Go and Do Likewise

Robert S. Turner
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
July 10, 2016
Luke 10:25–37

About a year ago, just a few weeks before Sarah and I left Cooperstown, I had a
conversation with a fellow pastor who took a surprisingly adamant stance against the
practice of preaching from the lectionary. I had said that I found it to be a helpful
discipline, in that I could not simply rely on a few “pet” texts, but had to work to discern
what God was trying to say in the four set readings each week. The other pastor took
what I thought was excessive umbrage at this, saying that the lectionary handcuffed the
Spirit of God, and that it was wrong of me not to let the Spirit speak from any part of the
Bible on any given Sunday. As calmly as I could manage, I told him that he might be
surprised how often the readings for a particular Sunday and the events of the
preceding week lined up in an almost eerie way.
If I had that good gentleman here today, I would say to him, “See?”
After the week we have had here in our country, with implicit and explicit racial hatred,
unnecessary, careless violence, and the ever more shrill and polarized screaming of the
Internet’s denizens, what could be more appropriate than a passage that focuses on the
question, “Who is my neighbor?”
Everybody knows the story of the Good Samaritan, or has at least heard of it and knows
its bare outlines. The part of the story that everyone knows is the parable proper, in
which a Samaritan comes to the aid of a wounded man after two others pass by on the
other side of the road. But this parable is set in a frame, and as any student of
storytelling or literature could tell you, when you have a frame around a story, the frame
is more important for the purposes of interpretation than the story itself. “The Rime of
the Ancient Mariner,” for instance, cannot be properly understood if one focuses only on
the mariner’s experience on board the ship and ignores the significance of his
interaction with the person he tells his story to at the seaside tavern. That frame is there
for a reason, and one cannot fully understand what Coleridge is trying to say without
making an effort to discern the reason for the frame.
The same is true of this story in the tenth chapter of Luke. We can’t really know the
significance of the Samaritan’s actions if we look at them apart from the conversation
that forms its context. In that conversation between Jesus and a lawyer, the latter
stands up to test the former with the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (v.
25). As he so often does, Jesus turns the question around, saying, “What is written in
the law? What do you read there?” (v. 26). The lawyer responds with the same
distillation of the law into two commandments that elsewhere in the gospels Jesus
himself endorses: “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” (v. 27). Jesus tells him he’s right. “Do this,” he says, “and you will live” (v. 28).
But the guy’s a lawyer, and a simple answer—especially one that does not give him the
upper hand—is not good enough. So he asks a follow-up. Luke says he does so in
order to “justify himself” (v. 29). He may still be testing Jesus, he may even be laying a
trap for him, but more than that he wants to pin down the rabbi in a way that clarifies
some of these vague notions and makes himself look good before his peers in the
process, so he says, “And who is my neighbor?” (v. 29).
This question, and the subtle but significant way Jesus restates it after the parable, form
the crux of this entire passage. Who is my neighbor?
When the lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?” his intention is an all-too-human one: he
wants to limit his circle of concern. Okay, so the law says I am to love my neighbor as
myself, but how am I to define the term neighbor? Is it the person who lives in the
apartment below me? Is it my coworker, the people in my spin class at the gym, the
barista who misspells my name on my cup of latte every morning? I’m a lawyer; I deal in
specifics. Tell me who my neighbor is and I will love that person (whatever that means
… but one question at a time).
The subtext of all this is, of course, “Who is not my neighbor?” Who do I not have to
love? Give me the parameters so I know who falls inside and who outside the circle of
my concern. Show me how to determine whom I have to care about and whom I can
safely ignore and still be on God’s good side.
Jesus knows that this is the real motive behind the lawyer’s question, so he tells his
parable and then reframes the question. He says, “Which of [the characters in the
story], do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the
robbers?” (v. 36). The right question is not, “Who is my neighbor?” It is, “To whom can I
be a neighbor?” It’s a subtle but profound change in perspective.
In the parable itself, a man is traveling on the notoriously dangerous road from
Jerusalem to Jericho and gets attacked by bandits. They rob him, beat him to a pulp,
and leave him for dead. First a priest and then a Levite are coming down the same
stretch of road and, when they see the wounded man, cross over to the other side of the
road and keep going. A third traveler, who just happens to hail from a despised and
marginalized ethnic group, sees the man and goes to great lengths (at considerable
personal risk) to provide emergency first aid and then to subsidize his further care.
Many of us who have heard this story eighteen gazillion times tend to vilify the priest
and Levite, but that is not necessarily Jesus’s point. They actually take the more prudent
course; one that many of us would take in similar circumstances. How are they to know
that the guy is really in need, and not in fact one of the bandits himself, playacting at
being wounded in order to lure them over to be ambushed? It has happened before.
That’s how Buffalo Bill abducts the senator’s daughter in The Silence of the Lambs. He
preys upon her natural compassion in order to get her in his grasp. In hindsight, who
could have blamed her for saying, “I’m really sorry you’re having so much trouble
moving that couch, but I’m going to keep on walking”?
