The Good Samaritan Vincent van Gogh
So, this week, we are surrounded by political and economic uncertainty after the UK’s Brexit vote. In a national climate of increasing distrust, and anger, and division, many churches will be given this reading to consider on Sunday – the parable of the good Samaritan. It is strong medicine – at least, I find it so. It challenges me deeply, differently each time. Reading it again, now, its force comes home anew.
From The Bible Story Retold
WHO IS MY NEIGHBOUR? (Luke 10:25-37)
The teacher of the Law stood up, narrowing his eyes in the bright sun. He had heard people talk about Jesus, now he wanted to test him out.
He pitched his opening question: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
But Jesus offered the question back to him, giving him the chance to show his knowledge. “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?” The teacher’s answer was to quote the scriptures word-for-word: “’Love the Lord your God with all your soul, strength and mind’, and ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself’.”
Jesus smiled. “It’s a good answer. If you do all that, then you’ll have eternal life!” “But….” the teacher of the Law added in a loud voice, “but who is my neighbour?” Jesus answered him with a story.
“Once, a man was travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho.” The crowd could imagine this journey – the road’s steep rocky sides, its twists and turns, its dust and heat. “As he made his way along, a band of robbers crashed down the rocky slope onto the road – they had him surrounded. The man gasped, horrified, but there was nowhere for him to run. They stripped off his clothes and beat him to the ground. They left him lying in the dust, half-dead, while they went to gloat over their takings.
“So there he was, lying helpless in the heat of the sun, when a priest came by. The priest did not stop, he gave the man a wide berth, crossing quickly to the other side. A priest can not touch blood, or a body – that would make him “unclean” by Law, unable to work in the Temple, wouldn’t it?” Jesus nodded towards the teacher of the Law, then carried on. “Next came another religious man: a Levite. He, too, saw the man lying bleeding, and still. He, too, walked by on the other side, lifting his robes a little to avoid touching the blood on the road, and peering anxiously into the rocky shadows.
“Then, in the distance, came the steady clop of a donkey’s hooves. The donkey carried a third man, but this time, he had nothing to do with the Temple. He was a Samaritan.” Again he turned to the teacher, who was looking smug now. Samaritans didn’t keep to the law – so he wouldn’t know the right thing to do. “The Samaritan saw the broken figure lying bleeding on the road, and his heart was filled with pity. He leaped down, cleaned and soothed his wounds with wine and oil, and tore strips of cloth to make bandages. He slipped his arms under the man and heaved him onto his donkey, leading him gently to an inn. He sat with him all night, giving him sips of water and wine. The next day, he spoke to the innkeeper. ‘Here are some silver coins. Look after him, and if you spend more, I’ll pay you on my return.’
For a third time Jesus looked at the teacher of the Law and asked him “Now, you answer my question. Which one was a neighbour to the injured man?”
The teacher of the Law shifted uncomfortably. “The one who was kind to him.” He answered quietly. Jesus replied, “So go, and do likewise!”
It seems that the teacher of the law was opening a theoretical debate about what constitutes rightness in God’s eyes. It doesn’t seem to have that much to do with God, or people, even though he correctly identified the commands to love as the highest ones. Perhaps his question, “who is my neighbour”, was an attempt to place a limit on the breadth of the command to love. Perhaps this person is one I should love, but I can overlook another.
As was his custom, Jesus does not respond in kind, in debate, which can often stimulate the mind and bypass the heart. Instead, he tells a powerful story. Stories can change us. They can reframe the way we see things, they can stir up powerful responses – outrage, pity, compassion, love.
And love is the aim, the way, the goal. The teacher of the law was right about that. Here, it trumps other laws – those who seek to maintain their personal holiness and safety while leaving a bleeding man in the road are seen in sharp focus.
It is a foreigner who loves, and is commended. So often, groups praise the good deeds of those who are the same as them, in nationality, or creed, or other ways, and overlook goodness where it is found elsewhere. Jesus does not do that. Jesus, in word and deed, shows us what love looks like, and it is resourceful, and strong, and relentless even in the face of death. It overrides boundaries and borders. Jesus commends the goodness of one outside the Jewish tradition, and asks the expert in Jewish law to learn from him, to be more like him. The teacher of the law seems to be open to the lesson, too.
If some in our national debate are speaking words that divide people from their neighbours, we can remember that each of us can seek to live differently, demanding as that is. It is a humbling thing. There is no room for pride in the face of such a call to love – it is so often beyond our own resources. But, what seems quite astonishing to me is how little it can take to make a difference. I am sure we can all remember people, known or unknown to us, whose gestures of love and solidarity, whose practical kindness, whose simple acknowledgement helped us when we were in trouble. We can pray for open-hearted courage, we can pray for eyes to see the needs of those we walk past as we go about day by day. If we dare, we can ask God to move us to pity. But if that seem too much for us today, we can remember that the smallest gift of lovingkindness bears the hallmark of God.
How good it is when we remember that each human being has dignity, infinite worth, and so offer to all our respect and compassion. We can look for good in others, wherever they are from and whatever our differences. We can seek to overstep boundaries, and reach out a hand, remembering that love is from God.
Another way is possible.
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. 1 John 4:7
From Prayers and Verses
Make me as kind to others as I would want to be to you.
Make me as generous to others as I would want to be to you.
May I take time to help them as I would want to take time to help you.
May I take trouble to help them as I would want to take trouble to help you.
May I look into the faces of those I meet and see your face.
BASED ON MATTHEW 25:37–40