Jesus to the test and said, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit everlasting life?”
Jesus answered, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?”
The expert on the Law replied:
“You must love the Most High God
with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your strength
and with all your mind,
and your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus said, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you’ll live.”
But the expert on the Law, seeking self-justification, pressed Jesus further: “And just who is my neighbor?”
Jesus replied, “There was a traveler going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, who fell prey to robbers. The traveler was beaten, stripped naked, and left half-dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road; the priest saw the traveler lying beside the road, but passed by on the other side. Likewise there was a Levite who came the same way; this one, too, saw the afflicted traveler and passed by on the other side.
But a Samaritan, who was taking the same road, also came upon the traveler and, filled with compassion, approached the traveler and dressed the wounds, pouring oil and wine. Then the Samaritan put the wounded person on a donkey, went straight to an inn and there took care of the injured one. The next day the Samaritan took out two silver pieces and gave them to the innkeeper with the request, ‘Look after this person, and if there is any further expense, I’ll repay you on the way back.’
Which of these three, in your opinion, was the neighbor to the traveler who fell in with the robbers?”
The answer came, “The one who showed compassion.”
Jesus replied, “Then go and do the same.”
To start: in our story – and in our story-within-a-story – we have some titles – there’s a lawyer; he calls Jesus teacher; Jesus tells the story of a priest, Levite, Samaritan. And then we are noticeably lacking other titles – like, we don’t know anything about the man by the side of the road except that he’s beaten and bloodied, or anything about the nationalities or religious convictions or other aspirations of the robbers. But at the end of the story, we return to the word that sparked question – and the story – in the first place: neighbor. Who is my neighbor?
That’s the word that hangs in the air. And the interesting thing about it, I think, is that it’s impossible to locate “neighbor” in the kind of hierarchical relationship that is so readily implied by all of the other titles – we start with a lawyer, so we can imagine a client. And a teacher, so we can imagine a student. We hear of a priest, so we know there are congregants somewhere, and a Levite, who would have maintained the temple, so we can think of the temple-goers on whose behalf he served. The Samaritan stands in opposition to the Jew, those communities were well-established enemies, that’s what makes him such a controversial choice for the hero in this story, and when we hear of robbers, we know their victims are not far away. But what’s the opposite of neighbor? – Neighbor? – All of the other titles are implicated in a power relationship, but neighbor – fails in that way, right? Where there is a neighbor, all that we know for sure is that there are … other neighbors.
And that’s the word Jesus would leave us with: neighbor. That’s the only title. When the story ends, it’s with a series of actions – what the neighbor does – and a command to act similarly. In this story, the neighbor comes upon, feels compassion, approaches, dresses wounds, carries, transports, checks in, takes care, pays, promises – in the words of the lawyer, he “shows mercy.” At the end of the story, the hierarchies have all dissolved, and we only have a neighbor, taking care of a neighbor.
But how do we get there? How do we come to be neighbors?
Because we read these ancient texts alongside the stories of right now. And the most recent story we’re being told about neighbors now – what we know to be true – is that sometimes they don’t know each other. And if neighbors don’t know each other, and one of them is afraid and armed, and cannot imagine the other as his neighbor… If one of them cannot imagine that the other might just be on his way home to watch the All-Star game with his dad, after buying a snack down the street…
When I taught at Ottawa University, the Black Student Union held an open meeting to which they invited the university’s highest-ranking administrators. And they told them there was a problem with the racial climate on campus. They described being condescended to, ridiculed, humiliated, mistreated, even threatened and attacked. And the university president sat and listened as students – in tears and rage – shared story after story of what they had endured as people of color on that campus. And when the last student had shared the last story, he said, “Hmmm. That hasn’t been my experience on this campus.”
And of course it hadn’t. He was the most powerful person around. And he was – is – a rich, straight, white man. The experiences of the Ottawa’s young students of color were not the same as his experiences. But they could have been part of his consciousness. Those stories could have become part of the knowledge he carried around about what constitutes the environment he shares with those students. Their experiences could have opened his eyes, his ears, his heart, so that he might learn to protect and advocate for Ottawa’s students of color; he might stand, to the extent he is able, in solidarity with them.
The president of Ottawa was lucky. He didn’t know it, but he was being offered a real gift. Neighbors do not always say, “Have a seat. Let me tell you about the injustices I suffer on a daily basis.” Partly because that’s exhausting. And partly because they’re not being asked.
But listen: In our story, Jesus asks two questions. I mean, I know you probably know this story – but did you know that Jesus asks two questions? And they’re not quite the same. The lawyer asks him: What must I do? And Jesus answers not with another question, but with two. He asks: What has been written? And then he asks: How do you read it?
What has been written? Right? The answer to the lawyer’s question has already been given. It’s been recorded in the very books the lawyer has spent his life studying. And the lawyer knows it. And Jesus knows the lawyer knows it. So Jesus makes the lawyer tell him: What has been written? And the lawyer does: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, all your strength and all your mind. And, you must love your neighbor as yourself.”
