Text: Luke 10:25:37
A woman was walking out from her house to her car when suddenly two men snatched her purse, pushed her down, and fled the scene. Several of her neighbors heard the commotion, opened their curtains, but quickly closed them again. Another saw what happened and called 911. Several others went out to the woman, helped her up, and stayed with her until the police and medics arrived.
Now the two men who mugged her were convicted felons. They’d recently received early release from prison for good behavior. They had every intention of finding a job and leading productive lives, but every place they applied rejected their application because of their status as felons. Like other felons, they were barred from receiving federal cash assistance, food stamps, and other benefits. They were also ineligible to live in public housing. Without any source of income and without shelter, they soon resorted to petty crime to supply their needs.
They were never caught for stealing the woman’s purse. One day, soon afterwards, they saw a news feature about a local organization with an internship program to help the formerly incarcerated get job placements. Rather than using the word “felon,” or “ex-felon,” this organization referred to people like them as “returning citizens.” The men visited the organization, were accepted as a part of the program, and after excelling through the six month internship, began full time jobs. Once they were settled in an apartment with some extra cash, one of them had an idea that the other quickly agreed to, even though it involved breaking the law.
Late at night they returned to the home of the woman they had mugged. They ran up to the mailbox, put an envelope inside (which is illegal), and drove off down the street before anyone saw them. The next day when the woman was checking her mail she discovered an envelope full of cash, exactly twice the amount stolen from her purse months before. She would never find out that the same people who robbed her had become her Good Samaritan.
Like Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, this story never actually happened, although I did try to get the legal stuff right about the obstacles returning citizens face with felony charges. Or maybe this story has happened, without us knowing it. But it doesn’t have to be historical fact in order to be true. That’s almost the definition of a parable. True fiction.
Leviticus 19:18 commands, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” It’s one of two scriptures cited by an expert in the law as an answer to his own question. He had asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, and Jesus had responded by asking him how he saw it. “What is written in the Torah?” Jesus had asked. “What do you read there?”
This passage from Leviticus was already recognized as one of the best distillations of the teachings of the Torah. The prominent Rabbi Hillel, who taught before Jesus’ time and whose teachings Jesus often echoes, was once famously asked by a potential convert to teach him the whole Torah while standing on one leg. As recorded in the Talmud, Rabbi Hillel assumed the one legged pose and said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah, while the rest is commentary. Go and learn it” (Babylonian Talmud, b. Sabb. 31a).
It’s not an exact quote from Leviticus 19:18, but it gets at the same idea. According to Rabbi Hillel, and Jesus, and even this expert in the law, fair treatment of one’s neighbor, is the centering principle of the Torah. Everything else is just commentary. The Torah is one big jazz performance, with a central theme, accompanied with near endless variations on that theme.
And so simply restating that central theme is not enough for the expert in the law. “Love your neighbor,” is too general, too broad. It provokes a follow up question: “And who is my neighbor?” Give us some commentary, Jesus. Fill this out for us. Tell us a story. Now that the theme has been established, break out the instrument of choice and improvise a variation for us.
And this is what Jesus does. After being asked this second question, “And who is my neighbor?” he proceeds to tell the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
One day, not so long ago, a young man by the name of Philando Castile was driving down the streets of suburban St. Paul, Minnesota with his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds and her four year old daughter. They were on their way home from grocery shopping. They were pulled over by police officers who radioed a nearby squad that the two adult occupants looked like people involved in a recent robbery. The officer approached the car and asked Castile to produce his license and registration.
Now a pastor happened to be standing near the scene. When he saw an officer pulling over a black man he thought to himself, “This is not going to turn out well.”
An activist was also standing nearby. When she saw this unfolding in front of her she said to herself, “Oh no, here we go again.”
Now a longtime member of the NRA was walking down the street right where the car had been pulled over. He heard the officer ask for the license and registration and heard Philando Castile reply that they were in his wallet and he would get them out. When Castile also gave the officer a heads up that he was licensed to carry a gun and had one on him right now, the NRA member noticed the officer reach for his handgun. Immediately the longtime member of the NRA ran toward the driver side of the car and thrust his body between the officer and Philando Castile.
The NRA member proceeded to defend the second amendment rights of the driver and demand that the officer put his own gun back in its holster. Several intense minutes later the situation had deescalated.
