The Good Samaritan: Luke 10.25-37
I was scrolling through the news stories on the CNN news channel earlier this week when I noticed a story from India that has rocked the nation there. Tensions between Muslims and Hindus have been raised following the horrific murder of a Hindu man who had allegedly said something defamatory about the prophet Mohammed. As far as I can make out, because the report has been so heavily self -censored by the reporter, the poor man was burned alive in the street.
Only a few decades in our own country have passed since being a Protestant in a Catholic area of Belfast meant you were at risk of extreme violence – and vice versa of course. The Good Friday agreement has changed some things in the province but you might still feel uneasy being in the ‘wrong place’ and speaking with the ‘wrong accent’. So, any consideration of our parable this morning – the most famous of Jesus’ parables, the Good Samaritan – must firstly recognise just how shocking Jesus’ choice of a Samaritan as the ‘hero’ of the story actually was.
We like stories involving threes, don’t we? We have an Englishman, an Irishman and …? Well, you know full well it’s a Scotsman walking into a bar in our jokes. Tell a religious joke and you’ll possibly get a Bishop, a priest and a deacon…If you want to go interfaith it’ll possibly be a Vicar, an Imam and a Rabbi. But no one puts a Priest, a Levite and a Samaritan in the same story. The order should be priest, Levite, ordinary Joe observing the faith. There’s no room for Samaritans in the inn…except there is, in Jesus’ telling.
Who these people are matters for our understanding of the story. The priest wasn’t walking the 17-18 miles from Jerusalem to Jericho. Jesus tells the story in just a few words, but his audience know full well the people he is speaking of, they fill in the detail in their mind’s eye. The priest? He had just completed his two-week stint of duty serving in the Temple in Jerusalem. He’s returning home. Precisely because he is a priest he is wealthy. Walk? Heavens no! He is riding. He has the means to help the man by the side of the road, but he doesn’t do a thing. He could lift the man onto his own animal, he could provide for his care in Jericho…but he does nothing. Why? Because he’s got other things on his mind and the man poses him a problem.
What’s the problem? The problem is this. The man has got no clothes on. I know it sounds daft but it’s a detail that Kenneth Bailey in his book ‘Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes’ highlights and I’d never noticed before. The robbers had stripped the man and left him naked…half dead. In Sunday school I learned that the reason the priest and Levite hurried past the man was because they were fearful of the robbers on the road themselves: they may well have been. But the problem is actually that the naked man offers no visible means by which the priest can tell whether he is a foreigner or not. It sounds utterly heartless (perhaps that’s Jesus’ point) but for the priest to touch a foreigner meant ritual uncleanness: he’d have to go back up to Jerusalem for a week to go through the process of being made ‘clean’ again. If the man was Jewish all would be well – but he couldn’t tell and he didn’t know.
And what’s more, the naked man was ‘half dead’. Even if the man had been Jewish if he died the priest’s problems were even worse, he would again be made unclean. More than this, he would have to perform the mourning rituals expected for the man and tear his garments (his expensive, priestly garments) as a sign of mourning. He can’t get past the demands of his faith, the law or code he lives by, he can’t risk compassion – it would cost him too much, so he plays it safe and hurries by.
Which sets the Levite up with a problem, because he too has finished his allotted service at the temple. He probably knows full well that the priest has left Jerusalem ahead of him, he’s following on (perhaps on foot but in all likelihood, he too is riding). So, when he sees the man he has a different dilemma. He knows the priest has decided to leave the naked man by the side of the road: he can’t overrule what his superior has done or judged to be the best response to the problem. How would it look if he turned up in Jericho with the man who the priest had so decidedly avoided? He just can’t do it…so he too passes by on the others side.
Cue? The first hearers of the parable are now expecting ordinary Joe, ‘the man down the street trying to live out his faith’ to make a decision about the man by the side of the road. But no. Smack bang in the middle of the story a Samaritan appears. He shouldn’t just be in the story. He shouldn’t be here at all. He’s in danger on this road from more than the robbers. He’s not welcome anywhere near Jerusalem and he needs to watch his back. But instead of hurrying on what does he do? He gives what he has to save this man’s life. He gives his time. He risks himself. He offers oil and wine to clean the man’s wounds. He binds his wounds with cloth. He uses his animal to carry him and he will then spend his own money to put him up in an inn….and not just any inn, an inn in the heart of Judaea where Samaritans are not wanted. He will turn up at this inn with a severely injured man and watch over him through a long night not sure whether the locals will turn against him. And because if you couldn’t pay your debts the injured man might end up being sold into slavery – different world, different time, different culture remember – the Samaritan pays for the man’s keep with no arrangement made as to how he might ever be repaid.
In the gospels Jesus tells those so totally bound by religious tradition that God ‘desires mercy, not sacrifice’ – the Samaritan embodies this. The lawyer who had stood up to test Jesus wanted to know what he should do to inherit eternal life. Jesus had pushed the question back onto him: ‘observe the law’ had been his answer. But in the parable the Samaritan shows us that the Law itself cannot meet the man’s need. That’s Jesus to a tee isn’t it? …upending us with his parables and his understanding of the ways of God.
The religious Law will only get the lawyer so far. There is actually nothing that he can really do to inherit eternal life – an inheritance isn’t earned, is it? It is received as a gift. Loving God and loving neighbour require more than law keeping (wrapped around with its ‘can I, can’t I’s and, should I, shouldn’t I’s). The Samaritan, at this point becomes the stranger who comes from outside to rescue us: he is so moved with compassion that he risks even his life to save the man lying by the side of the road. No wonder then that in the Eastern church there is a tradition of identifying this Samaritan as being like Jesus himself, indeed like God Himself.
And who is my neighbour? …asked the lawyer, wanting to justify himself (not a possibility before God we should hasten to add). So often we turn the parable around and treat the man on the road as being our neighbour – the story is an encouragement for us to do good to others in need. Yes: true. But that’s not the way the parable frames the answer to the question: the neighbour is not the man in the ditch…it is the person who reveals the nature of God as being compassion and love, ‘the one who showed mercy’. The penny has dropped for the Lawyer but he still can’t bring himself to praise (even say) ‘the Samaritan’ – he anonymises him to become ‘the one who shows mercy’.
‘Go and do likewise’ says Jesus. Which I suppose is Him saying that following Jesus’ way needs a total transformation of heart, soul and mind because loving as He loves has no room for the calculations made by the Lawyer in his questioning or the priest and Levite in the story. It holds nothing back and gives everything for us. This is love, says the apostle John, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
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