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Questions Jesus Asks Us: “Which of These Three Do You Think Was a Neighbor?”

March 4, 2012


Sermon:  Questions Jesus Asks Us: “Which of These Three Do You Think Was a Neighbor?” 
Text:  Luke 10:25-37

In his Lyman-Beecher lectures at Yale Divinity School, entitled Overhearing the Gospel, Fred Craddock said that Christians have heard the gospel so many times that they tend not to listen anymore.  He stated that we have heard certain passages so often that we think we know everything about them.  Certainly the parable we will consider today is one such example.

How many sermons have you heard about the parable of the Good Samaritan?  How many sermons have I preached about the parable of the Good Samaritan in the past sixteen years?  I invite you to come to this familiar narrative today with fresh ears.  Let’s see if we can examine it in a new and fresh way for our day and ask what we can glean from our understanding.  As we continue the series of sermons Questions Jesus Asks Us, we need to take seriously Jesus’ question, “Who is your neighbor?” 

I read now this parable from Luke 10:25-37.  I invite you to follow along with me.  Hear now the Word of God.


25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

27 He answered, “‘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.’”

28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

30 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. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 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. 35 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.’

36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”


This is the Word of God for the people of God.

The Good Samaritan is such a familiar story that it has woven itself into our culture in a variety of ways.  We have all heard of Samaritan’s Purse, an organization devoted to providing aid to the world’s poor, sick, and suffering, all in the name of Christ Jesus.  Almost every state in this country has a Good Samaritan law, including South Carolina.  The law simply states that a civil suit cannot be brought against anyone who renders emergency aid to an injured person.  That person shall not be liable for the assistance he or she does or does not provide for the injured.

We have heard of many Good Samaritan deeds.  Just this past Christmas in Burlington, North Carolina, a husband and wife decided that instead of exchanging Christmas gifts, they would give a gift of another kind.  They went to a big box store and made purchases of clothing and toys to give to an indigent family.  Unable to pay for the entire purchase, the couple put a good portion of it on layaway.  Another individual who remained anonymous had also decided to be a Good Samaritan at Christmastime.  That person went to the same store and paid the balance due on those layaway items.  These good deeds are examples of pass-it-forward occasions.  The indigent family received items they needed.  The couple purchasing those items received financial assistance from someone they did not even know.

We have all heard of Good Samaritan acts that have gone wrong.  Perhaps you have heard the story about a man driving a bus during a terrible snowstorm in Denver, Colorado.  When two elderly women exited the vehicle, he helped them cross the street.  As the driver was returning to his bus, the driver of a pickup truck hit and injured him.  The police officer investigating the accident charged the bus driver with jay walking.  Mishaps happen with some frequency.

The Gospel of Luke records this encounter between Jesus and a lawyer, a teacher of the religious law, who asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus uses an old rabbinical technique of answering a question with a question, “What does the law say?”  Jesus is not engaging the lawyer in a time of questions and answers.  This is a time of questions and questions.

This lawyer knows the correct response as evident in his recitation of the Shema.  He refers to what Jesus identifies in the Gospel of Mark as the greatest commandment:  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.”  Then the lawyer adds another commandment by quoting from the Holiness Code:  “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”

In order to justify himself, the lawyer pushes Jesus, presses him, by asking, “And who is my neighbor?”

Jesus answers this question by using a second rabbinical technique.  He tells a parable, beginning the story after a band of robbers has already beaten and robbed a Jewish man.  The story is set in a dangerous location, a bad neighborhood, along a road from Jerusalem – about 2700 feet above sea level – to Jericho.  This road drops an elevation of about 3500 feet over the course of twenty-one miles.

At that time and even into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this particular road was sometimes called The Bloody Way.  All along the road are cliffs, caves, and places where bands of clever thieves could hide.  Sometimes they would block the road, preventing the traveler from continuing his journey, until they robbed the individual.  Sometimes one of the robbers’ own would feign an injury.  When a passerby stopped to help, the bandits would come out of hiding and take advantage of the traveler.  That would be an example of a Good Samaritan deed gone wrong.

It would be so easy to blame the victim.  You might think, What in the world is the fellow doing by traveling this road by himself?  Surely he knows the danger.  This is his fault.  He should have known better than to travel along that road.

Jesus simply directs, “Look at the three men who come upon the scene and see this injured traveler.”  The first person, a priest, passes by, wanting nothing to do with the victim.  Some explain the priest’s reluctance to approach; he would be considered ritually unclean for a week if he touched a dead body.  As the parable unfolds, we get the impression that the priest has already been to Jerusalem and is now returning to Jericho, maybe traveling with some kind of entourage.  Maybe he and the Levite, the second traveler Jesus mentions, are traveling together.  The Levite seems to take a closer look, but he considers the man a poor fellow and continues on his way.

The third traveler is a Samaritan.  You know that Jews and Samaritans had all kinds of hostility toward each other.  You know of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman.  Other places in Scripture mention that Jesus is unwelcome because he is Jewish.  This third fellow, considered a half-breed by Jews, bandages the man’s wounds, takes him to a place where he can receive additional medical aid, and sees to it that the expenses are paid.

