Just Ask

Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

The Good Samaritan. The ubiquity of this passage in society and in our shared discourse is more than enough to encourage a sermon on another text. A story like this is always hard, Dear Working Preachers. We wonder what we can possibly say, what additional interpretations we can offer, to lend a different lens on what this passage can mean for us in this time, in this place, and for the people to whom we preach.

Moreover, everyone wants to be the good Samaritan, not realizing what that would actually entail. No one wanted to be a Samaritan in those days. And yet now? Being a good Samaritan has become a litmus test for sufficient faith, even for those who are not religious, evaluating what it means to be a good person, period.

And rightly so.

The Samaritan is the unexpected hero of the story. The priest and the Levite pass by, restricted by their religious systems. We are very aware of those godly institutions that prevent us from seeing whom Jesus sees, from helping those whom God desires to help. This is not a new revelation.

But it certainly gives us a chance for pause. Locating our sermonic inclinations on the story from the perspective of the different characters can be one homiletical way to go — the priest, the Levite, the guy left in the ditch, the Samaritan, the innkeeper. We all want to be the Samaritan, but truth be told, we aren’t — at least, not all of the time. And, every once in a while, it does our faith good to stand in the shoes of the people whom we do not want to be (or hope we are not).

Furthermore, the word “good” is never used in the story. Any preacher needs first to evaluate the heading historically ascribed to this passage. What makes the Samaritan “good” is one crux of the passage. We are left to make sense of such an adjective bequeathed to us by our Bibles — and who should be the one to be described as such, desperately wishing that it’s us.

But this time around, I didn’t get to the story at all, but got stuck on the lawyer and his question. I found it interesting that, in fact, there might not be polemic here. I am not convinced that he goes to Jesus to test Jesus, to trap Jesus, or to validate his own righteousness. I suspect we too easily dismiss his inquiry as manipulative or to justify his own worthiness. This was an expected interchange between individuals interpreting the law. There is nothing in Jesus’ response to indicate any kind of deception. It is an interchange based on observable inquiry.

The lawyer asks a legitimate question, a question that appears to want a real answer. What must I do to inherit eternal life? (Please see notes in Marilyn Salmon’s 2010 commentary about “wanting to justify himself” before you judge him). He engages in dialogue with Jesus that seems to desire an honest response. What does it really mean to follow the law? To live the law?

Maybe this is another reason why the story is so ubiquitous. Not only because we so desperately hope to be that Samaritan and are too willing to judge others who are not, but that we need regular reminders, constant instruction, of what it means to be a citizen in the Kingdom of God. We wonder every day. We question every day. As we should. Embodying the Gospel in the world should be a daily calculation. We should, really, wake up each day and ask Jesus, pray fervently, where and how can I act out the Kingdom? See and help whom Jesus sees and helps?

I wonder what the lawyer’s response was to Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan. He seemed to get the answer right, but did he follow Jesus’ response, “Go and do likewise?” We will never know. But we can know what we will do.

It is our calling to finish the story. Yes, to go and do likewise, but also, to keep on asking Jesus, to keep on inquiring, what does it look like to follow God’s law? Because if we think we already have the answer, then preaching has also lost its purpose.

I am liking the lawyer this time around. He reminds me of how often I need to ask this question. How unassumingly I can default to certainty about what it means to be a follower of Jesus. How often I fall into anticipated patterns of behavior without stopping to wonder if I am truly embodying my beliefs? Or am I operating with rote and routine convictions?

I feel like I need this lawyer these days. To keep me aware. To keep me vigilant and persistent. Because it is so very easy to slip into the comfortable, especially when it comes to a story like this. It is so very easy to want to be the heroine. It is so very easy to want to be the one who has all of the answers, right, Dear Working Preachers?

I am convinced, more than ever, that the question of the lawyer is the question of faith today. We need to ask it over and over again, and especially when we don’t want to. I never want to — but I have to. And I will because this story reminds me to trust in Jesus’ answer. An answer that forces me to answer for myself. And, in the end, that is what faith is supposed to be.