Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “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.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
The Story of the Good Samaritan is one of the best-known stories in the world. It has entered our language: the organisation to help strangers called The Samaritans and we all know what it means to ‘walk on by on the other side of the road. It’s impact is not just felt in English phrases, in France they have what is called the ‘Good Samaritan Law,’ where you have a legal obligation to help someone if you are able to.
The story of the Good Samaritan is famous, it is so famous, that we are all tempted to relax when hear it, sit back in our pews and say ‘oh yes, I know this one!’ When the story should unsettle and disturb us, strike a note in our heart that makes us want to change the way we live, and the way we think, and the way we relate to others.
This story is given by Jesus to explain the very core of Christianity. Jesus is asked what does he stand for, what is his teaching all about. The answer is to love. Love God, love your neighbour, love yourself. That is Christianity in a nutshell, everything else is a means to these ends. To further explain the second of these loves, ‘love of our neighbour’ Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan.
The question I want us to consider is, who do we identify with in this story?
I’m sorry to say that the most obvious comparison for us is with the Priest and the Levite. Most trips into central London turn us into the people who pass on by. Many of us walk on by the homeless beggar asking for change without even recognising their humanity with a simple ‘hello.’ Some of us may want to say that giving to beggars is not a good idea, we can argue the case that we should give to a homeless charity, not to the beggars. I’m not sure that argument carries much weight, but it is sincerely held by many good people. What is clear, that if someone asks us for some money, the least we can do is recognise someone is talking to us and say ‘hello.’ I spent a year working with homeless people in central London, and it became clear from talking to people who had spent time on the street that a conversation, a few words of kindness and a smile, was often more welcome than money. It’s all very well for me to be self-righteous about my principle of always talking to homeless people, but I’ve walked by people slumped unconscious with no better excuse for my inaction than not wanting to be late for the theatre.
But Jesus is clear, to walk on by is a sin. It is wrong. It goes against the very heart of Christianity, which commands us to love our neighbour as ourselves.
We can do wrong, or ‘sin’ in the (often misunderstood) language of the church, not just by the things we do, but by the things we don’t do.
To further complicate our interpretation of this story, and make it even more painful to apply to our lives we need to consider those in need throughout the world. The parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us nothing if it does not teach us that our neighbours are not just people from our own country. We only have to look at the news to see we have over a billion neighbours who need our help. We have a billion hungry neighbours. Every time we squander the gifts we have been given, we are walking on by on the other side of the road. We need to support charities like Christian Aid, Oxfam, Embrace the Middle East, our own monthly appeal, and we can write to our M.P.s and to the prime minister to keep international aid high on the political agenda…
And so we move on to the next character in the story. If we do something to help those in need we may identify with the Samaritan. He is the one Jesus calls us to be like, he ends the parable saying ‘go thou and do likewise.’
Jews hated the Samaritans, and the Samaritans despised the Jews. My first draught of this sermon involved retelling the story in modern terms. The Priest was a Vicar, the Levite, either a lawyer or a policeman. I struggled with both because in our cynical age we don’t have the respect or awe for any of these professions that there would have been for the priest and Levite in Jesus’ time. But the hardest thing to find was the equivalent for the Samaritan.
The Jews and Samaritans really hated each other. The Jews had been invaded and conquered and invaded and conquered by nation after nation, they had to fight to keep their national and religious identity alive. The Hebrew Kingdom split into two, the Southern Kingdom, Judah, is the Holy Land as we know it, the land of Jesus. The Jews of Judah kept their identity and did not intermarry with any of their invaders. The Samaritans were the Jews of the Northern Kingdom, who had intermarried and taken on many of the customs of their invaders. The Samaritans were not able to get to the Temple on Mount Zion in Jerusalem to worship, so they set up their own Temple on Mount Gerizim. Although they worshiped the same God, they frequently fought, and in Jesus day ‘the Jews had no dealings with the Samaritans.’ The only people they would have hated more than their Pagan Roman oppressors were their neighbours the Samaritans.
I could think of no modern day equivalent for us to the Samaritan. I thought maybe a Muslim, Muslims get a unfairly bad press in this country, but I don’t think we hate them in the same way that Samaritans were hated. Asylum Seekers was another idea, but while the press and politicians use asylum seekers as a whipping post, we Christians would, I hope, never fall in line with that nonsense. Even religious, good people hated the Samaritans, it’s the kind of hatred that comes with fear in times of war and unrest. We are at peace with no hated enemy.
In the end I think we have to look into ourselves, and think about the people we find difficult, for whatever reason. Reflect on the people who irritate, or anger or upset us. And think, these are our neighbour, and these are the people Christ calls us to love.
If we are to be Good Samaritans, as Jesus calls us to be, we mustn’t just help our literal neighbour when they lock themselves out of their car, we are to help the people we find the hardest to bear, and do it with love.
We have looked at how we can identify ourselves with the people who walked by, we can identify ourselves with at least trying to be the Good Samaritan, finally, we should take some time to identify with the wounded man. Our calling is not only to give, we are not called to simple charity. We are also called to accept help and love. We see ourselves as donors, the fortunates who can bestow charity, or bestow the Gospel on others. But Jesus told this story to poor, common Jewish folk who would be much more ready to identify with the wounded man than anyone else. We can be spiritually destitute, lying beside life’s road with no sense of meaning, or self-worth. We could be emotionally beaten-up, robbed of comfort and security. Until we realise that we need God, and need each other, we can never reach our full potential as Christians and as human beings. Unless we realise that we need even the hated Samaritan, who will come to our aid if we let him, we will not live the life that God created us to live.
The message of this story is that we al all connected, all dependent on one another. That’s also the same message as baptism. When little Tom is baptised later in this service we will all promise that we have a responsibility to him. And Barry and Nicola, his parents, and Nicholas, James and Fleur, his Godparents, will promise to bring Tom up to know his responsibility to his neighbour.
So let us take our consideration of the story of the Good Samaritan deeper, and reflect on ourselves, as the people who walk by, as the Samaritan, and as the wounded man, and the story, as with all Jesus’ teaching can bring us to life, and life more abundant.