Parable of the Good Samaritan: Luke 10
Last Thursday week I went up to London with Louise for the afternoon. Every five minutes on the train there was a reassuring message over the PA system to advise us that the rail company was doing everything it could to ensure our safety, that CCTV was operating in each carriage and could we please look out for suspicious packages and report them immediately. Travelling on various parts of the underground during the afternoon, the fear among many of the passengers was visible and palpable. Suspicious looks, apprehensive glances, people on edge. Any one with a Middle Eastern or Indian complexion was viewed with suspicion as were people wearing a rucksack. The combination of the two was enough to cause ostracism. On at least one occasion I saw people move seats to avoid being near someone of the wrong colour or religious persuasion. The presence of large numbers of heavily armed police at the railways stations and at the entrances to the tube stations was, I am sure, intended to reassure passengers more than intimidate would-be terrorists. Clearly the vast majority of our community, of all races and creeds, repudiate violence. Yet seeing how commuters treated one another brought home to me the abiding significance of this little story Jesus told about a certain man who fell among thieves on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem. It reminded me of how vital it is as Christ followers we go out of our way to overcome our fears and prejudices and reach out to those who are different and seek their welfare. Let me make this a little more personal.
How would you feel if
Runnymede Borough Council approached the PCC to use the Church Hall to house
50-100 homeless refugees from Eastern Europe? What would the impact be in the
local community? We are already quite an international community,
multi-cultural, multi-ethnic. Whether one thinks of the membership of
Wentworth, the residents of Virginia Park, our church family at Christ Church,
or the origin of the make of cars we drive, we are an international community.
But how far does that neighbourliness, that tolerance extend? Would we get
local support for housing foreign refugees? Or would it arouse opposition,
petitions, resentment, protests? Racism?
Would you draw a distinction between those brought here by our government and those who have entered our country illegally? Between those escaping persecution and those looking for a better life? How do we rate our neighbourhood? Our neighbourliness?
This parable of Jesus is as topical and controversial today as it was to those who first heard him. The listeners to the parables of Jesus would have been very familiar with tales of hapless victims, robbed and beaten on that very road. Even today it isn’t the kind of road to take the family on a Sunday afternoon picnic. So with this story Jesus would have held the attention of his hearers. The ingredients that make up this story are not that remote from our world, or the front pages of our newspapers. Christ talked about violence and danger - and we certainly have plenty of that today. He talked about crime, racial discrimination, fear and hatred.
In this parable we also see neglect and concern, we see love and mercy. We know very well what the parable says, but what does it mean? The clue is in the wounded traveller's condition. It is not a curious incidental. He was unconscious and stripped. These details are skilfully constructed to create the tension that is at the heart of the drama. The Middle Eastern world was and is made up of various ethnic-religious communities. The traveller is able to identify strangers in two ways. By their speech and their dress. In the first century the various ethnic communities within Palestine used an amazing array of dialects and languages.
In Hebrew alone there was classical Hebrew, late Biblical Hebrew and Mishnaic Hebrew. But in addition to Hebrew, one could find settled communities that used Aramaic, Greek, Ashdodian, Samaritan, Phoenician, Arabic, Nabatean, and Latin. The country had many settled communities of pagans and god-fearers. No one travelling a major highway in Palestine could be sure that the stranger he might meet would be a fellow Jew. A few quick questions and his language or dialect would identify him, as would his distinctive coloured dress. But what of the man in this story. He was stripped of his outer clothes and left unconscious. He was thereby reduced to a mere human being in need. He belonged to no one particular ethnic or religious community.
It was such a person that the robbers left beside the road. Who will turn aside to offer aid? Lets spend a few moments considering the characters involved in this story and their different attitudes toward the man who was travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho.
1. To The Thieves: He was a Victim to Exploit
When the thieves saw the man travelling down the road they did not see a fellow human being made in the image of God. They saw someone they could exploit. It did not matter what happened to him, as long as they got what they wanted. Their philosophy was "What's yours is mine-I'll take it". God gave us things to use and people to love. We live in a culture that has got it round the other way. Jesus Christ never exploits a person. He always gives back more than he asks for. He always leaves a person in better shape than when He found them. If he wounds, he also heals. To Jesus the worker is more important than the work. We must beware of looking at people and thinking "what can he do for me?" We may not mug them physically to steal their money, but we can so easily hurt them with our words and actions. To the thieves this man was a victim to exploit.
