Sub Dean - Revd Canon Michael Rawson
The parable of the Good Samaritan must be among the most well known stories in the bible
I’ve forgotten the times that I’ve talked about it in collective worship in school assemblies, drawing children’s attention to the need to be kind to others and to treat people as you’d like to be treated yourself. It’s one of those biblical passages as well known to people of other faiths and indeed none. It feels like you are on pretty solid ground when you reference it. People use it as the basis for random acts of kindness.
There’s a big BUT coming, for the problem is that we think we know what it’s about and we can therefore fail to dig below the surface into the deeper truths it contains. It can simply remain a warm and cosy story.
The other day I read something by the Jewish writer Amy-Jill Levine writing about the Good Samaritan. She urged her readers to imagine themselves as the traveller who has been robbed and beaten up and left for dead in the ditch. She then asks us to think if we would rather die than receive help from any group or individual; to acknowledge ‘She offered help’ or ‘He showed compassion’?’ And conversely to think about any group whose members might rather die than help us? ’ The answer that she comes up with for herself as a Jewish woman is that person would be a member of Hamas, the Islamist fundamentalist organisation fighting the Israeli army.
I wonder who might that person be for you and me living in 21st century Britain? I had thought of giving you a few examples to choose from but I suspect you might already know who is on that list. It’s that individual or group you would rather not be stuck in a lift with or share your last meal on earth. All I ask is for you to hold that person in your mind as we explore this parable. To cast these people as Good Samaritans sounds far-fetched and outrageous. What on earth is he talking about!
And that’s precisely what Jesus was trying to achieve with his first hearers.
My apologies in advance to any lawyers in the congregation this morning. This lawyer was probably more of a religious scribe than the lawyers we are now familiar with, and he comes to Jesus seeking to test him. ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ And Jesus pushes back asking him in turn what the the law of Moses says? ‘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 neighbour as yourself.’ The lawyer feels comfortable in the world of rules and laws but seeks clarification to know who is his neighbour. He seeks to define and set the limits on who he should love and whom he can ignore. As with many of our current political and social debates, there is a scaling down of compassion and care, narrowing it and focussing it on those who are really deserving of it. Amy-Jill Levine’s interpretation brings the parable into sharp focus. Those whom we consider to be beyond the pale are precisely the ones who would be the Good Samaritan.
Another puzzle in the parable is the behaviour of the priest and the Levite who fail to help one of their own flock. They show no concern whatsoever in not risking to care for the man. The man appeared to be dead and so under the terms of the Law both the priest and the Levite would have become ritually unclean by touching the corpse. The lawyer would have understood this and felt comfortable with the interpretation of the law, of the rules. They valued their own purity more than having compassion for the man who had been beaten up. Adherence to the law was more important than living the law of love and compassion.
Jesus’ hearers would just be catching their breath from the scandalous behaviour they’d just heard about when Jesus hits them between the eyes with the next revelation. To the first hearers of this parable, the Samaritans were unspeakable. They were the enemy, the other. And Samaritans treated Jewish people with equal hatred and disdain. Both groups argued that they were the successors of the Ancient Hebrews but their religious practices were at odds with one another. There was nothing on this earth that would makes Samaritans and Jews acknowledge one another’s existence, least of all to show any care for the other.
So the Samaritan man cares for the man left for dead, going the extra mile in his treatment and care for him. He risks his own safety for this unknown and broken traveller whom he has never met before and acts contrary to all social conventions dictating that he should hate. He demonstrates in a powerful way that love of neighbour is blind to difference, prejudice and enmity. Authentic, radical love, embraces all. Many of the stories of care and heroism which we have heard during the London Bridge and Borough Market attack Inquest point to an amazing willingness of individuals to run towards danger to care for and tend the stranger. Their instinct was to reach out in love to those in need, to the injured, traumatised and dying.
In the parable, the lawyer comes to Jesus seeking life and Jesus offers it him in abundance, but along with it comes a challenge of loving his neighbour. At the end of the parable, when Jesus asks the lawyer who was neighbour to the man who was beaten up, the lawyer can’t even bring himself to use the word ‘Samaritan’. He simply says, ‘the one who showed him mercy.’
Jesus’ teaching is expansive and cuts through the prejudice of his day, widening human boundaries and drawing in all people, even the Samaritans. For him, no one is beyond redemption and no one is an outcast. I would love to know what the reaction of the crowd was to this parable. I can’t imagine that it would have won Jesus any supporters or followers. Far from it.
Nonetheless in preaching about the kingdom of God Jesus is wanting to demonstrate forcibly to his hearers that there are no first and second class citizens in God’s eyes. Rather that all are equal and first born sons and daughters of the Most High God. His challenge to the lawyer was to see the world, see the object of his hatred, through the loving lens of the divine, seeking out the other and humanising them. In the parable, it was the Samaritan who receives eternal life through the compassion he shows.
Just like Jesus’ dealings with the lawyer, he doesn’t let us off the hook either, calling us and challenging us to live lives of humanity and compassion. We too are asked to seek out the other, the person we may look down upon and despise, as a beloved child of God. Writing to the church in Colossae, St Paul exhorts them to live fruitful lives, ‘bearing fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.’ This is in sharp contrast to the lawyer in the gospel who was incapable of bearing fruit, for all that he could see was the letter of the law and how to process it. This week we might want to ponder those words of Amy-Jill Levine I spoke of at the beginning and to think who might be the Samaritan in our lives. We might just find ourselves as surprised and outraged as Jesus’ first hearers.