Which of these?
Sermon preached at Enmore, Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, 10th July 2016
Reading: Luke 10. 25-37
When I noticed early this week that the Gospel reading for this Sunday was the parable of the Good Samaritan, my first thought was, ‘Is it possible to say anything new about this story?’ This is undoubtedly one of the best known parables of Jesus and the expression being ‘a good Samaritan’ has become part of our language. Ask the proverbial man or women in the street and they will tell you that the parable is about giving help to people in need. It means helping your sick neighbour by mowing her lawn or doing shopping for her; it means baking a cake for the new residents who have moved in next door. Some would even be prepared to take it a step further and suggest it has implications for us as a community and argue it should inform our attitude to refugees, the homeless and other marginalised groups in our society. Now all of those things are good and laudable but if we think that this is all the parable is teaching then we have failed to understand just how radical it really is. So let us look at this parable again and notice some of its details.
First of all we note the context. Jesus and his disciples are on the road to Jerusalem. In the previous chapter, Luke has told us that Jesus ‘set his face to go to Jerusalem’, knowing that he would face great suffering, rejection and death and on the third day be raised. On the journey Jesus teaches his followers what discipleship means and his standards are high- he tells them that no one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God. While on the journey Jesus is approached by a lawyer and asked a question. Luke tells us that it is a question designed to test Jesus: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” It is sometimes assumed that the question could be rephrased, ‘What do I have to do to get to heaven?’ But the first century Jew had no concept of heaven as we might understand it. The question was about having a share, being part of God’s new age. Tom Wright translates it: “What should I do to inherit the life of the coming age?” When the Messiah came it was believed that the righteous would be raised, and Israel would be restored to a place of greatness with her borders extended. The lawyer who was an interpreter of the Torah wanted to be sure he would be part of God’s new kingdom. Jesus turned the question back to the lawyer, with the question, “What is written in the law?” The man replies quoting the Shema (Deut 6.50) that we listen to every Sunday, “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.” He also adds Lev.19.18, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” Jesus’ response is without hesitation, “You have given the right answer; do this and you will live.” The Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed was firmly grounded in the Scriptures and law of Israel. At the heart of the Law was found, not slavish obedience to a long list of rules and regulations but a relationship of love with the living God, expressed in love for one’s neighbour.
But the lawyer was not willing to leave the matter there. He wanted to ‘justify himself’: the Greek word we translate ‘justify’ can also be translated as righteous, so the lawyer was wanting to be sure that he was counted among ‘the righteous’. Why? Because it was believed that only the righteous would be included in God’s new kingdom. So he throws in another question, “And who is my neighbour?”
The question of who should be regarded as a neighbour was a hot topic in first century Judaism. The widely held view was that a neighbour definitely included fellow Jews but did not extend to Gentiles or other people regarded as sinners who failed to keep the Torah. Jesus answers the question by telling the story of the man travelling the road from Jerusalem to Jericho who is set upon by bandits. That road covered a distance of about 17 miles but descended some 3,000 feet through barred and rocky country. (The road can no longer be walked because the Israeli Security wall now cuts across it). It was notorious as a place frequented by robbers. Jesus’ listeners would have been able to picture this story very vividly. They would probably not have been very surprised by the fact that the Priest and Levite in the narrative pass by the injured man ‘on the other side’. To stop and help the man was to risk a similar fate- the robbers could easily have been watching for more likely victims. Some have suggested that the Priest and Levite were afraid of touching the man in case he was actually dead: if so they would have become unclean and prohibited from temple service for seven days. So before we are too quick to condemn them we should recall the occasions when we have failed to assist someone in need because we were too busy, or perhaps we were afraid of getting involved. I know I’ve been guilty of that and I suspect I am not alone. At this point in the story Jesus’ audience were probably anticipating that the next traveller would be an ordinary man without pretensions who would prove to be the hero. How wrong they were. The hero is a Samaritan.
The animosity between Samaritan and Jew went very deep and was ancient in origin. Both sides claimed to be the true inheritors of the promises to Abraham; both sides in consequence regarded themselves as the rightful possessors of the land. Samaritans were descended from the ten Northern tribes who had been crushed by the Assyrians in 721 B.C. and the Assyrian masters had introduced other ethnic groups into the area. Tensions between Jew and Samaritan in Jesus’ time were strong. Jews believed they had no social obligations to Samaritans- they were like Gentiles or ritually unclean people. Added to this were the theological objections- they were heretics who accepted only the Torah, rejected the other Hebrew Scriptures and believed that Mt. Gerizim, not Jerusalem was the place of worship.
In contrast to the Priest and Levite who look at the man but pass by, the Samaritan sees the injured man and is moved with pity- (NRSV) a better translation is compassion for the Greek word here (splagchnizesthai) is an unusual one which means to be moved to the depths of one’s being. We encountered this word in Luke’s Gospel a few weeks ago when we read that Jesus had compassion on the widow who was about to bury her son. In the New Testament the word is found only in the Synoptic Gospels and apart from three examples in the parables is only used of Jesus. It is the word Luke uses to describe the reaction of the Samaritan. This man not only dresses the wounds and binds the man’s injured limbs but puts him on his donkey and carries him to an inn where he cares for him. He stays overnight in the inn and pays for another couple of days so that the injured man can recover enough to continue his journey. In other words he goes to extraordinary lengths for this unknown stranger. The language of these verses explicitly echoes the language used of God in the Old Testament as the one who binds up the wounds of his people. This Jesus says is what love of neighbour looks like, it means to love as God loves.
Jesus ends the story by asking the question: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The lawyer’s question was ‘Who is my neighbour?’ but Jesus turns it around and makes it ‘Who was the neighbour’? In other words, ‘Who turned out to be the neighbour to the wounded man?’ The lawyer cannot bring himself to utter the words ‘the Samaritan’ and can only answer, “the one who showed him mercy.” The message is clear, Jesus says to the lawyer and to us, “Go and do likewise.”
To be part of the Kingdom of God means to be part of a kingdom where we have to learn to love one another and receive love from one another in the extravagant way that God in Jesus has loved us. No one is excluded from God’s embrace; he disregards the barriers and divisions that still divide our world and he calls us to follow his example. The early interpreters in the Church read this parable and understood that it was a radical redefinition of neighbour but they also read it allegorically- the Good Samaritan represented Jesus – the one who was cast out by the establishment and rejected by many but who had compassion on broken humanity and bound up our wounds and carried us to safety. It’s hard to disagree with that interpretation. This is a challenging parable which invites us to look at our world and at one another very differently from the way we are used to observing them. So let us pray for the courage and compassion to go and do likewise.