The officer went back to his car, resuming his patrol of the neighborhood; and Philando Castile, Diamond Reynolds, and her four year old daughter drove home, to put away their groceries.
Like this story, maybe the parable of the Good Samaritan was based on a true story. Maybe the introduction of the priest and Levite and Samaritan into the mix was a way of imagining how a tragic story could have turned out differently. What if? What if the narrative of violence was to be interrupted by someone we would least expect? Who, I ask you, was the true neighbor in this story?
Perhaps Jesus created the Parable of the Good Samaritan out of scratch. Or maybe it came to him from a real situation he’d observed or heard about. But a close reading of Leviticus 19 makes one wonder whether some key ingredients of the parable were already right there, in Leviticus.
Leviticus 19:18 clearly says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” but Leviticus 19:16, two verses before it, likely gets lost in translation. The NRSV has it saying, “You shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor.” If this is the correct translation, and if one were to make a connection between verses 16 and 18 of Leviticus, one might tell a parable much like the one about the robbers who eventually make restitution for their wrongs. They are caught up in a system in which it is hard to do good, and so they do harm to survive. After they are shown mercy, they realize they must right the wrongs they’ve done. They pay back the harm they’ve caused, thereby fulfilling both commandments, Leviticus 19:16: “You shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor.” Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
I like this story, and since our Bible school theme is Surprise!, I like the surprise twist this places on the familiar parable. Last week I talked about the injured traveler as the lost character in this parable, the one the original listeners would have identified with but who plays only a minor and passive role in our typical hearing. But the robbers are the real lost characters. Why have they stooped to robbing, and where is their redemption?
This is jazz, and a riff like that is perfectly in bounds under the unwritten rules of variations on a theme, but it’s not the variation Jesus took, and that translation of Leviticus 19:16 is not the one the rabbis have favored over the centuries.
The King James Version is a little closer to the plain meaning of the Hebrew, but is still kind of obscure: “neither shalt thou stand against the blood of thy neighbor.” Maybe that wasn’t obscure when it was translated 400 years ago, but I’m not sure what it means to “stand against the blood of thy neighbor.” But the Hebrew word is indeed “stand” rather than “profit,” and there’s some relationship between that posture, and the blood of one’s neighbor.
The traditional translation from the Jewish Publication Society clarifies this. It uses the phrase that I included as the sermon title: “neither shalt thou stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor.” This translation makes Leviticus 19:16 a commandment against indifference, and noninvolvement. It is reaffirmed in other Jewish writings, and it’s enticing to think it could have been the inspiration for the angle Jesus takes in his parable.
One ancient rabbinical teaching stated, “if you are in a position to offer testimony on someone’s behalf you are not permitted to remain silent.” (Sipra Qedosim 4:8; Targum Pseudo-Jonathan). And since we’re already cited the Talmud this morning, a different Talmud portion acts as further commentary on Leviticus 19:16: “If one sees someone drowning, mauled by beasts, or attacked by robbers one is obligated to save him, but not at the risk of one’s life” (b. Sanh. 73a). The Talmud wasn’t edited and completed until centuries after Jesus, but that does sound a whole lot like the beginnings of a parable I think I’ve heard before. In Jewish tradition, from the Torah to the Talmud, indifference, standing idly by, is not acceptable.
Last week I encouraged us to identify with the half dead traveler in Jesus’ parable. Rather than seeing ourselves only as the helper, this challenges us to find ourselves in a story in which we are not the hero. This goes against a lot of our training of how to be a good person.
But Jesus does eventually invite his listeners to identify with the Samaritan. After telling the parable, he asks the lawyer, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man?” To which the left-leaning pacifist reluctantly replies, “I suppose it was the longtime NRA member.” To which Jesus responds, “Go and do likewise.”
As I hear that original parable spoken to us, especially in our antiracism work, I hear an invitation for us to enter into a dual consciousness. We are not the hero of this story. We too need help. We need delivered from our half-dead state.
And we are also called to the monumental task of overcoming the sin of indifference, or, if the Torah would have its way, the crime of indifference. “Thou shalt not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”
I fully believe that there are countless variations on this theme, and that there is no single right way to do this. It can range from taking to the streets, to talking with young children who are picking up on this theme and have lots of great questions.
And so, my fellow-non heroes of this story: How might we open ourselves to the movement of the Spirit and not stand idly by the blood of our neighbors?