Reflections on the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10: 29–37)
Sermon preached by Teva Regule at St. Mary Orthodox Church on March 24, 2019
Glory to the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit—one God. Amen.
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
This month we have been exploring the Sunday readings of Lent from the early Jerusalem lectionary that can help us answer this question. The readings have focused on putting our “faith into action,” in other words, exploring what we must do to live the Christian life. Just like those early inquirers preparing to be initiated into the Christian faith at the Paschal Vigil in Jerusalem, we have been hearing readings describing God’s call to us and our need to respond with repentance, forgiveness, and humility. After hearing the Parables of the Lost Sheep, the Prodigal Son, and the Publican and the Pharisee that highlight these themes, one might imagine those preparing for initiation into the faith now asking such a question—“What must I [still] do to inherit eternal life?”
This was the question that a lawyer once asked of Jesus as recorded in the Gospel of Luke (Lk. 10:25). In the account in Luke, Jesus answers by asking the lawyer to recall the two great commandments of the Law. The lawyer replies that one is to (1) love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind (Dt. 6:5) and (2) love our neighbor as ourselves (Lev. 19:18). Jesus affirms the lawyer’s answer, replying, “Do this, and you will live” (Lk. 10:28). It sounds pretty simple, really. However, the lawyer is not satisfied with the answer and pushes the issue further, asking, “Who is my neighbor?” To this, Jesus replies with a narrative that is familiar to many of us and which was read for the Fourth Sunday of Lent in Jerusalem—the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10: 29–37).
To refresh our memories… A certain man goes down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and falls among thieves who strip him of his clothing, wound him, and depart, leaving him half dead. In modern parlance, we would say that he has just been mugged. The story continues by reporting that both a priest and Levite come across the man but pass by on the other side of the street in order to avoid contact with him. Actually, this would have been expected behavior in Judaism as the laws of ritual purity considered touching the dead or bloodied to make one unclean and thus, unfit to enter the temple to worship God. So, I am sure (like the Pharisee in the story we heard last week) that they felt justified in their actions. The story continues and tells of a certain Samaritan who comes by, has compassion on the wounded man, bandages his wounds by pouring oil and wine on them, brings him to an inn, and takes care of him. He does this at great expense, not expecting anything in return. Moreover he is a Samaritan, one of the hereditary enemies of the Jewish people, the ones who have deviated from the true Jewish faith as given by Moses. In other words, they did not follow the Law. The story concludes by Jesus asking the lawyer which of these was “neighbor to him who fell among the thieves” (Lk. 10:36). The lawyer rightly identifies the one “who showed mercy on Him” (Lk. 10:37). Jesus exhorts him to then “Go and do likewise” (Lk. 10:37).
This story gives us an example of someone putting their “faith into action.” But is this all the parable tells us? Early Church writers often understood passages in the Bible to have meaning on more than one level, in fact, usually three. These levels were based on the understanding of the human person in Greek neo-platonic thought. The human being was not only body (i.e. our physical selves), but also, soul, which, for them, meant that which animates us (i.e. the breath of life), and finally, spirit or that which orients us to God. While we share the first two dimensions with the animal world, the third was considered to be uniquely human. From this, Origen of Alexandria (c. 184–c. 253), one of the most famous biblical commentators of the early church, posited that passages of the bible could have meanings on three levels as well—(1) the literal or historical, (2) the moral, and (3) the spiritual.
At the historical level, the meaning of the Parable of the Good Samaritan can be understood from my comments above. But how might we extrapolate a more moral meaning from the story? How might the story instruct us how to act? I think the story can give us a deeper insight into loving God and neighbor than might be apparent at first glance. In the story, we see the Samaritan recognize “the other” as his neighbor—someone not of the same religion or tribe. On a moral level, the story can help us understand that our neighbor is anyone in need, regardless of their religion or tribe, or race, or sex, or any of the distinctions that divide us. In the story, we see that the priest and Levite privileged ritual purity as a necessary precondition for worshipping God. However, the story also intimates that ritual purity is not the key to worshipping God, but a purity of the heart. The Samaritan is moved and is drawn closer to God by his compassion for the other. Moreover, it can teach us that worshipping God is not something we do on our own, but worshipping God includes our neighbor. God and neighbor are connected. Understanding the meaning of this parable from a more moral perspective gives us insight into how we can put our own “faith into action.”
But, what if we change the perspective just a bit? What if instead of understanding ourselves in the person of the Samaritan, we are the ones in the ditch? What if we are the ones who need healing? Putting our “faith into action” may also mean allowing others to help us, to trust in God and our neighbor. This more spiritual meaning of the text is one that the church has often emphasized. From this perspective, Jesus Christ is the Good Samaritan who comes to rescue us, healing us with the oil of our Baptism and Chrismation and the wine of the Eucharist, and bringing us to the Inn of the Church. Here, we can continue to experience the healing balm of Christ through the anointing of oil. As we still sing today during the Canon of Matins on the Fourth Sunday of Lent that echoes the text of the Unction service, “Seeing my misery, the Levite passed by, unable to bear the sight of my wounds. But You, O Lord and Lover of humankind, have poured out on me the oil of Your rich mercy” (Ode 6). Here, we can continue to be healed—not only bodily, but in mind and soul. As we still sing today at Matins on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, “Bind up the wounds of my soul, O Jesus, as the Samaritan once did, for the traveler who fell into the hands of thieves: heal my pain, I pray You, O Christ” (Ode 5). Here, we can trust in Jesus to make us whole, just like the Paralytic in the Gospel reading of today. And just like we still sing today at Matins on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, “…You, O Savior, attend to me and make me whole” (Ode 7). And, here, within the community of faith, we can experience a glimpse of that eternal life that the lawyer once asked of Jesus, as we still sing at Matins on the Fourth Sunday of Lent that through the Theotokos, we can “tak[e] refuge in [the] harbor of salvation with all the faithful” (Ode 4).