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The Good Samaritan
There’s often a certain amount of trepidation for people tasked with preaching when we approach the Lectionary to find what readings have been set for the day. Some of the Gospel stories about Jesus and many of his parables are so familiar to most churchgoers that to find anything new to say about them can be very daunting. The parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the most familiar. Like Christmas and Easter, it’s become part of our culture, so that even non-Christian Australians will usually know what is meant by referring to someone as a “Good Samaritan”.
So, here goes!
In Jesus’ time, the term “Good Samaritan” would have been an oxymoron for a Jewish audience. It was only in the previous chapter of Luke that the disciples James and John wanted to command fire from heaven to consume a Samaritan village after the people there had refused them hospitality. That was followed by Jesus’ teaching about the level of commitment required of his followers, whom he then sent out in pairs on a very successful mission to preach and heal, as we heard last week.
This time, there’s obviously a wider audience, as Jesus is challenged by a lawyer trying to catch him out: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Clearly a trick question. A lawyer was a teacher of Torah, not the modern sort of lawyer, but one who studied and interpreted the Mosaic Law.
In the shame and honour culture of the time, questions would have been viewed with suspicion, as they could well be a challenge to personal honour. The lawyer asking his question of Jesus obviously knew what the Jewish law taught, but hoped to catch this young Galilean rabbi out, and thereby cause him to be shamed by ignorance. Jesus simply batted his question back by asking him what he read in the Torah. The lawyer responds with a summary of Jesus’ own Torah-linked teaching, joining love of God from Deuteronomy 6 with love of neighbour from Leviticus 19. Embarrassed that Jesus has exposed him as knowing the answer to his own question, this teacher tries again by asking Jesus to define “neighbour.”
It seems an odd question from an expert on Jewish Law. The implication is that once you define “neighbour,” you know the limits of “neighbourhood,” and then you also know whom you can hate, or at least neglect. The lawyer is looking for the minimum he has to do to have eternal life, isn’t he? But that in itself is telling. Eternal life is a union with God. Scripture often refers to it as a marriage. But who would want to get married to someone who said, “what’s the minimum I can do for you, and with you, and still get you to marry me?”
It was generally agreed that “neighbour” meant fellow Jews, but there were disputes about exceptions. Each group within Judaism of the time would exclude those they deemed unworthy – Pharisees tended to exclude non-Pharisees as unworthy because they didn’t try hard enough, and other sects were equally willing to dismiss those who didn’t hold the same views as they did. It probably didn’t occur to the lawyer that “neighbour” could include those who weren’t even Jewish.
The audience to this verbal joust probably settled down to enjoy the story that Jesus then began to tell them. It all went predictably to start with. “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers…” Just what you’d expect if someone was silly enough to travel that notoriously dangerous 17 mile stretch on his own. There’s no description of the man, so the hearers probably did what most of us do, and filled in the details with an assumption that he was like them, and therefore a Jew. Now he’s lying on the side of the road, naked and unconscious, so there’s no way to identify him. A priest and a Levite come along the road, and are faced with a bit of a quandary, but their religious duties require them to avoid defiling themselves, and as he could well be dead, they don’t risk becoming unclean by touching a probable corpse.
That would make perfect sense to the audience, who were thoroughly indoctrinated into the purity rules around temple worship. Given the usual story form of the time, they would have expected Jesus to introduce a third person to this dilemma, maybe an ordinary Jewish man, to make the story a criticism of the attitude of the ordained religious leadership. The one thing they wouldn’t have expected was that the third person, the compassionate one that the structure of the parable clearly called for, would be a despised Samaritan.
The mutual hatred between Jews and Samaritans was based on a disagreement about where the centre of worship was, Jerusalem or Mount Gerazim. It had reached a low point around the time of Jesus because during a Passover some time between 6 and 9AD, some Samaritans had defiled the Temple court by strewing it with the bones of dead people. So Jesus clearly chose the most shocking and emotive example to make his point. The religious self-absorption of the two official servants of God is compared with the unselfish compassion of someone they held in utter contempt.
I wonder who Jesus would have chosen as his example if he was telling this story to us today.
The Samaritan’s compassion was deep and personally risky. This man has every excuse in the world to mind his own business and to keep on moving. A Samaritan in Judea would himself be an automatic target for hostility. If he was caught near the victim, he would be considered a likely suspect in the attack. He probably didn’t have a first-aid kit with him, so would have had to improvise bandages by tearing strips from his headcloth or undergarment. Wine to disinfect, and oil to soothe wounds were normal remedies. He left enough money to pay for about three weeks’ board – extremely generous if you translate that into what we’d pay today.