The Samaritan, too, seems to be traveling alone in this perilous place.  Who in the world would accompany a Samaritan on this trip?  Some speculate that perhaps he was a traveling salesman.  He has apparently traveled this road previously.  He certainly seems to know the innkeeper, and the innkeeper trusts that the Samaritan will return and pay whatever he might owe for the man’s care.

The Samaritan’s assistance is provided at great risk.  Suppose a band of robbers is using this ploy to ambush him.  Suppose a Jewish person comes upon the scene as the Samaritan is hovering over this wounded man.  The Samaritan would likely be suspected of causing the bodily harm.  The Samaritan dismissed any thought of danger to himself in order to care for the wounded man.

Jesus is careful to identify those who pass by without offering any assistance as religious leaders.  The first two men are keepers of the law, but being a doer of the law is more important.  The Samaritan does the law by stopping and helping.  According to this parable, the crime of doing bodily harm, of robbing a person, is bad; but the crime of ignoring a person in need is equally as bad.  Jesus puts keeping the law and doing the law side-by-side.  Loving our neighbor is not something we feel.  It is something we do.  Jesus addresses faith in action in the parable.

After telling the story, Jesus again turns to the lawyer and asks another question, “Which one was the neighbor?”

It is as if the lawyer cannot even say the word Samaritan.  He just answers, “The one who showed mercy.”

Jesus directs, “Go and do likewise.”

I have heard the parable of the Good Samaritan many times over a long, long time.  I remember teachers using flannel boards to teach me the story when I was a child.  I first understood the parable of the Good Samaritan fully in 1970 when Clarence Jordan published a book entitled The Cotton Patch Version of Luke and Acts.   Jordan paraphrases the parable by putting it in the context of Georgia, by describing it in terms of the Deep South.

             One day a teacher of an adult Bible class got up and tested him with this question:  “What does one have to do to be saved?”

Jesus replied, “What does the Bible say?”

The teacher answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your physical strength and with all your mind.’  ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’”

“That is correct,” said Jesus.  “Make a habit of this, and you will be saved.”

The Sunday School teacher, trying to save face, asked, “But just who is my neighbor?”

Then Jesus laid into him and said, “A white man was going from Atlanta to Albany.  Some gangsters held him up.  After they had robbed him of his wallet and his brand new suit, they beat him up and drove off in his car, leaving him unconscious on the shoulder of the highway.

“Now it just happened that a white preacher was going by.  When he saw the fellow, he stepped on the gas and scooted right on by.  Shortly afterwards, a white gospel song leader came down the road.  When he saw what had happened, he too stepped on the gas and sped away.  Then a black man, traveling in his pickup truck came that way and saw the fellow.  He was moved to tears.  He stopped, bound up the wounds as best he could, drew some water from his water jug to wipe away the blood, and then laid him on the backseat of the pickup truck.  He drove into Albany and took him to the hospital.  He said to the nurse, “You take good care of this white man.  I found him on the highway.  Here are the only $2 I have.  You keep an account.  When payday comes, I will come back and settle up with you.”

“Now, if you had been the man held up by the gangsters, which of these three – the white preacher, the white song leader, or the black man – would you consider to have been your neighbor?”

The teacher of the adult Bible class said, “Of course the…I mean…the one who treated him kindly.”

Jesus said, “You get going and start living like that.”

Most of us think that Jesus is telling us to be like the Samaritan.  We are supposed to help people who are down and out, to help people who are having a hard time.  Being a Christian does means helping people who are less fortunate than ourselves.  That is the way we are supposed to behave.

In the first three centuries of Christianity, the parable was interpreted differently.  Remember that Jesus was telling this story to a Jewish audience.    Who is Jewish in the story?  He is the man in the ditch.  Jesus’ audience identified with the injured man, not the Samaritan.

Jordan’s Cotton Patch version allowed me to interpret the parable differently.  Jesus’ audience did not identify with the Samaritan.  Neither do I.  When I read Jordan’s rendition of the parable, I saw myself as the white man in the ditch.  I could then understand that this story is not focusing on being patronizing, helping the poor and less fortunate.  It is not focusing on the have’s helping the have not’s.  This parable is about treating another person the way we want to be treated.  It is about the Golden Rule.  It is also about one person, a neighbor, accepting help from another.  It is about be willing to accept kindness from another fellow human being.  This parable asserts that Samaritans and Jews are all the same.  We all have problems, and those problems are our shared humanity.

Sergeant Richard Kirkland, from Kershaw County, South Carolina, was only seventeen years old when he enlisted in the Confederate army.   He fought at the First Battle of Manassas or the First Battle at Bull Run as it is also called, Antietam, and several battles in between.  During the battle at Vicksburg, he distinguished himself in an unusual way.

When the Union army charged, the Confederate defenses took shelter behind a rock wall.  From that vantage point, they were able to inflict heavy casualties on the Union army.  When the sun set on the night of December 13, those able to walk made their way to field hospitals.  Many, however, remained on the battlefield, injured or dying.  Through the night, both the Confederate and Union sides heard the groans and screams of pain from those soldiers.