The lawyer answers the first question. And then he falls silent. Jesus also asked, “How do you read it?” He gives the lawyer the chance to explain why he has the question. What it is in him that is wondering…
Is it that he wants to test Jesus? That’s what some interpretations say: that he thinks this law will be a good foundation on which to challenge Jesus. Or does he really not understand what has been written? Does he think it can’t be that hard? Does he read skeptically? Does he read hesitantly, unsure of the parameters, needing the terms to be clarified? That’s what his next question would lead us to think. Does he read mournfully, knowing the impossibility of the call? How does he read it?
We don’t know – he doesn’t answer that question. But, even still, it might be really important that he’s asked it. It might be that even before Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan, he’s giving his hearers an example of how to be a neighbor.
Think about it: Aren’t there some situations, where the second question makes all the difference? What if someone would have stopped the priest, or the Levite, and asked: What happened by the side of the road? How do you see it?
To the first question they could have said: There’s a man who’s been attacked. He’s struggling.
But to the second question, what would they have said? How do I see him? I see through my fear, through my prejudice, through my regret, through my anger…
Maybe the priest would have said: I see through the lens of my occupation, which compels me to remain ritually pure, and so forbids me to have contact with this man, though he is obviously suffering. I see through my competing commitments to tend to an individual in need and to tend to a community in need. I see through a worldview that asks me to consider the consequences to my own good standing before I consider the well-being of a man who’s been knocked down.
Because it’s the honesty that makes all of those answers unbearable. It’s the speaking of the truth – the answer to the “how do you see it?” – that reveals the flaw in the response, and exposes it for the farce that it is, or exposes the injustice of the systems themselves, that keep the priest and Levite bound. But unless all that is spoken – unless someone dares to ask – this illusion that there’s a reasonable justification for passing by is maintained.
But the second question doesn’t only strip the priest and the Levite of their excuses. It also gives them the chance to speak their own pain. Right?
“How do I see? I see with empathy, because I know what it is to be left alone and in need.” Maybe the Levite would have said: “I see deeply, because I know that man’s story – I know more than you can know by looking, because he hangs out around the temple often – but I do not know how to help him.” Or the priest: “I see with the kind of fatigue that comes from answering other people’s needs all day long; I see in that man’s body what I feel in my own spirit.”
There are only so many ways you can answer the first questions. What is written in the law? What is happening by the side of the road?
But the second – how do you read it? How do you see it? – the possibilities for those answers are endless. The first questions, we can call out to one another as we run out to grab the newspaper from the driveway. The second questions, we have to invite people to sit on our porch for, and bring them lemonade. The second questions take time. They take energy. And because they do, they make neighbors. If we have the patience to listen. But our patience is misplaced. We have been too patient, for too long, with injustice – thinking in a generation or two, these ills that plague will have worked themselves out. Because we’re making this slow progress, right?
William Sloane Coffin pastored the Riverside Church in New York City during the 70s and 80s, left to devote his time fully to disarmament. He was living in Connecticut when that state first began its consideration of same-sex unions, and closed a Letter to the Editor about that consideration with this:
“As a male I consider myself at best a recovering chauvinist. As a white person I am a recovering racist, and as a straight person a recovering heterosexist. To women, African-Americans, gays, and lesbians, I am deeply grateful for stretching my mind, deepening my heart, and convincing me that no human being should ever be patient with prejudice at the expense of its victims.”
Perhaps what we need to make time for are the stories people tell in response to the second question, when we have the courage and heart to ask it. Because you know what we would hear, don’t you?
We could ask anyone on the street: What was the verdict last night? How did you hear it?
And each person’s answer to the first question is the same. Not guilty, second degree murder. Not guilty, manslaughter.
But to the second question? How did you hear it?
Some people will say that’s the only way it could have ended. Given the laws in Florida, the ways the case was brought and the way it proceeded, there wasn’t another possible ending.
And some people will say that this is proof – on top of proof on top of proof, as if we needed more – that as a society we believe some people’s lives as disposable. That some people’s fear is worth preserving and some people’s lives aren’t worth protecting. That just as it has so many times in the past, the system has failed those among us who are most vulnerable.
And some people – some fathers – will say that they hear it, pained, not only for themselves but because they do not know how to tell the story to their sons. They do not know what precautions to take. They do not ever want to let those young black boys leave their sides again.
And some people will tell you – some young black women will tell you, like young black women did in the 1920s, like they have at numerous times throughout American history – that the “how-do-I-talk-to-my-son” question is no longer relevant. Because they will not have babies. They will not bring children into a world where they cannot even reasonably assume they might be safe. This is the conversation my former students were having last night.
And maybe some people will not even talk about it. Because they are exhausted. Because, like the Psalmist said so long ago, their tears have been their pillow all night long.
And in and around and despite all of that, there come these two more questions, always present with us:
What is the Gospel? How do you hear it?
To the first, we can say: The Gospel is the good news that in Jesus, God came to be with us, to be neighbor to us and show us how to be, to teach us that the Kingdom of God is – somehow – already breaking through, is here among us now. That wherever we gather, and whenever we love, and we listen, and we repent, and we make peace, and we seek justice, and we call on God, God is there, loving us, making us and all things new. That’s the Gospel.
Now: how do you hear it?
How do you live it?