It is amazing how the Bible never fails to deliver new surprises and challenges from even the most familiar of passages. Last night's passage at our Lenten Bible Study, the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) being a case in point.
At first it seems straightforward enough: a lawyer comes to test Jesus. This is not necessarily in a hostile fashion. Perhaps he just wants to make sure Jesus is a sound teacher and knows the Law. The question, however, is fundamental: 'What must I do to inherit eternal life?' Jesus responds with a question: 'You are the lawyer, what does the Law say?' The lawyer answers that you should love God and love your neighbour. 'Exactly', replies Jesus, 'Do this and you will live'.
Of course, this does not satisfy the lawyer and leaves him looking not a little foolish. It's as if Jesus says, 'If you knew the answer, why are you asking the question?' So wanting to 'justify' himself and explain why he is questioning Jesus, he asks a follow-up question: 'And who is my neighbour?' It's a good recovery and not an unreasonable question. If eternal life depends on us loving our neighbour, we could do with knowing who our neighbour is! The question also suggests, of course, that some people are not our neighbour!
And so to the parable. I must confess that I have in the past tended to focus in the story on the Priest and the Levite and what they did not do and on the Samaritan and what he did do. As I was preparing for last night, I became much more interested in the man who was beaten, stripped naked, and left half dead. We are told nothing about him. In the story, he is completely anonymous and without identity. The Priest, Levite, and Samaritan have no idea who he is. How could they? He is left naked with nothing to suggest who he is. He could be rich, poor, a Jew, Samaritan, or whatever. Even though he hasn't a clue who the man is, the Samaritan still helps him.
At the end of the story, Jesus asks the lawyer, 'Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?' This is a very interesting change of question. The lawyer had asked, 'Who is my neighbour?' Jesus tells a story that is designed to answer a different question, 'Who was the neighbour?'
The answer to Jesus' question is obviously the Samaritan. The Samaritan did not worry whether the naked man was his neighbour or not. He was too busy being a neighbour to the man in need. However, the lawyer now also has the answer to his original question of what he must do to inherit eternal life: 'Go and do likewise', Jesus tells the lawyer.
Rather than worrying about who his neighbour is (and who is neighbour is not!) the lawyer must focus instead on his own action in showing mercy to all whatever their identity.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan remains a perfectly acceptable title for the parable, but maybe a good sub-title could be the Parable of the Naked Man!