Readings: Amos 7:7–17, Colossians 1:1–14 & Luke 10:25–37
The story of the Good Samaritan is one of the most well known stories in the Bible. It is so well known in fact, that the term ‘Good Samaritan’ has entered our everyday language as a term used to describe someone who helps a complete stranger. It’s ironic to think that there might be a large number of people, who would refer to themselves as being ‘non-religious’, who have probably used this term themselves without knowing its religious origins.
I’m sure that many of us here this morning are very familiar with the story of the Good Samaritan, but I’m sure there could be certain aspects of the story that might surprise you. For example, did you know that the Parable of the Good Samaritan occurs ONLY in the Gospel of Luke? It is one of many parables, attributed to Jesus, that we find within the section of Luke’s Gospel between 9:51 and 18:14, which are not found in any of the other gospels. It is believed that Luke had access to a source, possibly an oral tradition, that neither Mark or Matthew had when they were compiling their gospels.
What purpose might Jesus (and Luke) have had for telling this particular parable? In the original Greek version we are provided with a clue in the opening verse of the passage, however our translation this morning, from the NRSV, actually obscures this clue somewhat. The NRSV translates the verse as “Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus”, however the Greek is better translated as “And behold, one trained in the law of Moses arose to tempt him”. The Greek word ἰδοὺ (which means behold) was used by an author to draw attention to someone or something. So Luke is asking us to pay attention to the person who is about to be mentioned, who as it turns out, is a lawyer. The Greek word for lawyer (νομικός) refers in this case to someone who is trained in the law of Moses. They are an expert in the Torah. So Luke is wanting us to pay attention to what is to follow in this dialogue between Jesus and the lawyer, which will actually be a question of interpretation of the Torah.
The lawyer, who addresses Jesus as Teacher, and thereby gives credibility to Jesus as an interpreter of Torah, asks Jesus what work he needs to do if he is to inherit eternal life. Jesus answers the man’s question with a question of his own: what does the law say? The lawyer quotes correctly, from both the Book of Deuteronomy and the Book of Leviticus, with the commands to love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself. Jesus acknowledges that the man has answered correctly, and tells him that if he does this then he will live. It is at this point that the lawyer decides to get cute, and he tries to trick Jesus into giving an answer that isn’t consistent with Torah by asking him, “And just who is my neighbour?”
Jesus then proceeds to tell the story of a man who is set upon by robbers, beaten, stripped of all his possessions (including his clothes) and left for dead. Those hearing Jesus tell the story would have been very familiar with the treacherous stretch of road running from Jerusalem to Jericho which is approximately 1,000 metres below sea level. It was a dangerous road for anyone to travel on.
After the man is beaten and left for dead, two other travellers, one a priest and the other a Levite (who were the priestly descendants of Aaron, the brother of Moses), come upon the man while they are making their way along the same road. In both cases, when they see the man, they cross to the other side of the road, and continue on their journey without stopping to render any assistance. It doesn’t seem like a very ‘priestly’ or ‘holy’ thing to do does it?
One possible reason for them failing to render assistance, is that both the priest and Levite may have thought the man was already dead, and Jewish law prevented them from coming in contact with a corpse because it would make them ritually unclean. Consider the following verse from the Book of Leviticus in relation to a Levite, “He shall not go where there is a dead body; he shall not defile himself even for his father or mother.” (Lev. 21:11 NRSV) Then there is this passage from the Book of Numbers, “Now there were certain people who were unclean through touching a corpse, so that they could not keep the passover on that day.” (Num. 9:6 NRSV)
Whatever the reason, both the priest and Levite pass by the man without offering any help. We then hear that a Samaritan is also travelling along the same road, and when he sees the injured man he is overcome with pity and stops to provide, first medical assistance, and later financial assistance to this complete stranger.
What would have been staggering to those hearing Jesus tell this story, and also for those reading about it in Luke’s Gospel, is that Samaritans and Jews were bitter enemies. It was unheard of for these two groups of people to associate with one another, so for a Samaritan to help a Jewish person in trouble, or vice versa, was totally unexpected and quite counter-cultural. But that was the point that Jesus was making in relation to how Jewish people understood the law. Jesus was telling them that they had to reinterpret the law. It was clearly not right to consider yourself to be a pious and holy person when you cannot demonstrate compassion for another human being.
What is really interesting about the location of the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke’s Gospel, is that it follows shortly after an incident where Jesus is not welcome in a Samaritan village because he is on his way to Jerusalem. Two of his disciples, James and John, want to call down fire and destruction upon the village, but Jesus rebukes them. No doubt some of Luke’s readers might have been sympathetic with James’ and John’s desire to destroy these Samaritans who had treated Jesus with lack of respect. So to then read that Jesus tells a story where the hero is a Samaritan who puts supposedly godly, Jewish people (the priest and Levite) to shame, would have been very challenging for a number of Luke’s readers.
The parable of the Good Samaritan draws to a close with Jesus asking the lawyer the following question: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” To which the lawyer replies, “The one who showed him mercy.” The parable then ends with Jesus issuing a directive to the lawyer, “Go and do likewise.”
Not only has Jesus demonstrated another way to interpret the law, what he has also done is to show that it is not enough to just think differently about what something might mean, but if we are to truly make a difference, then we need to “ACT” differently in accordance with that new understanding. We are not to just think, but we are to do.
With that thought in mind, I would like to return to where I finished my sermon last Sunday. You might remember that I was talking about the question that was asked at Spiritual Cafe the previous Tuesday, “How do we make God the number one priority in our life? How do we allow the love of God to enter our hearts and take up residence there?” I answered by saying that it would seem that a good way for us to start is for us to lay down our “cloaks of fear” and our “branches of pride” before Jesus – just like the cloaks and branches that were laid down before him as he entered Jerusalem. Cloaks and branches to welcome Jesus in!
That involves acting differently from the way in which we might normally behave. The teaching of Jesus challenges us to not only THINK differently, but to ACT differently. If we are to make God the number one priority in our life, allow His love to enter our hearts and take up residence there, then we need to change the way we THINK about our relationship with God, and we need to change the way we ACT towards God, so that we can make time and space for God in our lives.