Earlier this week, I was working on my sermon, and during my lunch break, my husband asked me what I was preaching on this week. So I told him that it was Luke’s version of “The Good Samaritan,” to which he immediately responded: “ah, one of the classics!” Which left me thinking, “what a perfect description of this parable!” The parable of the Good Samaritan is a well known story, and probably one of the best known parables found in the Christian Bible. It’s a classic for several reasons. One is that many people have heard of this parable, and not just those within the Christian tradition. The other is that it is one of the parables that we often refer to as an example of what it means to be Christian. We learn about it through picture books as children, in Sunday School and Vacation Bible School programs, and we hear it over and over again in church. It’s not just well known, but it’s well loved because of it’s simple message. Which also means that when we hear a biblical ‘classic’ we sometimes find ourselves sighing and thinking ‘not again.’ We think we’ve heard all there is to know about classics like the Good Samaritan, and, as the minister, I have to confess that even I find myself thinking “I have nothing new to share.” But there’s a reason we continue to turn to the classics, not just in scripture, but within all literature. We do so, because they touch us, inspire us, and continue to bring new light into our lives, even when we think there’s nothing more to see. Which is why, even though we may feel we’ve heard it all, we’re invited this morning to explore the beloved “Good Samaritan Parable.” And so where do we go with this story? We know the story well. Jesus is questioned by a lawyer about attaining Eternal Life, who asks: “who is my neighbour.” Instead of offering up a well thought out theological viewpoint, Jesus tells a parable. As the story goes, a man is travelling along a road when he is robbed and beaten, and left on the side of the road to die. As he lies there, a Priest goes by, sees him, does nothing. The same goes for a Levite. Then, a Samaritan comes along. An outcast, a member of another religion that wasn’t accepted by the Jewish people. Someone who was vilified, hated even, for being different. Yet this is the one who stops, helps, even pays for his care at an inn. With the well known moral at the end of the story: be like the Samaritan. But there’s more to the story than what we are familiar with. In fact, it’s about more than just ‘being like the Samaritan.” It’s about discovering not only “who is our neighbour” but “what does a neighbour look and act like?” But at the beginning, the Lawyer first approaches Jesus with a much larger question: “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Instead of answering it for him, Jesus encourages the Lawyer to offer his own answer, coming from Jewish scriptures and law: to “ . . .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 your neighbor as yourself.” Which is where the question “who is my neighbour” comes from, moving the discussion to a deeper level. A question he most likely already knows the answer to, atleast in the legal sense. Because as we hear above, Jewish law and tradition states that one is to “love your neighbour as yourself.” And Leviticus 19 elaborates on this more, commanding the following: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.” And then “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” It was a part of Jewish teaching that they were to care for their neighbours-known and unknown. Resident and foreigner alike. So instead of answering the question asked, as Michael Rogness puts it, Jesus’ parable answers the question: “who proved to be a neighbour?” Or, to look at it another way, what does a neighbour do? Because as the lawyer answers, the neighbour was the one who “showed him mercy.” In our parable, to be a neighbour, there is only one characteristic that matters: showing mercy. It’s not about how close you live to the person. It’s not about what their job is. It’s not about the clothes they wear, or how much money they have, or what kind of vehicle they drive. It’s not about race or culture, language or religion. It’s about what they do, that counts. Does a person show ‘mercy’ to others? Do we show mercy to others? An important question to ask of ourselves, even as we might wonder, what exactly do we mean when we say “mercy?” What does mercy look like? Traditionally, we think of mercy in relation to showing compassion to someone where we also have the power to punish them. For example, a judge might show mercy on a criminal, or a bully shows mercy to their intended victim. In both cases, the one showing mercy is in a position of power, they can show compassion and leniancy or they can choose to punish or harm them. We even see this understanding when we talk about God “showing mercy on us.” Where humanity is seen as lowly, unfavourable, unworthy of compassion and love. In this case mercy and punishment are opposites. But there’s another way to understand mercy. In his book “Speaking Christian. . .” Marcus Borg offers up a different way of understanding mercy. One that goes back to it’s more ancient roots. He writes: “the fuller meaning of the ancient words [mercy and merciful] is better conveyed in English by compassion and compassionate.” Borg then goes on to write that compassion “. . .is based on Latin roots that mean to ‘feel with’-to feel the feelings of another. . .but it is more than a feeling; it includes acting in accord with that feeling.” And if we consider the Hebrew translation for compassion, Borg points out that it would translate as ‘womb.’ So, as he writes, “ to be compassionate is to be womb-like: life-giving, nourishing, perhaps embracing and encompassing.” So when we view mercy through the lens of compassion, it is not about power over another person. It’s not about judgement, or about someone doing something wrong, that then causes their current circumstance. The person who was robbed did nothing wrong. He didn’t cause his injuries, he didn’t invite another person to rob him. And so, the Samaritan, in showing ‘mercy’ was actually showing compassion. He was being a neighbour, by showing compassion. Or, as the law states, he was loving his neighbour as he loves himself. Because as Borg writes: “mercy is a reactive virtue. . .compassion covers a much larger area of life, indeed all of life; we are to be compassionate.” So returning to our parable, the moral is that the Samaritan is the one who showed compassion, and we should go and do the same. We are to be like the Samaritan and show compassion towards others, by being a neighbour. Which is what our parable seeks to help the lawyer, and us, understand. Being a neighbour isn’t about being nice, or tolerating the people around us. And it isn’t about showing pity towards the helplessness of others. It’s about seeing a need, it’s about feeling compassson towards that need, and it’s about a desire to respond in some way. Whether it’s through a smile, a kind word, a helping hand, or more. So what does a neighbour do? A neighbour shows compassion. A neighbour shows the compassion and love that God shows us. And so who is a neighbour? Anyone who lives their lives in this way. And that’s it. There’s no other criteria, a neighbour is one who shows compassion. And our neighbour is anyone who we meet in this life. Friends and strangers, people nearby and those on the other side of the world. The expected and the unexpected person we meet. So what is the moral of our classic story? As I stated at the beginning, it’s a simple parable with a big yet livable message. Go and be the unexpected neighbour. Go and show compassion to those you meet. Go, and show mercy. Embody God’s love to all, each and every day.
“Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power-and How They Can Be Restored” by Marcus J. Borg