The Priest, Levite, or Samaritan: Who Are We? Pentecost 5

The Priest, Levite, or Samaritan: Who Are We? Pentecost 5

Year C, Proper 10, The Fifth Sunday After Pentecost
July 10, 2022

Year C:    Amos 7:7-17; Psalm 82; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37

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In the Gospel you have just heard, you might have noticed the lawyer and his question: “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Without addressing the lawyer’s privilege to assume that he was entitled to inherit eternal life, Jesus, cutting to the chase and in a markedly Lucan move, makes the lawyer answer his own question. I hope we all know the answer: “you shall 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.”[1]

The lawyer knew his law. That was a correct reading of the law.

The man, though, could not settle for that. It leads the man to the next question, “And who is my neighbor?

Leave it to a lawyer to try and find an out to what is pretty straightforward, clear, and very traditional: “Love God and your neighbor.”

Some people think he was asking: “who is deserving of my love? Who is fit to be my neighbor? ” The lawyer probably asks other questions like “does tithe mean before or after taxes?”

Who is my neighbor?

Sometimes when people ask these sorts of questions, they are genuinely asking a question. But at other times, people ask these questions to justify not doing something God has commanded. The time-honored way to ignore what God commands is to set it up as a legalism. The text is clear that this is precisely what the man who was asking the question was trying to do.

Do any of you remember the phrase, “deserving poor?” Unfortunately, it’s a very legalistic phrase. When you use such a phrase, you shift from caring for the poor, one of Jesus’ commandments directly expressed in the 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, to a justification of precisely who is deserving of receiving care.

But, throughout the Gospels, Jesus tells us to love God and our neighbor.

Who is my neighbor?

To start, we know this is a parable and parables were designed to engage the imagination and challenge conventional wisdom. Amy-Jill Levine, a Professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt University, says that parables are tricky because they “challenge us to look into the hidden aspects of our own values, our own lives. They bring to the surface unasked questions that we have always known but refused to acknowledge.”[2]

Think of how the lawyer asks the questions or even why the lawyer asks the question, “who is my neighbor.”

The text doesn’t really tell us. We have no idea of the emotion behind the question.

So, here’s how I imagine the lawyer, and even some of us, might be asking the question about our neighbor.

Did he ask the question out of exasperation?

Or curiosity?

Or cynicism?

Or anger?

What words in the question did he emphasize?

How would it have sounded?

Did he ask,

WHO is my neighbor?” Or,

“Who IS my neighbor?” Or,

“Who is MY neighbor?” Or,

“Who is my NEIGHBOR?”

Jesus complicates the entire situation by telling a story instead of just giving a straightforward answer of “everyone is our neighbor.”

This morning, I invite you to join me in exploring hope amid some harsh realities.

Those of us of a certain age remember the 4th of July, Independence Day, as a relatively lazy summer day with hot dogs and hamburgers, swimming, and fireworks. I remember the hot, humid summer days along the Delaware River when I was a child. I remember as an adult going to the Ben Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia with amazing outdoor concerts and the best fireworks display I had ever seen. Don’t let anybody tell you New York’s are better. 😊 It was a day of joy.

Imagine the terror felt by families attending the Highland Park, IL parade this year, a town I know well. Imagine that seven people were left dead and dozens more injured in the carnage wrought by a 21-year-old. Imagine the terror of thousands of concert-goers in Philadelphia when the fireworks started, gunshots were fired, two police officers were hit, and thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of spectators scattered in all directions in fear.

Here’s the sad reality – in Highland Park, we know that the young man intentionally killed people and thought about killing more. In Philadelphia, it turns out that the bullets that hit the police officers were fired from more than a mile away and may well have been “celebratory gunfire.”

Who is our neighbor in these situations? The people killed in Highland Park, undoubtedly. The police officers shot in Philadelphia, of course. The parade and concert goers.

What about the young man who engaged in such evil and the genius who didn’t know the power of their gun.

It’s hard, it’s impossible, but EVERYONE is our neighbor.

The challenge for us in hearing the story yet again is to resist our certainty about it. First and foremost, the story is NOT a morality tale. Jesus is not simply telling the lawyer and other listeners to “be kind to the downtrodden.” While the world could undoubtedly use LOTS more kindness, and Christians have often failed in the kindness department through the centuries, that kind of summary completely misses the scandal of the story. And in missing the scandal, we become a scandal to the Gospel.

The first thing to remember is this. The hero in the story, the good neighbor, the Samaritan, was a member of an ethnic group the Jews hated. Oh, and to be clear, the Samaritan, as a representative of his ethnic group, would have happily returned the favor of distrust and hatred towards the Jews. The animosity between Samaritans and Jews went back for centuries. The Jews of Jesus’ day had such disdain for the Samaritans that when traveling from Judaea to Galilee or vice versa, they would quite literally cross the Jordan river twice to walk entirely around the Samaria region so that they could avoid getting Samaritan dirt on their sandals.

The second thing to remember is that the heartless people in the story are supposed to be holy. — the priest and the Levite — and they were the victim’s own people! A fellow Jew had been robbed, beaten to within an inch of his life, and they kept walking. Every time I read the story as a priest, I can’t help but wonder who I’m walking past day in and day out.

Here’s a true story that happened more than twenty-five years ago, but in the context of our world today and today’s Gospel, it still resonates. This appeared as an op-ed in The Philadelphia Daily News.

“On this day, I paused to evaluate my values, beliefs, and supposed good deeds.

I have always considered myself a good person, evidenced by my commitment to social justice, donations to charity, history of volunteer service, and constant prayer for those less fortunate. Why, just the previous week, I had written a check to a favorite charity in memory of my parents.

It was now acceptable to turn my focus to many details going on in my life. As I focused on those matters, I sidestepped a woman struggling with a girl about eight years old and three large trash bags. Rather than offer my assistance, I walked to the side.

Jolting me back to reality was the sound of another human being. A man stopped and asked, ‘Where d’ya have to go with that, sweetheart?’ This man wasn’t well-dressed; he surely didn’t have the weight of the world on his shoulders.

The woman thanked him and told him she needed to get to the city’s Office of Emergency Services to seek, I presume, shelter for herself and her daughter. The gentleman then kindly picked up a bag from the mother and the bag from the girl and proceeded to walk up the street, carrying what was probably all their worldly goods.

Your rector is not terribly to admit that I am the priest and Levite in that scene. Yet, it was also a moment of grace that allowed me to remember that I am forgiven, rescued from the power of darkness. And in being redeemed and forgiven, I am also told to show mercy and go and do likewise.

I ask you to think about who you pass daily.


[1] Luke 10:27, New Revised Standard Version (“NRSV”)

[2] Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (New York: HarperOne, Chalice Press, 2002), p. 3