Jesus, A Lawyer, And Who Is Real

There’s someone missing in most of our discussions of the Good Samaritan, which is possibly Jesus’ most well-known parable.

This story is such a part of our cultural DNA that even those who do not consider themselves people of faith know what “a Good Samaritan” is and agree it is admirable.

And the modern definition of “a Good Samaritan” hews fairly close to the original story: someone who stops to help a stranger in trouble.

But of course for those of us who call ourselves Christians, there is a deeper and harder call within this story.

It’s not just about extending goodwill and literal help when happenstance provides the circumstances of someone in need right in front of us.

Jesus calls us to notice that the priest and the Levite, the religious authorities and supposedly models of ethical rectitude, leave the beaten man in the ditch and pass by.

It was the Samaritan, the outsider, reviled and excluded and considered unholy, who stopped and helped and ensured the continuing care of a man who possibly would never have spoken to him in other circumstances.

It is all the more remarkable, as a clergy friend pointed out to me this week, that just a few verses ago, Jesus got rejected by a Samaritan village and the disciples wanted to call down fire upon them. Now the Samaritan is the hero!

These are all familiar interpretations that many of us who have been around the church for a few years have heard and taken to heart.

We hear and understand the call to love and care across boundaries and borders of prejudice, receiving Jesus’ teaching that our enemy is our neighbor whether we like it or not.

Now, living into that call is something else entirely, which is why it is so helpful that the story of the Good Samaritan returns to us year after year in the lectionary, pricking our conscience as we think about those we discount and discard.

The crisis of migrants at our borders and how our government is treating them in our name makes this story all the more painful and galvanizing.

But what struck me this time around is the person that most of our Good Samaritan sermons and reflections leave out.

Who are we not talking about?

The person who started this whole thing, whose question incited Jesus to tell this story in the first place. The lawyer.

“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 neighbor 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 neighbor?””

It’s easy to think of this lawyer as merely a placeholder, not a real person.

He’s probably just a fictional composite of people who challenged and fought Jesus that the gospel writer created in order to give Jesus an opening to tell this story.

But I think that’s dangerous.

If I get to think of this lawyer as “not a real person,” I am dismissing him and denying his humanity.

And that is exactly the dynamic the parable is trying to pierce and break down.

In fact, I think Jesus is doing something brilliant here (he’s always doing something brilliant!).

I’ve preached before on how most of us cast ourselves in the role of the priest, the Levite, or the Samaritan.

We mourn how we are failing to help people different from us, or congratulate ourselves on our open-minded, generous aid of others regardless of background.

What we almost never do is cast ourselves in the role of the man in the ditch.

We don’t want to recognize ourselves in the place of profound vulnerability.

We don’t want to feel like our lives are out of control and there is nothing else for us to do but to accept help from someone we really don’t like very much.

Jesus knows this about us, and he is patient with our denial.

As we continue our lives of prayer and life in spiritual community, we will eventually realize that we are the man beaten up in the ditch and God is the Samaritan.

This story is about unearned and unexpected grace, which is the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

So I had realized this before, but when I asked myself to stop and think about the role and the life and the thoughts of the lawyer, I realized that he, too, is the man beaten up in the ditch and Jesus sees it the minute the lawyer opens his mouth.

By his question, seeking to entrap Jesus, he is trying to show his religious proficiency, his expertise, his lofty spiritual credentials.

I have caught myself doing this a thousand times.

But to Jesus, that devious, mean-spirited question is a desperate cry for help.

In this lawyer, he sees a man beaten to a pulp by his own self-righteousness and arrogance, left to bleed and die spiritually by the rigidity and coldness of the institutions he has sworn to serve.

“Wanting to justify himself,” the text says of the lawyer.

Who among us has not felt this way, in church, in life, in prayer, before God?

But while the world sees self-satisfied overconfidence, Jesus sees the wounded heart beneath, hungry for approval and love.

And so Jesus, the man this lawyer clearly perceives as an enemy, becomes the Good Samaritan to his interrogator.

In this beautiful simultaneous flowering of experiential and instructional teaching, Jesus lives out in real time the heart of the very story he is telling.

The lawyer very likely has no idea he is the main character in this story.

He gets the message—he tells Jesus he understands that the Samaritan is the beaten man’s neighbor, for the Samaritan is “the one who showed him mercy.”

But did he understand that Jesus had just done the same thing to him?

I love this lawyer because I see myself in him, as much as I in the past have seen myself in the priest and the Levite.

I am a Religious Professional. A lot of people think I get paid to have the Right Answers About Faith, and a tragic and embarrassing amount of the time, I act like I do.

So I am grateful for the tenderness and patience Jesus shows this lawyer, and I am grateful for how he shows it to me.

I hope that the next time I see a “lawyer,”—a know-it-all who seems out to get me, not someone who practices law—I may see him or her as a real person.

Not a placeholder.

Not a tool to tell a story with a moral message.

Not a composite of all the jerks I’ve ever known.

Not someone solely motivated by derailing gospel work.

Not someone out to attack me.

May I see through that person’s shell to the aching heart of need for love beneath, and again give thanks for the many, many people who have done the same for me.

What a healing message it is to know that when the world sees our pride, egotism, and black-and-white demand for certainty—primarily so we can beat others over the head with it—Jesus sees our beaten and weary souls underneath and reaches out to care for us.

May Jesus the Good Samaritan bind up our broken hearts anew every day, that we may, as Jesus says, “go and do likewise.”

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