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Samaritan Hospitality

Text: Luke 10:25-37

One of my favorite questions Jesus’ asks in the Gospel of Luke is, “How do you read it?”

An expert in the law (one of the “wise and learned” in Luke 10:21 to whom spiritual depth is often hidden) asked Jesus a question: “what must I do to inherit eternal life”(or, our parlance, what must one do to be saved?). The expert knew the answer—it was good question, and the expert gave a good answer. Jesus and the expert were in total agreement: love God (Deut. 6:5) and love your neighbor (Lev. 19:18). Life flows from loving God and neighbor. This is salvation.

But that was not the point that the expert wanted to make. So, wanting to “justify himself” he wanted clarification on who exactly is the neighbor one is obligated to love. Is “neighbor” restricted in some way? Does it mean the one who lives beside me? Does it mean only those of my own ethnicity? Does it mean only those of my own faith? Does it mean only those who follow the strictures of my religion? Should I love the Gentiles….the Romans….the Samaritans?

The expert had the “law” right—the first and second greatest commandments. But “how did he read it?” What did it mean to say “love your neighbor”?

The parable, with which we are all so familiar, that answers the expert’s question illuminates not only who is our neighbor but also what it means to love. Some readings of the parable are so focused on the idea of neighbor that it is easy to miss the equal stress on the “love” or the “mercy” (10:37) that was shown in the parable.

Clearly the introduction of a “Samaritan” is a shocker, especially since Jesus three closest disciples had recently wanted rain fire and brimstone on some Samaritan villages (Luke 9:51-56). Whereas the priest and Levite (upstanding moral representatives of the Jewish faith) “passed by,” the Samaritan did not. Whatever the rationale of the priest and Levite (and we are not told what it was though we might speculate that it has something to do with ritual purity or perhaps the danger [risk] involved in helping), they avoided the hurt man. The Samaritan—the one least expected to help a presumably Jewish victim—loved the man.

The contrast in the parable is whether we will avoid the hurting or love the hurting. It is the choice we make as “Samaritans”—can we help those who hurt even when they dislike us? Can we love our neighbors who hate us?

Loving neighbor in this parable is risky and expensive. Stopping was a risk. Tending to an unknown victim was a risk. Slowing down his travel through such dangerous territory was a risk. Funding his stay at the Inn was expensive. There were, potentially, good “rationales” for avoidance. Loving a neighbor is an act of vulnerability and it costs something.

The words pile up in this text to illuminate the act of loving. It involved “compassion” (10:33), like Jesus for the widow at Nain or the Father for his son upon his return from the “far country.” He “took care of him” (10:34) as he focused his attention on him to the exclusion of other concerns. He had “mercy” (10:37) which is word Luke only uses in the songs of Luke 1 (vv. 50, 54, 58, 72, 78) as expression of divine care. Loving our neighbor involves compassion, mercy and focused attention.

In this parable, loving a neighbor meant hospitality (that is, loving a stranger)—involvement, connection with another person,

We have “Good Samaritan” laws. Seinfeld even ended their series on the premise of the “Good Samaritan” law—the Seinfeld characters were so lacking in compassion and mercy that they joked at the misfortune of another. They were tried and convicted without ever understanding neighborliness. “Good Samaritan” laws reflect how embedded in our consciousness this parable is.

We most think of the “Good Samaritan” instances in terms of extreme situations. We stop to help a motorist who has broken down on the road. We call 911 when we see an accident or witness an act of violence. We rush to contribute money to Tsunami, Katrina or Pakistani disaster relief.

And, yet, the hurting are lying all around us. We don’t’ see them. We tend to avoid them or don’t even know they are there. We would rather—and I must admit that my tendency is this direction—go to our homes, insulate ourselves from other people, and stay uninvolved. We are individual homes in suburbia rather than part of a community. Even the church is rarely church other than at church. People are lonely and disconnected.

Hopsitality is almost an extinct art. We are too busy, too many irons in the fire. It is easier and less expensive to avoid the hurting. It is more comfortable to stay insulated from others than to become involved in relationships that might prove demanding, involving and time-consuming.

Community, however, is built through hospitality—through loving strangers, building relationships, and committing what we owe to “common” (read “communal”) use.

The word “hospitality” in Greek means to “show friendship [philo] to strangers.” It is to love your neighbor, and neighbor does not mean those who live next door or even those who “go to church” with you. Neighbor includes even strangers. Even in the Torah, loving your neighbor mean to love the “alien” even as if he were “one of your native born” (Lev. 19:34).

We need to recover hospitality as a contemporary virtue. Community is built through relationships, and hospitality is one means of building that community. We need to learn about to open our homes to strangers. We need to learn again what “Sunday dinner” used to be about in our culture—the inviting of strangers to share a meal with us.

I remember my “Sunday dinners” growing up. Roast, carrots and potatoes—every Sunday! But what I remember most was that there was always a stranger at the table. My parents always invited someone home from church who did not have place (a community) to spend the afternoon. We would eat, talk, play games, watch the ballgame together, and then return to the Sunday evening service. To this day I still have people ask me if “Mark or Lois Hicks” were my parents, and then remind me that they ate with us one Sunday. They were Samaritans—to white, black, Asian—in their time. We need to be Samaritans in our time.

“How do you read it?”

How does the parable of the “Good Samaritan” challenge our lifestyles? Yes, we may be good “emergency Samaritans,” and thus we keep the law of the land with its “Good Samaritan” laws. But do we love our neighbors?

“How do you read it?”




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