A dialogue from the first century, presented at Tuggeranong Uniting Church on Sunday 10 July 2022, by the Rev. Elizabeth Raine and the Rev. Dr John Squires. The characters are Boaz and his neighbour, Abigail.
Ah, Abigail. I have been looking for you. I wanted to get your opinion of the story that was told by Jeshua yesterday. Imagine! A Samaritan helping a Jew! Unheard of! Impossible! What was Jeshua thinking?
I thought it was a good story. It showed that God’s love should be extended to all people by all people. Don’t you think that by using the character of the Samaritan Jeshua made the point well?
Well, yes, I understand the broad principle. But a Samaritan helping a Jew? I haven’t forgotten the time when the Samaritans scattered bones of dead people in the Temple precincts and defiled it. To say nothing of their wholesale rejection of Jerusalem and our priests.
But isn’t that part of Jeshua’s point? This is a story to push the boundaries. This is a story about radical love. This story is not just about etiquette for travelers. It is not even just about compassion, and generosity. This story demands that we embrace opportunities to practice love for others in powerful and new ways.
Whoa, there, Abigail. You are getting carried away. Let us talk about this story a little bit more. I want to start at the beginning. You know, of course, that one of the scribes challenged Jeshua about his knowledge of the law. I thought it was a good question, aimed at seeing whether the disciples were operating within the law when they went on their mission. “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Well, I thought the question came from nowhere. I thought the scribe was testing Jeshua. I thought the scribe was trying to embarrass Jeshua in front of the crowd, and trying to make himself look good.
Of course the scribe was trying to make himself look more learned. That is the whole point of these debates, Abigail. You women do not understand these things. This was a normal debate between men, a verbal banter with Jeshua about interpretation and understanding of Torah. The scribe did this because he respected Jesus. This is a common social exchange in which one learned person challenges the actions or words of another. The scribe was not “testing” Jeshua in a right and wrong sense. This was a challenge about honour, to see whether Jeshua could back up his beliefs.
You can see this from the way that Jeshua responds to the scribe’s question with two questions of his own: “What does the law say? What do you read there?” The scribe would have been well versed in the law and would know the answer to the question he poses to Jeshua. He would also have known the answer to the question of the law Jeshua asks of him. This is how these things work.
I think I understand. You are saying that is why the scribe replied with an answer based on the law (Deut. 6:4–5; Luke 19:18), and why Jeshua commends him.
Yes. The scribe then keeps the debate going with the next question: “And who is my neighbour (v.29)?” This is a good question. The Torah states clearly who is a neighbor and how that neighbour should be treated. The scribe is waiting for Jeshua to give a response that is consistent with the teaching of the law.
Ah, But he doesn’t does, he? I thought Jeshua’s response was very unexpected. He tells a story. I think this appreciated by the crowd. Not everyone understands these learned debates about Torah. Jeshua set his teaching in a place that is familiar, though a place that is a bit uncomfortable – on the road between Jericho and Jerusalem.
You are right about the uncomfortable bit. That road is notorious for bandits and thieves. I thought it strange that Jeshua had all his characters alone on this road. Sensible people travel this route in groups for protection. I can tell you, the thought of being alone on this road made me feel very uncomfortable, even a tad afraid.
Yes, I felt the same way. A lone man going down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho is asking for trouble. It was no surprise to hear that he was stripped beaten, and left half dead. And imagine how difficult it would be to help him. He has been stripped of his clothes, and everything that would identify him and his social class and his religion. You wouldn’t be able to tell whether he was Jew or Gentile, or Roman or Greek.
The next part of the story reminded me of those jokes you hear. A priest, a Levite and an Israelite come walking by … you know the ones I mean.
Ah, but that was the twist. You know, beginning with a priest made me feel a bit awkward. You know how high and mighty they can appear. And they are in cahoots with the Romans. Not surprised a priest wouldn’t stop.
Or a Levite. They are just as snobbish. Think they are better because they are descended from an ancient lineage. I am descended from equally ancient people, so I don’t see why they believe they are closer to God than me.
Yes indeed. But it is the next bit that is surprising. You mentioned those stories that start with a priest, a Levite and an Israelite. That is the twist. We expected Jeshua to make an Israelite the hero of the story.
