Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “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 neighbour as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?”
Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
Coming once again to such a familiar passage as the Good Samaritan, there is the strong temptation to assume that I know what is happening in the narrative. If I can fight off that temptation and hover over the story just a little, previously unnoticed or unregistered details pixelate into view.
One such emerging insight is the fact that the parable is told in response to the sophistry of a lawyer who is testing Jesus. Lawyers suffer a lot of bad press and are the butt of thousands of jokes. Usually they deserve the derision. It is an adversarial and argumentative profession. The lawyer in our Gospel is no different. Is he really interested in eternal life or is he flying a kite? It is impossible from this distance to know. It does seem that he wants to inherit eternal life, but within clear norms and parameters. Loving God with heart, soul, strength and mind, and loving neighbour as one loves oneself is not clear enough. He wants a definition of the term neighbour. If he knows who is described he can then proceed to love them within the norm and the parameter.
Jesus, frustratingly tells his enquirer a story which casts the neighbour in the form of the person who we come across and whom we would be the least likely to help. In fact the law of Jesus’ day would have fully exonerated the bypassing priest and Levite on good legal grounds of avoiding impurity and defilement. It would seem that Jesus’ story is in fact subversive with regard to the law itself. It is an outrageous story of an untouchable Samaritan being the one who touches the beaten up man on the side of the road. Not only is the Samaritan uncaring of the purity laws about blood and corpses (which the heap of humanity by the roadside might have been), as a Samaritan, by touching the man he may in fact have brought defilement on the victim by the touch of compassion. This story is a legal conundrum and koan.
In the days of the Struggle to end Apartheid here in South Africa, there was a saying that was borrowed from the American Civil Rights movement a decade earlier. It said, “If the law becomes a thief, it is just to break the law.” Examples of this civil disobedience were clergy who married Black, Coloured, Indian and Chinese people to Caucasian people despite the fact that it was not permitted in terms of the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, Act No 55 of 1949. The marriage could not be registered legally, but the ministers performing the marriage knew that in the sight of God these two people were married even if the state would not acknowledge this. In a most ironic twist, current South African legislation permits Gay and Lesbian Civil Unions, but Methodist clergy are prohibited by our Church law from registering with the State as Civil Union Officers and thus prohibited from performing Gay and Lesbian Marriages. “If the law becomes a thief it is just to break the law.” Many Methodist clergy are still conducting the Christian blessing of Civil Unions in defiance of the Church legislation.
As I look once more at this socially outrageous story of the Good Samaritan, set in the context of Jesus’ debate with a sophisticated lawyer’s sophistry, one thing becomes clear. Law and Compassion do not sit easily together. In fact, nine times out of ten, law seems to quench love. On the other hand, compassionate love, if it is to be true to Jesus, will at some point probably have to break some laws. Loving like Jesus (who is the archetypal Good Samaritan and Good Shepherd)is not for faint hearts.
Reflecting on over thirty years of minsitry I recognise that everytime I have kept the rules of the church with regard to who may or may not be baptised, confirmed, married or buried in the Church, inevitably, someone has got hurt or excluded. Usually both. During such times I have always felt such a coward having hidden in the thicket of the law.
This parable brings home to me a recognition, that whilst I may find the most erudite reasons to justify non-engagement with the suffering of those lying in my path, in most cases, I will be motivated by Law and not by Love. I have become a robber too.
You see, the poor man lying on the side of the road was robbed twice. The first robbers took his goods and beat him up. At the hands of the priest and Levite, he was robbed a second time. The priest and Levite robbed him of compassionate justice.
It is true. The law is a thief, whenever is steals my love away.
Thanks be to God we are called not to be lawyers, but lovers for Jesus.