The Parable of the Good Samaritan is perhaps one of the best known of Jesus stories. Sometimes this familiarity gets in the way of really understanding it but like many of Jesus` stories I think it`s fair to say that it works on a number of levels.
At its most simple it`s just a story about compassion isn`t it? The message seems to be: “If you see someone in need well, do something about it”. In a phrase that`s become firmly part of the English language we`re taught, don`t be someone who `passes by on the other side`” In other words it seems that this story works as basic humanitarian tale. And that`s fine. We wouldn`t want to argue with it. But I was first woken up to the problem of leaving it at that by a couple of occasions when this basic humanitarian tale was distorted a bit.
Firstly, I recall hearing the blessed Norman Tebbitt back in 1980`s attempting to justify his economic views by saying that `the Samaritan was the man who had the cash to do the helping`. An interesting take on the story I thought.
And then secondly- a colleague of mine once told me how he had met with his local head teacher and asked about the content of his assemblies. `Oh yes`, he said, `I did the story of the Good Samaritan recently… You know, all about not talking to strangers`.
And so, I thought there`s probably more going on….. And sure enough- if this IS a story about compassion- then we don`t have to look too hard to realise that it`s about compassion with a difference. It`s a compassion that reaches out beyond the boundaries of what we might expect. It`s compassion for those who are not part of our group. Jews and Samaritans were, of course, bitter enemies.
And we might even want to say that it`s compassion for the undeserving. I mean I get the sense that no one in their right mind would do as that traveller did- walking single handed into what was known bandit country. So again, we could say that whilst this is indeed a story about compassion- perhaps it`s really more about the limits we place on that compassion. After all, Jesus is responding to someone who thought there was a boundary to be set. The question the lawyer asks is after all, “Who IS my neighbour?”
If we sit with this story for a while we might find that it invites to ask questions about how easily, for example, we can drift into using categories like the `deserving` and `undeserving` poor without reflecting perhaps fully enough on Christ`s definition of compassion- and what `walking by on the other side` might really mean.
So we`ve got a story that has this basic humanitarian feel to it. A story that challenges the boundaries or limits we might set to that compassion. But the question is `Why is there a need to examine these boundaries like this?`
Of course, since Jesus is telling this story we would also expect there to be something here about God, wouldn`t we? Well firstly, it`s interesting that the lawyer doesn`t ask about God, he asks about his neighbour. You get the impression that he`s got that side of things sorted out. But this is where Jesus has a surprise for him- and maybe for us as well.
You see, let`s use our imaginations for a moment. Let`s enter into this story- and think of ourselves for example as the man who has fallen among thieves. For a moment let`s imagine ourselves beaten and abandoned by the roadside. We call for help….
Doesn`t this parable ask us to think about what it`s like to be let down by those you thought you could depend on? Surely, the Priest, the Levite would do something? But no, it`s the Samaritan that helps out. And don`t we also know what it`s like to receive help from an unexpected place? When suddenly that acquaintance- that neighbour we`ve hardly spoken to- and besides they`re not part of our social circle- suddenly shows such kindness…. And we`re amazed.
Well, I think Jesus is asking the Lawyer to enter into this story in the same sort of way. I think that Jesus is asking him to see himself as someone who has fallen among thieves. I think Jesus is saying to him- `You know, your religion is leaving you for dead`. `The Priest and the Levite are no good to you`, he`s saying. `The very fact that you have asked me “Who is my neighbour?”; the very fact that you would consider whether there should be boundaries around your compassion show that you have never encountered the generous mercy of God`.
So where will his help going to come from…..? In other words, if the lawyer is the man who fell among thieves then who is the Samaritan? Well, don`t let anyone tell you there are no jokes in the Bible. His help will, of course, come from Jesus. Jesus is the one that the lawyers delighted to ridicule as a Samaritan, an outsider and an outcast…. The point is that Jesus isn`t fooled. He knows where this Lawyer is coming from and what he really thinks of him. As the reading tells us, the lawyer was out to `test` Jesus.
But no, this Lawyer is being invited to see Jesus as the one who has come to bind up his wounds and bring him to life again. The shame was that the Lawyer probably couldn`t see how much need he was in. This is what it`s like when Faith goes wrong; it`s devoid of humanity.
So we can look at this tale as a nice cosy story about being kind to those in need. And that`s fine- but it`s far deeper and richer than that. The compassion of the Samaritan crosses boundaries. It`s compassion for those who don`t belong to our group, who are not like us and in worldly terms probably don`t deserve it.
It`s compassion that expresses the heart of God. And that`s why this is a story which is particularly embarrassing for people of faith- or at least for those who would imagine that you can set limits to God`s mercy.
I sometimes think it`s easier to sing about `Amazing Grace` than it is to either practice or receive it. Or as another hymn has it, “Love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be” often remains just a fine sentiment – which struggles to make an appearance when we observe the latest fall from grace of priest, politician or soap star. So often it seems that it is we who have fallen among thieves.
Jesus once told the disciples `Freely you have received, freely give`. Can I invite you to take those words with you and ponder on them. “Go and do likewise” is a lovely humanitarian statement. But that sells it short. It not just going around doing good deeds. It actually means- Go and bear the lavish mercy of God to others. “Love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be”. It is Amazing Grace. And by the grace of God it puts in an appearance when we come to see just how freely we have received; that we live with the knowledge that we are the objects of Christ`s mercy in spite of our own foolhardy wanderings.