2. To The Priest and Levite: He was a Nuisance to Avoid
Jericho was a priestly city, a place where many of the priestly families lived. It is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. It has a warm mild climate all year. Before 1967, many of the oil rich sheiks from the Gulf States would spend their winters in Jericho. By comparison, Jerusalem is cold and exposed in Winter. So Jericho was the place to live, and priests and Levites would regularly frequent this road on their way to and from the Temple. Of all people they should have stopped to help this poor man. The priest was most probably riding. We can deduce that from the fact that priests were drawn from the upper class of society. They constituted the privileged elite of Jewish society.
In the Middle East no one with any status in the community takes seventeen mile hikes through the desert. The poor walk. Everyone else always rode. The thrust of the parable was that the Samaritan did what the priest should have done.
So what excuses would the priest have offered had he been caught on a security camera travelling by on the other side? "I've got to remain pure in order to serve God" When confronted by a stripped and unconscious person he was paralysed.
How could he help someone who might be a sinner? His own religious rules forbade him go within four metres of a dead person in case he was defiled, and then he wouldn’t be able to perform his duties. His peers would have applauded him for not stopping so that he could perform the higher work for God. How strange that sometimes one form of spiritual work competes or conflicts with another. It's not my problem. Maybe it was. Why didn't the religious leaders do something about the dangerous road? Cain asked, "Am I my brother's keeper? The answer is "Yes, regardless of your sister or brother’s race or colour."
May be its an ambush. May be it was, maybe it wasn't. What mattered was the person in need, not their fears about the unknown. If we allow the unknown to determine our actions in the present they will paralyze us from serving God. Let somebody else do it...The priest could have said, "the Levite coming up behind me, he can stop, I don't need to." But then the Levite could have said, "The priest didn't do anything, so why should I?" You and I can always find somebody to point to as an excuse for your own neglect. Failure to act when we should is as sinful as to act when we shouldn't. (James 4:17) If we go through life wanting our own way, then other people will always be a nuisance to us because they will get in our way.
But if we go through life with our eyes open seeking to share the love of Christ, every nuisance, becomes a divine appointment, an opportunity to glorify God. To the robbers this man was a victim to exploit. To the priest and Levite he was a nuisance to avoid.
3. To The Lawyer: He was a Problem to Discuss
Jesus told the story in reply to a lawyer's question about his responsibilities. The lawyer was an expert in Old Testament Law, since Israel lived under Divine rule, much as it and the Moslem world does today. He was then a professional theologian. One of the best ways to get nothing done is to discuss it, form a committee, hold a conference. The lawyer wanted to win an argument on the abstract subject of neighbourliness. Jesus turns the conversation round to teach a fundamental truth about concrete action. The lawyer was safe with theories, "who is my neighbour?"
He was threatened with the reply "What would you have done in this story? What kind of neighbour are you? To the robbers this man was a victim to exploit. To the priest and Levite he was a nuisance to avoid. To the Lawyer: He was a problem to discuss.
4. To The Inn Keeper: He was a Customer to Serve
I do not criticise the inn keeper for not being on the road to help the victim. He had his inn to manage, and that kept him busy. But I want to use the inn keeper to illustrate the fact that many Christians serve other people, or rather serve particular people because it is their job and they get paid to do it. Perhaps the inn keeper would have helped the man without the Samaritans two silver coins, and the assurance of more if it was needed. We don't know. That was not the main point of Jesus story, but it is worth noting that the inn keeper took the Samaritans money.
