Labels, titles can be misleading

The Standard September 25, 2019

Jesus had an uncanny knack for turning people’s expectations on their heads. His parable of the Good Samaritan, found only in the Gospel of Luke, did just that. An expert in the law, perhaps a member of the Pharisees sect, tried to test Jesus by asking what he had to do to attain eternal life. Jesus responded by questioning him about what he read in the Law. The man then quoted the Shema, a prayer taken from Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18 which was repeated several times a day by Jewish people. “’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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Luke 10:27)

Jesus told the man that he had given the correct answer and that he would live if he did those things. The expert in the law wanted to justify himself, however, and asked exactly who was his neighbor. He wanted to know the extent to which he had to offer kindness. How many groups or classes of people did this cover? “In reply Jesus said: ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ ‘Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’ The expert in the law replied, ‘The one who had mercy on him.’ Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise.’” (Luke 10:30-37)

To the Jewish listeners this parable would have been offensive, blowing away their expectations. The last kind of person they would have imagined extending help would have been a Samaritan. How could someone from what they considered to be the most despised race – a pagan half-breed – have been the only one to stop and help the injured man? Not only did the Samaritan stop to help him but he gave the equivalent of a laborer’s two-day wage for his room and care. The Samaritans were such outcasts that in those days Jews would not have spoken to them and often would have taken a longer route to a destination in order to avoid going through Samaria. Jews considered this central highland region of Israel between Galilee and Judea to be corrupted or polluted. Notice that the expert in the law in his reply told Jesus that “the one who had mercy on him” acted as a neighbor but did not describe the helper as a Samaritan.

The two men who passed on the other side were religious men from the Tribe of Levi. Priests were set apart by God, totally committed to their duties and highly respected. They could not touch a dead body or anything with blood on it without becoming unclean. Getting too close to a dead body would require a week of performing rituals before being purified or the cost of new robes if one had to rend his garments. These religious men were concerned about keeping the letter of the law while missing the heart of the law.

Jesus highlighted the fact that our neighbor is anyone who needs help. His parable also demonstrated how deceptive labels and titles can be. If we believe that those of a certain social level, political persuasion or race are more or less inclined to be kind we are gravely mistaken. Helpers often come from places society least expects.

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