Well, that’s right. The hero is meant to be one of our kind, a regular down-to-earth type like you and me, the one you are expecting to come to the rescue of the poor, wounded man. But no! Jeshua goes and gets it mixed up. It’s not one of our own kind who saves the day – it’s an enemy, a Samaritan, an outsider. Samaritans don’t worship like us, they don’t act like us, they don’t live where we live, and there’s no way one of them should have been the hero.
I bet your stomach was churning by then, Boaz! But really, why should you be so offended?
You seem to have forgotten how Jeshua himself was treated by the Samaritans. Remember when a Samaritan village refused to welcome him? This was very poor form, you know how much hospitality means to travellers.
Well, the priest and the Levite weren’t much use, were they?
My friend Zedekiah says that the priest and Levite couldn’t stop because they risked making themselves unclean on behalf of a stranger. Or maybe they were afraid they would become victims themselves if they stopped. I suppose we should remember that the priest and Levite are both descendants of the tribe of Levi with different sets of duties in the temple, and they are bound to obey the Law. They could have been in violation of the Law as written in Leviticus (Lev. 21:11) if they touched a body by the road.
I think you are asking the wrong question here. Jeshua did not mean us to start inventing excuses as to why the priest and Levite didn’t stop. I think that Jeshua wants us to consider why he picked a priest, a Levite and a Samaritan. What were they symbolizing, do you think?
Mmmm, let me think. The wounded man, though unidentified, is a Jew. The Priest and Levite are also Jews. The debate with the scribe is about interpreting Jewish law governing ‘neighbour’. Are you suggesting that the Priest and the Levite somehow represent the law?
Well, one would expect them to know the law. And the law says ‘Love you neighbour as yourself’. They would know that. They were not obeying this law by walking past, and let’s face it, they could easily purify themselves once they got back to the Temple and Jerusalem. No, Jeshua is asking a deeper question here. To really drive home his point, Jeshua then sticks the most unlikely hero into the story, the one most likely to make us feel uncomfortable.
I am sorry, but the hostility between our races is well founded. We do not worship in the same place. We have different versions of the Torah. The Samaritans married foreign women. And the list goes on.
You forget that we are all descendants of the same ancestors. Why should we allow what are really small things to become a great wall that divides us?
The Torah speaks of loving of God and loving neighbour, and surely it is clear that the neighbour being understood is a Jew.
This comes back to my original point. This is a story to push the boundaries. This is a story about radical love. It challenges us to think differently. The Samaritan, the one who is hated and despised by Jews, becomes the hero of the story. Surely this must bring a new dimension to understanding what we mean by ‘neighbour’?
I think I begin to see your point. The scribe’s question: “Who is my neighbour?” has a different answer from what we are expecting.
Yes. Jesus does not answer the question directly for this reason. The parable poses a new question, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
Of course. The Samaritan is the one who tends the injured man. Jeshua is saying that acting as a neighbour is what is important. Neighbour is not a group, or a religion, or a race. It is about doing the right thing.
I cannot help thinking, Boaz, that Jeshua wants us to act in this way ourselves, not just with very injured people, but with others in need. Surely he is asking us who are those fallen by the way in our communities and the ones who need our help? I am ashamed to admit that like the Priest and the Levite, I see situations where I could help and walk away because I have other things to do or I don’t want to get involved.
So to truly follow the law is to embrace everyone as neighbour. So you think that for the scribe, God is the God of Israel, and neighbours are Jewish neighbors. But for Jeshua, Israel’s God is the God for the whole world and a neighbour is anybody in need.
Yes, but it is more than that. Jeshua is not just saying ‘help those in need’ but also don’t judge others who you don’t agree with – like the Samaritan.
It seems to me that a lot of hatred in our country is religiously based and rooted in historical things like wars and other arguments. No doubt Samaritans are taught to hate the Jews in the same way Jews are taught to hate them.
And remember that the Samaritan in the story is in our territory, and the robbers might still be hanging around, waiting for their next victim. But he doesn’t let the Law, or fear, or the knowledge that he is hated keep him from providing care and compassion. He doesn’t even know if will be paid back, yet he still does this amazing act of kindness. Surely this is the sort of kindness and faith that Jesus is all about?
(at this point we lose contact with the dialogue, and return to the 21st century)
This story prompts us to be more open to opportunities to be neighbour. We need to look for places where we can engage with those who need our help, and not just with those who are like us.
Can compassion move us in a way that defies traditional stereotypical understandings of people and embraces all as equals, as neighbours, as residents of a global community?
Jesus challenges the lawyer to go out and do likewise, to be such a neighbour. Are we willing to do the same?