The road from Jerusalem to Jericho holds a deep fascination
to me. When ever I visit the Holy Land, I try and
find an excuse to travel along that road. I've never attempted it on foot, its
hard enough by air conditioned coach. The bends are sharp, the decline is steep,
the exposure to sun debilitating, the view is breathtaking, opportunities for
accident or ambush multiple. The last time I took the road, we turned a bend
to be confronted by a band of well armed men who had blocked the road and refused
to let us pass. They happened to be Israeli soldiers and their purpose was allegedly
to protect us from the disturbances associated with the newly formed state of
Palestine in Jericho. We remonstrated with them pleading with them to let us
go on, but to no avail. On that occasion we didn't actually make it to Jericho,
stopped by mine fields, tank traps, machine guns and road blocks. The seventeen-mile
descending road through the desert has been dangerous all throughout history.
Pompey had to wipe out strongholds of brigands near Jericho. The Crusaders built
a small fort at the half way mark to protect pilgrims, and the Turks built a
police station that has become known not surprisingly as the Good Samaritan
Inn. There you will find a coffee shop, a camel and Bedouin with whom you can
take coffee for a price. A photo of you with his camel though is extra.
Those listening to this parable of Jesus would have been very familiar with tales of hapless victims, robbed and beaten on that very road. It wasn'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. When you think about it, the ingredients that make up this story are not that remote from our world either, 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. The next time you meet someone who says the Bible is out of date, and irrelevant, show them this story. Jesus told the story in response to a question - probably the most important question we can ever ask, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?"
If you haven't yet asked the question, now is as good a time as any, and the sooner the better - for with certainty about your future, you can make sense of your present. Find your bearings on the horizon and you can read the map and find your present location. Not only is this probably the most important question we can ever ask, the assurance Jesus gave the lawyer is one of the shortest and most categorical Jesus ever gave. "You have answered correctly, do this and you will live" and by implication - live forever.
In one sense the parable is irrelevant. We have but to dedicate
ourselves to implementing this summary of the law of God and we have the assurance
of eternal life. "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 love your
neighbour as yourself."
If you want to know that you have eternal life - here is the answer. Jesus amplified this in John 17:3 "Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent." The apostle John in his first epistle sought to give the same assurance:
"And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life". (1 John 5:11-13)
But the Lawyer, wishing to justify himself wanted further clarification from Jesus. "Who is my neighbour?" To whom do I owe this obligation of neighbourliness to? And whom may I disregard? It was then that Jesus told this parable. We know it well from Sunday School, but what does it mean? The clue to unlock the parable is in the wounded traveller's condition. It is not a curious incidental. He was unconscious and stripped.
These details are skilfully included by Jesus 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 by 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" There are different degrees of mugging. Most of the time we don't realise that it is happening around us. There was a tragic story a couple of weeks before Christmas last year of a disabled man in a wheelchair who had stopped at a busy London junction. His wheelchair battery went flat and nobody noticed him sitting there getting colder and colder. Nobody mugged him, but nobody stopped to find out if he was all right either. He eventually died in hospital. 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.
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 paralyse 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 be a nuisance to us. 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 rota, the sidesmans rota, the cleaning rota. 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.
5. To The Samaritan: He was a Neighbour to Love
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 on a Croat in Bosnia, or a Greek on a Turk in Cyprus, or a Protestant on a Catholic in Northern Ireland, or a Palestinian on an Israeli settler on the West Bank. But Jesus elevates the Samaritan, as the one who did not permit racial or religious barriers to hinder him from helping this unknown victim. 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 four specific ways.
5.1 Compassion 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 Contact 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? He was willing to come into contact with this dying man and save his life. The Priest and Levite feared that contact would pollute, the Samaritan made contact to bring recovery. Compassion and contact.
5.3 Care 10:34 It is not enough that we have contact with our neighbour, or even that we show compassion - we must go the one step further and do something practical. 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 was willing to act. Willing to act, even to the point of making his own life vulnerable. He showed compassion, made contact, demonstrated care, and fourthly,
5.4 Cost 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, Contact, Care, Cost. 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 we were 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 and write off. Jesus turned it round and showed that its all a question of attitude. What kind of neighbour are you to anyone and everyone that you meet?
Have you met yourself in this parable?
1. With which
of the characters do you identify?
2. Have you felt like the victim? exploited by others? How does it make you feel?
3. When you see or hear of a need, what is your usual response?
4. What is it costing you to serve God right now?
5. What motivates you in your Christian life and service?