Jesus’s point is not that the priest and Levite are especially cold, unfeeling people, but
rather that the third traveler is remarkable in his bravery and his insistence on acting
with compassion despite all the legitimate risks and obstacles involved. He does not ask
the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” in order to justify his passing by on the
other side. Rather, he asks Jesus’s question, “How can I be a neighbor to this person in
The difference between the Samaritan and the priest and Levite is that, while the latter
two see the wounded man and cross to the other side of the road, the Samaritan draws
near to the man and sees him. They see from a distance and opt for the safer, more
prudent course. He sees up close, and once he has done so, he can no longer in good
conscience choose not to help. Even though, if the situation were reversed, it is possible
or even likely that the man would leave him for dead, maybe even spitting on him as he
went by. The only good Samaritan is a dead Samaritan and all that. But our Samaritan,
when he draws near and sees this Jew in need, puts that out of his mind and acts as a
neighbor to him.
How much of the turmoil we have seen in our country in recent weeks and months and
years, and especially in the past week, arises from or at least gets exacerbated by our
failure to draw near to others? How many racist impressions and ideological stances get
entrenched rather than challenged because we are content to see from a distance and
draw our conclusions? How much fear and distrust, and the violence that grows in that
fetid soil, could be dispelled if we would only draw near to those who from a distance
look so foreign and scary to us?
At the Chop Shop the other night, a group of us got together for Theology & Ethics on
Tap, and the subject of our conversation was, not surprisingly, how we as persons of
faith and as a community of faith ought to respond to incidents like what we saw in
Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and Dallas last week. Someone brought up the role of social
media, noting the irony that, despite the ubiquity of apps and web sites that purport to
bring us together, many people seem to be growing more and more isolated and
alienated. Another person noted that these sites very often devolve into nothing more
than platforms for people to shout their screed and then walk away with their fingers in
their ears. It made me think of the Orwellian nature of the term “sharing,” as used when
talking about social media. Instead of “Share this story,” perhaps the buttons and links
ought to say, “With an utter lack of reflective or critical thinking, use this story as a
bludgeon against anyone who dares to disagree with you.” It would make for an
unwieldy button to be sure, but it would more accurately reflect what happens on
Facebook and Twitter and the like.
Our conversation also made me think of a recent New Yorker article that tries to make
sense of the Donald Trump phenomenon—in particular, why his campaign has attracted
the distinctive following it has. The writer observes the rapidly increasing polarization of
our society, put on full display at rally after rally where Trump supporters and anti-Trump
protestors shout past each other, insult each other, and sometimes sucker-punch each
other, all because the differences in the narratives in which each side finds its meaning
resemble an unbridgeable chasm between utterly foreign lands. He suggests that the
many technological advances we have seen in recent decades is partly to blame. Forty
or fifty years ago, people who disagreed politically at least had a shared narrative.
Three television networks, the Associated Press, and a handful of highly influential
newspapers and periodicals provided the basic information that the different sides then
interpreted differently. Now, however, we have so many news outlets, blogs,
ideologically driven cable TV networks and AM talk radio shows, social media platforms,
message boards, fringe web sites, and so on, that everyone can choose the reality she
wishes to accept. If you watch MSNBC or read the Huffington Post, you are likely to
have a take on what’s going on in America that is so utterly different from what someone
believes who gets his information from Fox News and Glenn Beck that it will look like
you come from two different countries.
We can decry this situation all we want, but the reality is that the genie is out of the
bottle and there is no going back to the way it was before. When we hear about police
officers shooting black men who are either already subdued or are actually trying to
comply with their instructions, and about a black man who shoots twelve police officers,
killing five of them, because he says he wants to exterminate white people, especially
white cops, it’s hard to see any hope for rapprochement. When we hear so-called
pundits on television and read the opinions of so-called human beings on the Internet
offering knee-jerk reactions based on ideological conformity rather than actual brain
activity, and then hear the shrill and equally thoughtless responses from those on the
other side, it sounds like a bad joke to call this nation the United States of America.
What the Good Samaritan story tells us in this context is that if we ever want to make a
dent in the armor we and everyone else clothe ourselves in, seeking protection from
whatever it is that threatens us—violence, otherness, new ideas—we must draw near to
one another. Sure, it’s a risk. Maybe the guy is just pretending to be hurt in order to take
advantage of us. Even if he’s not in cahoots with the bandits, who’s to say that if we
stop to help we won’t meet the same fate as he? Sure, it’s hard. When we think of all
the ways people who look like the wounded man have hurt, oppressed, insulted, even
killed people who look like me, it’s tempting to consider his fate deserved and just keep
walking. Sometimes the frustration and impotent rage get so bad that we’re tempted to
take our rifles to the parking garage and start shooting the people who, though
themselves innocent, symbolize the guilty. Sure, it’s inconvenient and uncomfortable.
Really to care for this wounded man means that we will have to put our own plans on
hold for as long as it takes, and do we really want to take on that kind of open-ended
commitment when it would be easier to pretend we never saw him in the first place?
Jesus says the Samaritan drew near to the wounded man. Once he had done that and
really seen the person in the fullness of his need, his conscience would not allow him to
cross over to the other side. He had to help. He had to set aside the enmity, the
suspicion, the ideology that told him to fear and shun the man, and act as a neighbor to
him. And what Jesus tells the lawyer to close the all-important interpretive frame he tells
each of us as well: “Go and do likewise.”
Draw near. See. Act with compassion. Be a neighbor. Stand for justice. No matter the
cost to us personally; no matter the risks or expenses or burdens we will incur in doing
so; no matter if doing so has the capacity to shake us and all the fine architecture we
have constructed to protect ourselves and our worldview to the very foundations, go and
do likewise.