Then Jesus turned back to the lawyer and reversed the lawyer’s question. The lawyer had asked for a definition of the limits of his responsibility to care – how far did this “love of neighbour” commandment go? Rather than enter an intellectual debate about a point of religious interpretation, Jesus turned it around in his story to make it a practical example. “Put yourself in the position of the person in need. Who looks like a neighbour from that viewpoint?” The lawyer couldn’t bring himself to commend a Samaritan – he replied “The one who showed him mercy.”
The lawyer’s request for a definition of limits is answered by a story which does away with limits. Anyone in need is your neighbour. No-one is outside the boundaries of our duty to care. There’s no suggestion that the recipient of love has to be deserving or even grateful. In the story, it would have been quite likely that if the injured man was a Jew, he would have hated the fact that his rescuer had been a Samaritan.
For most of us, this parable is familiar from childhood, a warm and comforting story of rescue and kindness. But for us as adults, it’s much more confronting and radical. We can have difficulty obeying the command to love our neighbour because we don’t understand ‘neighbour’ as Jesus did. Neighbour for us means people we like, people like us, people we know. Even in our own country, there are people with whom we’re uncomfortable. None of us is completely free from prejudice. There are elements of the lawyer in all of us, and it’s hard to maintain compassion for people who don’t respond in a way we feel is appropriate.
The term translated as “he had compassion” is a wonderful Greek word “esplagnisthe” . It implies a deep inner response – our expression “gut-wrenching” is probably the best translation. It only occurs three times in the whole of Luke; in the other two instances, only Jesus himself(Luke 7:13) meeting the widowed mother at Nain, and the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son(Luke 15:20) are said to show “esplagnisthe” compassion. In other words, “showing compassion” in the Lukan narrative is a divine action. When used in this parable, it strongly suggests that deep compassion is the major way that we’re called to demonstrate God’s love in the world.
Compassion seems to be in very short supply in today’s troubled world. The old Victorian idea of the deserving and undeserving poor, for instance, is making a comeback under the present neo-liberal economic ideology.
I don’t think this teaching of Jesus allows us to make such distinctions, and we can be humbled if we do. Many of you will be familiar with the spot in the Canberra Centre where there’s a pedestrian crossing, and there are often one or two people, usually men, who are begging for money there. I, like many, have tended to just hurry across the road there. Yesterday I was with a friend of mine who has MS. She told me that she’d visited the Canberra Centre last week, and had difficulty because it required her to walk further than she could. When they were leaving, her husband went to get the car. As she struggled with her walker to get to where he’d had pulled their car over near there, one of those beggars got up and came over to help her. As she put it, compassion from one person in need to another.
Our prejudices can run deep and shock us when we become aware of them. I watched a short film on Facebook this week of a recent experiment conducted in America. It was set up to observe the responses of people to a six year old girl, dressed firstly as a street kid, then as a cared-for child, clean and well-dressed. In the first part of the experiment she was almost completely ignored, but when she looked more cared for, more middle class, I suppose, people stopped to speak to her, and to offer her help. They stopped the experiment after trying to repeat it indoors in some sort of eatery. So many people were unkind and told her to move away when she looked uncared for, that the little girl burst into tears and ran out to her mother who was standing nearby.
The parable of the Good Samaritan offers a challenge to our expectations. The despised Samaritan isn’t the recipient of benevolent care – he’s the giver, the example of compassion. This tells us two things – firstly that he’s an equal in the sight of God. That he’s held up as an exemplar of caring and giving removes any suggestion that a Samaritan is less acceptable and loved by God.
Secondly, that religious observance as displayed by the ritual cleanliness concerns of the Jews in the story is less important to God than the care and love we express in the world. This reversal occurs again and again in the teachings of Jesus – the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, and the Beatitudes, for example.
In reality, it seems to me that the parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the most challenging of all Jesus’ teaching. Jesus redefines neighbour as the hated stranger who is down and out, challenging us to stop what we are doing and care for that person’s need. There’s no question of whether the injured man is deserving or not, a good person or not. He’s simply someone in need of help.
The point of Jesus’ parable was to show that the lawyer’s face-saving self-justifying manoeuvre in asking for a definition of “neighbour”, was simply skirting the real issue, which was, the kind of person he was himself. The lawyer’s problem was not the definition of neighbour. His problem—and the problem of all of us—is becoming the kind of person who, because of compassion, can’t pass by on the other side. And can’t ignore a six year old on her own, just because she’s dirty and unkempt.
The priest in the Gospel may have been going to the temple to worship God. Jesus is teaching his followers to see the ditch as God’s dwelling place: to love neighbour as defined by Jesus is to love God. In our globalised world, there are no boundaries to our duty of care under God. Our worship and our attendance here at the Lord’s Table ends with the words “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” We are to go out into the world to take God’s love and compassion to all we encounter.