I read this familiar story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) with pleasure and recognised the questions it always raises for me, I suspect, like many of you. As I finished reading I started to think about what I could add to what you already know and understand about this story.
The story of the Good Samaritan sits alongside the story of the Prodigal Son as both are very well known. For many of us, we remember them from our days in Sunday School. These two stories are told only in the Gospel of Luke.
They are stories that on the surface are so simple we know and can learn them very quickly and yet, we can spend many hours pulling back the layers to see what they can tell us about our relationships with each other and with God, about culture and judgmentalism, discrimination and diversity, about faith and religion.
Our recognition and acceptance of the Good Samaritan story, means you and I can assume we have a shared understanding of its implications for our own behaviour as we apply the elements of the story to our own circumstances.
It serves as a starting point for us when we talk about what we do as a church community, our ministries and services; how we behave with each other and how and why we make certain choices for ourselves and our community.
In the past when I’ve preached on this, I’ve invited us all to imagine ourselves as the priest and Levite, walking by ignoring the Samaritan, perhaps for very good justifiable reasons, perhaps because of purity laws, maybe pressure of time and other commitments, a shared cultural accepted, unquestioned hatred of the alien and foreigner; and perhaps you might have other reasons.
I am aware of what I think and how I behave when I walk past homeless people on our streets in the big cities for example. The brokenness of our welfare system and the inability of the homeless and the ill to make our systems work and be helpful. I know how ashamed I feel.
We like to imagine ourselves as the Samaritan with the courage and ability to do what he did, when we think about being and doing this good act and taking the risk and the time to be compassionate.
Perhaps less easily, we can imagine ourselves as the man beaten on the side of the road, broken, robbed, injured and alone, perhaps dying.
Or even the inn keeper, worrying about whether or not we’ll get paid and will the Samaritan return to cover the bill? And what will my other customers think if I have such a person on the premises, will it damage my reputation?
These are good reflections and helpful.
But I want to go to other aspects of the story today.
I found it interesting that the conversation with the lawyer starts with the question: ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’
And when Jesus turns the question back to him, the lawyer is able to quote word for word, the well know law from Deuteronomy 6:4-9; and then he adds in the extra verse from Leviticus 19:18 which says: ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself’.
Jesus hears this and commends the lawyer saying’ you have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’ (Luke 10:28)
Isn’t it interesting that it is the inclusion of this last verse from Leviticus, after the clear commitment to love God, with a whole heart, mind, strength and soul that focuses the lawyer’s next question: ‘and who is my neighbour?’ (10:29)
It is a typical lawyer’s question. You can imagine him trying to sort out where are the limits to the legal responsibility to love one another as oneself? How far do you and I have to go with this? Is a neighbour someone in my neighbourhood, of my tribe and race and faith, in my country, in my social or religious class; is it only those who share my beliefs and opinions?
Or is it someone who exists beyond my definition of neighbour?
God seems to be suggesting that when I find my limits, then look over the fence. Just how far is God asking us to go? Just as we imagined ourselves in the story of the good Samaritan, can you imagine being the lawyer asking the question, trying to the find limits for loving and neighbourliness, so we don’t have to go beyond what is reasonable or comfortable.
In the parable, Jesus shows us that he defines ‘neighbour’ not as someone worthy to be loved, which is frequently our measure of neighbourliness, but someone able to offer love.
Jesus leads the lawyer to the conclusion that neighbours are those who act in love towards others.
Jesus isn’t telling us we have to help the person in the ditch even though it might be dangerous to us or costly.
This story isn’t simply about Jesus pushing the definition of neighbour further than it was before.
The story of the Good Samaritan is a story about mercy. Mercy that is not concerned with being deserving, worthiness, purity or piety. Mercy comes from God to the community and to each of us. It is a gift given to all of us, shared without limits.
However, the question that started this story was about eternal life; and it closes with Jesus’ command, ‘do this and you will live’.
So what is the way of life that leads to eternal life?
In response to the lawyer’s question, the message of the good Samaritan story leads us to the conclusion that we must help because helping is the way of life – not only for those needing help, but also for those offering it. All of us are in it together.
And, the definition of our ‘neighbour’ is the definition of ‘community’.
The priest and the Levite for all their experience of religious community, did not know how to recognise their bond with the man lying beaten and broken in the ditch, but the Samaritan did.
The Samaritan knew that life, not just for the person in immediate need but for everyone, and not just for the moment but for all eternity, requires being and having neighbours without any limits.
“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’. (Luke 10: 36)
The Lord be with you.