I always face the Parable of the Good Samaritan with a certain dis-ease. That might sound an odd thing to say; after all, its meaning (so we like to think) is self-evident isn`t it? It`s the one story we`d like to think most people will know. After all the words `Good Samaritan` have passed into every day speech…. This story contains a good humanitarian principle to live by doesn`t it? So why the problem?
Well, I think I`m just irritated by the way this story is so often used and abused… and given a meaning it doesn`t contain. So, for example back in the 1980`s I recall a politician commending his monetary policy to the nation by saying, “Well the Good Samaritan was the man who `had the cash` to do the job”. And I once heard a head teacher describe it as a story all about `Not talking to strangers” – you have to think about that one!
Part of the difficulty we have with this Parable is that we bring a whole range of assumptions to it. Our basic error is that we do violence to what Jesus is saying because we think we know what he`s saying…… Before anyone stands up to read it we `assume` he`s offering this basic humanitarian message about caring for others in need… the kind of humanitarian message which anyone with any heart could agree with. But there`s more to it than that. I`m not saying that we shouldn`t go about caring for those left by life`s roadside (on the contrary); but firstly I think we need to be clear about how far our assumptions can paint Jesus into a bit of a corner.
Yes, of course we want the world to come together; we want peace and harmony and good-neighbourliness and all the rest. But that very desire makes us `jump the gun`….. we latch onto Jesus`s Parable and assume that`s all he`s talking about. And so we pick this story up and say… “See, he agrees with US”. And consequently, Jesus becomes a teller of home-spun moral tales about things we always knew anyway …..and we just needed a teacher like him to remind us.
This of course is just one example of how easy it is to fall into the trap of thinking that Christian engagement with Scripture is basically an exercise in latching onto those things with which we agree…. A search for the things that confirm what we already knew. And to some extent we can see that happening in that meeting between Jesus and the Lawyer. Yes, we`re told that he set out to `test` Jesus but there wasn`t necessarily anything malevolent about that. In one sense it`s an example of the theological banter that was common in Jesus day among Rabbis and such like.
No, behind this lies a sense that the Lawyer came before Jesus expecting him to conform to HIS view of the world……… And what I`m saying is that he was mistaken…. The Lawyer got things the wrong way round…… And whenever we use Scripture… whenever we come before Jesus with this underlying assumption… looking for some kind of personal endorsement ….. then we do exactly the same.
But the question he asked was, ‘Teacher what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ (Luke 10.25). Now we`re not going to understand what was at stake here unless we realise that `eternal life` is better translated `the age to come`. Jewish thinkers divided time into `the present age` and `the age to come`. That `age to come` isn`t about sitting on clouds with halos and harps….. it`s the time when God would set the world to rights… usher in a new creation. This Lawyer wanted to be part of that… that time when God would create a new world of justice and of peace. And it`s THIS that Jesus talks about so much. It`s this `New age` – or The Kingdom of God that he is not only `proclaiming` but also ushering in. That`s why we Christians think of ourselves as those who are between these `two ages`. And we seeking to live in the here and now… the life of the age to come.
Now, the first part of their conversation brings from the Lawyer an affirmation of the Jewish Law. He`s commended by Jesus for holding together these two commands for devotion to God and love of neighbour as oneself. And this of course is the place where many people part company with Jesus because he will insist on letting `God` get in on the deal……. That`s because many folk aspire to the notion of some kind of `godless` morality…… Well, folk are welcome to try it but they can`t hijack Jesus to their cause. But then the Lawyer turns the heat up… he wants to come out on top and so he pushes Jesus a bit. The question he asks is “Who IS my neighbour…?”
And typically of Jesus… He doesn`t answer THAT question… He answers another one. He asks the Lawyer to consider whether HE is a neighbour? At the end of the Parable he asks the Lawyer…” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ (and) He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’ (Luke 10.37) In other words, Jesus doesn`t ask the Lawyer to look at those others… the ones beyond his borders… or the stranger in the midst. Jesus doesn`t play the game of selecting who is or isn`t part of our group.. in the country legally or deservedly…. He won`t ask you to select who might be worthy of your compassion in the same way that some people are inclined to talk about the deserving or underserving poor…. No, Jesus turns the question around. He makes the Lawyer look at himself….And basically he asks him whether he understands the word `mercy`.
It`s difficult for the Lawyer because he was a professional boundary creator and he comes to his faith with this mind-set…. So he wants to know who is worthy of his compassion…. where he should draw the limit… And no doubt he had some nationalistic motive in mind (which is probably why Jesus speaks of a Samaritan).
But the point is that the two commandments Jesus gets the Lawyer to quote are inextricably linked. In other words if the lawyer had indeed entered into what it means to love God…… He wouldn`t have even asked the question. The call to mercy … limitless mercy, would have been self-evident. No, Jesus turns everything round and basically says: “You will be merciful …. you will live the life of the new age… to the extent you have understood the mercy of the God you profess to love”.
Let me give you an example to chew on. During this Summer Season in this last week alone I`ve had three shall we say `gentlemen of the road` call at the Vicarage door asking for help. At moments like that you`re often faced with a huge difficulty in knowing what to do or how best to help. This is largely because things are rarely straightforward…. at least, that`s my excuse.
And in fairness, one is often presented with a cocktail of what we might call tall-tails, hard-luck stories, the apparent inefficiency of social services, resignation to a life on the road and all too frequently mental illness. But I remain of the view that how to respond is far more than just what some would call a humanitarian matter…. Far more indeed than a political matter…. Yes, you need wisdom. Yes, you wrestle with that old one about “How far to get involved”….. You wish they`d go away…. You want them to be someone else`s concern……. After all don`t we pay our taxes for that sort of thing? But the bottom line is that they`re stood in front of YOU…. It helps, actually to ask their name….
And in my experience you have to put aside two things… Firstly the temptation to label, categorise, stigmatise or consider them as someone else`s problem and secondly you have to set aside you`re feelings of guilt. Because there`s an invitation here….. The response one makes… or doesn`t make, makes you look at yourself and the kind of person you are becoming. As the call of mercy presents itself the question is how far our response demonstrates the life of the new age? You see, Jesus turned the question back onto the lawyer because the person lying by the roadside is a question about US not them. I mean, is “I don`t want to get involved” a reflection of the mercy of God?
In the same way, the question about the presence of foodbanks (in a town like Windermere… or a nation like Britain) That`s also a question about all of US not those who need to use them. The call of mercy raises hard questions about the way we insulate ourselves from one another and the way we shore that up … or `justify ourselves` …..with simplistic slogans and words such as `scrounger`. And besides… someone else ought to deal with it……..
It`s worth asking …. what is becoming of us when we find ourselves ill at ease or resenting the presence of someone in the village or in Church because they look different or live an unorthodox life? Or when we`re uncomfortable because they have mental `issues`…. or we discover they`ve been in prison….. or maybe they smell a bit…. Do we think they make the place look untidy…? or is it that they remind us of our own fragility or a world we`ve tried for too long to escape……?
No, actually the discomfort we feel about these things is the Good News. When you wrestle with it all (rather than labelling or categorising), then the Kingdom…. The age to come is dawning on you and this is Good News. Because the call of mercy is not a call to calculation… setting the boundary between those who are worthy and those who are not. Nor is it a moment for weighing up matters of risk or cost benefit analysis. Correctly heard the call of mercy turns you back on yourself to ask how far can the response I make can be a reflection of the mercy of God.
Quite so… Lord have mercy.