So lets follow through on the implications. How far are we willing to serve people as long as it is convenient and won't cost us anything? The readers team, the welcomers team, the refreshments team, the crčche team. Fine as long as it begins to interfere with my freedom to choose what to do on Sundays? Fine as long as I can reimburse for that expenditure? Motive has a great deal to do with ministry. It is possible to do much good but with a bad motive. The Pharisees prayed, gave tithes and fasted - all acceptable religious practices, but the motive of some was to gain the praise of people, not to glorify God. If I serve you only because I am paid to do it then I am more like the inn keeper than the Samaritan, for I am treating you as a customer rather than a human being. We must never serve the Lord and His people from an opportunist attitude. A "What can I get out of this?" attitude is not pleasing to the Lord. Of the five attitudes demonstrated in this passage, only one was acceptable, and that belonged to a foreigner.
When Jesus uttered the phrase, "But a certain Samaritan...." I'm convinced His Jewish audience were shocked. The Jews had no dealings with the Samaritans. Every morning, every pious Jew thanked God in his prayers that the Lord had not made him a woman, a Gentile or a Samaritan. A Gentile could conceivably become a Jewish proselyte but not a Samaritan. They were lost eternally. The last person you would expect to help a Jew would be a Samaritan. I'm sure his audience expected Jesus to say "when the Samaritan came along he took one look at the man and finished him off."
The concept of "ethnic cleansing" may be a recent addition to the dictionary but the actions it describes have been going on for thousands of years. There was no love lost between Jews and Samaritans. Jesus might just as well have been describing the action of a Serb toward a Croat in Bosnia, or a Greek toward a Turk in Cyprus, or a Protestant toward a Catholic in Northern Ireland, or a Palestinian toward an Israeli settler on the West Bank. Contrary to their expectation, Jesus elevates a despised Samaritan, as the one who did not permit racial or religious barriers to hinder him from helping this unknown victim.
5. To The Samaritan: He was a Neighbour to Love
The Samaritan did not blame the injured person for the collective attitudes of either race, and use that as an excuse for doing nothing. He dared to act as a concerned individual, in three specific ways.
5.1 Showed Compassion 10:33
“But a Samaritan, as he travelled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.” (Luke 10:33)
This word means much more than passing pity. The original has with it the connotation of being deeply moved inside. It is the word used to describe the way the Lord feels about lost sinners. Compassion describes the way God feels about us. When we show compassion we are merely demonstrating our family likeness.
5.2 Took the Initiative 10:34
“He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him.” (Luke 10:34)
The Samaritan could have excused himself. He was a foreigner in a hostile country. He was alone and vulnerable, but Agape, God's love does not look for excuses, it looks beyond obstacles. It does not ask why, but why not?
The Samaritan cleansed the victims wounds with wine and soothed them with oil. He bound up the wounds so they would begin to heal. He took the man to the inn to recover and promised to return to pay the bill. The lawyer was willing to talk, the Samaritan took the initiative. He demonstrated compassion. He took the initiative and, thirdly
5.3 Bore the Cost 10:35
“The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.'” (Luke 10:35). He interrupted his schedule to help this man. It may have made him late for a business appointment, it may have delayed him from seeing his family. But he paid the cost. He shared his beast with the man and took him to the inn. He stayed a while and paid the bill. What did he have to gain from this personally? Nothing - except the joy and strength that come when you do God's will, when you live by love and service without expecting recognition or reward. What did the Samaritan show? Compassion, Initiative, sacrifice.
Jesus said, "Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?" (Luke 10:36) When Jesus asked the Jewish lawyer which of the three was neighbour to the victim, the lawyer gave the correct answer but he would not even bring himself to use the word "Samaritan". He was still resisting Jesus attempt to reach his heart. I wonder whether we have got the message? This morning, with the continued uncertainty over terrorist threats, we may also be asking the question - who is my neighbour?
Jesus teaches that you cannot separate your relationship with God from your responsibility toward those you meet. The lawyer wanted Jesus to define the limits of his responsibility of neighbourliness - to whom he had to be a neighbour and to whom he could ignore or write off. Jesus turned the question round. The question is not ‘to whom need I be a neighbour?’ but rather ‘what kind of neighbour am I?’ - to anyone I meet?
I invite you to join a revolution this week. Break the spiral of fear and hate in our community with acts of compassion and mercy especially toward those who are different, who are the outsiders, the strangers, who ever the Lord brings across your path. Your assignment from Jesus is really very simple: “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:37) Lets pray.