By Jane Lancaster Patterson
Jesus said, “A person was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho.”
As a teacher myself, I love to watch Jesus in action as a teacher. I’ve taught long enough to recognize some of the basic kinds of students. They show up year after year with different names but the same ways of interacting with the process of learning. In my classroom, I’ve got two live wires, really smart, in the front row on my right. They would answer every question if I let them. They are right on track with what I’m teaching, but I don’t often learn something new from them. Then I’ve got a really sweet student who’s struggling to get anything at all from what I’m teaching, front left.
In the middle I’ve got some students who are really interested in what’s going on, but have to work to come up with something to say. They are among the many students whose early formation is in another tradition, so they’re trying to relate what I’m saying to what they learned as Baptists or Church of Christ or Nazarenes or Seventh-day Adventists. Right now, the Episcopal Church is drawing a lot of very dedicated Christians from a wide variety of other traditions, people who are looking for a way to connect with a sense of awe, and ancient forms of Christian practice and worship. That desire would characterize quite a few of my students.
On the back right row is a really interesting student, former Roman Catholic, who comes up with some of the best questions. He builds on what I’m teaching and takes it a step further.
And then back left is one of those students like the one who approached Jesus this morning, a challenger. The one who comes up to Jesus is called a “lawyer,” but what that means is that he’s a Torah scholar. The law he studies is the law embedded in the Scriptures. He’s come out to see who this Jesus is, to test him, to see if he’s the real thing or not.
In some ways, those are the best students of all. If they come to trust you, they are yours forever. And their challenges, coming from their expertise, might lead you as a teacher to the best insights you have all year. When the questioning is at its best, everybody gets changed for the good.
So this Torah expert approaches Jesus to test him and asks basically, “Teacher, what do I need to do to be in right relationship with God?”
To which Jesus makes a genius response: “I don’t know, what do you think? How do you read the Scriptures?”
The man gives essentially the “right answer.” He quotes the Scriptures: “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.”
Jesus says, “Great. Go for it.”
Our interpretation of their encounter depends upon how we imagine the man’s next question. Today, because of what I’m going through myself in terms of my own discipleship, I’m inclined to be sympathetic. So let’s imagine that the Torah scholar leans forward and says to Jesus with obvious anxiety, “Who is my neighbor?” Now that’s the kind of question that can push both teacher and student into uncharted waters.
I wonder if Jesus had just heard the account of the Samaritan recently and had been puzzling over it. I wonder whether Jesus himself has all the answers from the beginning, or whether this annoying student pushes even him into new understanding of what God is up to and what God is looking for from God’s people.
Who is my neighbor? To whom do I owe the same level of care that I would give to my own family, to my friends, to Rick across the street and Chuck next door and the new people who are fixing up the house two doors down? What do I owe to that father and his 2-year-old daughter lying face down, drowned in the Rio Grande? What do I owe to coal miners in Wyoming, losing their livelihood? What is God looking at? What is God paying attention to? Where am I in that picture?
Many of us are so familiar with the story of the so-called good Samaritan that we barely hear it anymore. But Jesus is a masterful storyteller, so I want to pay attention to a couple of details in how he tells this story. It helps to know that parables are essentially mouse traps in story form, and we are all mice. Parables tend to make our preconceived notions about the world both obvious and questionable. Parables catch us in our unexamined views and opinions.
Jesus begins the story, “Someone was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho.” All of the other characters are more narrowly defined: a group of robbers, a priest, a Levite, a Samaritan, and an innkeeper. If you are not one of these things, then that’s not you, that’s not your role in the story. The open place, the spot that beckons you to identify with it, is that of the unspecified person going down.
Technically, even the sex of that person is undefined, even though we always translate it as a man and depict the person that way. The whole story is really an invitation to imagine ourselves not as a person who has the means to help, but as the person going down. Someone was going down, beaten and left for dead, and everyone who noticed it tried to ignore it. As the story says, they passed by on the other side, putting as much distance as they could between themselves and the mangled body on the other side of the road.
No one wants to be the person going down, but it will happen to all of us, one way or another, whether we bring it on ourselves or it happens to us out of the blue: a failure, an addiction, a diagnosis, a catastrophe — so many ways to go down, to be abandoned by the side of the road. The Scripture scholar who approached Jesus with his questions was exactly the kind of person who is terrified of going down. His question indicates his anxiety about being right, being safe for eternity. And yet his question — “Who is my neighbor?” — may just be the thing that actually saves him from himself.
The commandment to love our neighbor as we love ourselves draws us steadily toward the place where we know that the one going down, the one dumped, helpless, by the side of the road might be, could be, must be … ourselves. The commandment does not say to love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves, but to love the neighbor as self. Our neighbor is us, our lives intertwined, our well-being a shared experience.
In the parable, Jesus opens up a space for the scholar — and us — to imagine ourselves going down: the decisions that took us to that very spot on the road, the realization of danger, the rain of blows, the complete lack of ability to help ourselves, the abandonment. Jesus is schooling us in neighborliness by teaching us how to imagine someone else’s experience as our own.
This is precisely the move the Samaritan makes. We get distracted by all the things he does, but the things he does to care for the stranger all begin when he looks at the other and sees himself. The story says literally that the Samaritan looked and had gut-wrenching compassion for the person. His stomach did flip-flops because he could vividly imagine in his own body the depths of his enemy’s pain and need.
When the Samaritan crosses the road to cradle the stranger in his arms and pours oil and wine on the wounds, he imitates the pouring of oil and wine by priests over the sacrifices in the Jerusalem temple. In other words, that moment when distinctions between self and other disappear is sacramental, a blooming of God’s grace in the midst of brokenness.
Parables are not an instruction manual. At the end, Jesus doesn’t underscore the lesson. Instead, he asks a question: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” Still remembering what it felt like to be the half-dead person by the side of the road, the lawyer says, “The one doing mercy.” And Jesus responds, “Go and do the same.”
I think we often search too quickly for the message at the end of the story, thinking that going and doing are the point. While the point is really at the beginning: in our ability to imagine ourselves as the person going down; and then in the middle: to allow that imagination to become visceral compassion ushering in a skillful, generous, and gracious response.
This is what God was doing in Jesus: putting Godself in our place, knowing our pain from the inside out, pouring out mercy and grace over our wounds. In Christ, God chooses to be neighbor to us, loving us as God’s own self.
I don’t know who would have been the most challenging neighbor for the man who tested Jesus that day. Was it Samaritans? Romans? Tax collectors? Whose pain was he terrified to identify with? Whose pain did his social group tell him not to identify with?
I am convinced that Christians, following the teachings of Jesus with courage and perseverance, have a saving role to play in our current national impasse. The ancient parable we heard this morning points toward a practice of identification with others that is a remedy for the intensity with which we have been distancing ourselves from one another, concerned to describe with absolute clarity how we are not that other thing we detest. My suggestion is that we who are doing okay stop focusing on each other altogether and start paying attention to who is really going down.
Who is my neighbor? Jesus says neighborliness is hidden in the one going down, the one whose story you most want to escape. Join that wounded stranger by the side of the road. Look up at the passersby through your swollen eye. Let God find the two of you there, in the place where love has dissolved the fence between self and neighbor. This place where you do not want to go is where boundless life begins. Thanks be to God.
The Rev. Dr. Jane Lancaster Patterson is a former associate professor of New Testament at Seminary of the Southwest, Austin, Texas.