With daylight on December 14, more than 8,000 casualties, many of them still living, were lying on the battleground.   Sergeant Kirkland asked for permission to carry water to the wounded.  General Kershaw, his leader, denied the request.  When Kirkland insisted, Kershaw relented but stated that he could not wave a white flag.  Putting his life at risk, Kirkland climbed over the rock wall, gathering all the canteens he could carry.  During the hour it took Kershaw to provide a drink of water to each soldier – those on the Confederate side and those on the Union side – both sides observed a complete cease-fire.  Soldiers on both sides watched this one man wearing gray caring for the needs of soldiers wearing gray as well as those wearing blue.

Because of his compassionate and courageous act, Sergeant Kirkland became known as the Angel of Marye’s Heights.  If you go to Fredericksburg, Virginia, you can see a statue there in his honor.  Kirkland is buried at the old Quaker cemetery in Camden, South Carolina.

We need to be neighbors to everyone, not just people like us, not just those wearing the same color of uniform that we wear.  We must be neighbors to everyone, even those we might consider to be our enemy.  We must be neighbors to them, not because we are superior to them but because we share a common humanity.

Yesterday Clare and I traveled to Charlotte, North Carolina, for a funeral service.  My sister-in-law Wanda Neely lost her mother after a long illness.  During the service, Wanda spoke about her mother, telling a story that is so important.

When Wanda was a junior in high school, the city schools of Charlotte underwent a court-ordered integration.  Wanda thought the plan to bus black students with white students would surely get her out of riding the bus.  Back in those days, riding to school on a bus was not cool either.

Wanda shared that her mother had told her, “Wanda, you must ride the bus.  Think about those black students who have given up their school, their positions in the band, their positions as cheerleaders, and their positions on athletic teams.  They are going to a strange place, and somebody needs to make them feel welcomed.”

Every morning Wanda’s mother dropped her off on Mount Holly Road to catch the bus.  The only white student among a bus full of black students, Wanda had to endure the painful stares and comments of her fellow students when she got off the bus each day.

For thirty years in her church, Wanda’s mother taught kindergarten preschool children the words, “Red, yellow, black and white – they are precious in his sight.”  Wanda’s mother lived out what she had been teaching.  It was important to her that Wanda ride the bus with these new students.

My son Kris and Patrice have two children and a third on the way.  Needing a vehicle bigger than the one they had.  Kris searched the internet and found an automobile for sale by a man in Greenwood.  He and Patrice looked at the car and decided to buy it.  Friday a week ago was the day to strike the deal.  Kris and I drove to the Fatz Cafe in Clinton, South Carolina, where we met the owner of the car.  Needing a ride back to Greenwood, the man had brought a friend.

When I saw the two men, I was a little taken aback.  They were both foreigners.  The car owner was from India, and his companion was from Pakistan.  Both were Islamic.  If I had been prone to profile, this encounter could have been a moment of terror for me.  I resisted that feeling.  It was a different frame of reference.  Both men are American citizens.  One works at the Fuji film plant in Greenwood.  The other works for the United States Post Office.

The men asked, “Would you like to have some coffee?”

I was surprised when Kris answered, “Yes.”  Kris does not drink coffee.

As we entered the restaurant, he whispered, “Dad, if someone from the Middle East asks you to have coffee, never turn them down.  It is a sign of friendship.”

As Kris and the owner completed the transaction, I had an interesting conversation with the other man.  I listened as the fellow told me that he had been trying to understand Christianity.  He asked me question after question about Jesus.  I looked at this man across from me and thought, This type of communication has to happen in the world.  People who are different must learn to sit down with each other.  We must learn to treat each other like neighbors.

Consider the state of this dangerous world in which we live.  Syria is a blood bath.  Iran is on the verge of having nuclear weapons.  North Korea is a loose cannon.  Israel is sitting on a hair-trigger.  These places are perilous, just as the road to Jericho was.  What can make a difference?  One person treating another person like a neighbor – without an attitude of superiority – can make a difference in the world.  People sitting down with others like neighbors and sharing common humanity can make a difference.

You might say, “Kirk, you have to draw a line somewhere.”  A line is being drawn, but it is not a straight line.  It is not the Mason-Dixon Line.  The line is a circle.  Edwin Markham put it well:  “He drew a circle to shut me out – rebel, heretic, thing to flout.  But love and I had the wit to win.  We drew a circle that took him in.”  Jesus drew a line in the parable.  He drew a line that encircled both men.

Who is your neighbor?  Every living human being is your neighbor, even the ones you ordinarily consider to be your enemy.  What do they need?  They need what every person needs.  They need to know the love of God, fully revealed in Jesus Christ.  “Who is your neighbor?” is a tough question that demands an answer.

Do you know Christ as your Savior?  Have you acknowledged him as the Lord of your life?  Could I invite you to make a decision for Christ today if you have never done that?  We invite your response.


Kirk H. Neely
© March 2012


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