How good a Samaritan are you?


40211223 - giving a helping hand to another

Luke 10.25-37

Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise”.

You’ve probably all heard the expression, “This separates the men from the boys!”

Well – putting on one side the inherent sexism in such a phrase, we all know what it means. It’s used – or certainly used to be used – of situations that would mark out some as being somehow superior to others. Marking out those who would be willing to get involved in things that are dangerous or risky. Things that take courage and sacrifice. Things that are grueling, or require maturity and perseverance. Things that require more than childhood enthusiasm and energy. Things that require someone to step up to the crease – or to use an Americanism that has crept into the language even though we actually play cricket, not baseball – things that require someone to step up to the plate.

“This separates the men from the boys!”

Well – in a way that’s exactly what this parable – the Good Samaritan – is about. Except here Luke’s story of Jesus and the parable of the Good Samaritan isn’t separating the men from the boys, but the real Christian from the merely religious. It’s showing us what it means as a Christian to step up to the crease!

The story of the good Samaritan is at a basic level about generosity – but generosity that goes far beyond that which normally people are prepared to exercise. And it presents us with a huge challenge. Most of the time generosity is easy: it only costs time or effort or money and even then usually only that we feel we can afford to give. It is when it costs us something really precious – life, reputation, security, that which can never be repaid – that we begin to get cold feet.

Consider the Good Samaritan. Would you have stopped to help? The Samaritan did. We all, of course, know the point of this story – we’ve heard it times, and it’s perhaps Jesus’ most well-known parable. And when we listen to this story we have a tendency to say “Of course we would!”, but I suspect that the reality for many people might be something different. To help someone who has been attacked is to risk getting attacked yourself. Who knows whether the gang is still around? Who knows whether the body is just a decoy? The road in the story was one of the most dangerous roads around Jerusalem – it still was in Victorian times.

And the Samaritan was generous – the Samaritan, if you like, out of the three passers-by was the one who stepped up to the crease – because he risked something that couldn’t be replaced – his life. And he risked it to help someone who would have hated him and who, were their situations reversed, wouldn’t have offered help in return. It is generosity of that sort that Jesus urges on all of us: “Greater love has no-one than this, that they would lay down their life for a friend”. He urges us to do more. He urges us to do that not just for friend but for everyone who is our neighbour. “Go and do likewise” said Jesus.

The story goes deeper still. Jesus says that the generosity came from a Samaritan. And that’s hugely significant. From the Jewish point of view, that was the most unlikely place to find it. Jews thought the Samaritans were crude and irreligious. Samaritans were descended from Jews had stayed on in Palestine after the Exile centuries earlier – when Jews were carted off to Babylon. They had intermarried with other local people and adapted their religion. They were no longer seen as pure Jews, and were despised by Jews because they were seen to have debased their religion and their racial purity.

They had nothing to do with Jerusalem, and had their own holy mountain, Mount Gerizzim. They resented being told that they did not keep the Law properly. Jews were instructed to have nothing to do with them. Jesus was telling his story, after five hundred years of mutual contempt between the two peoples.

And yet it was a Samaritan who stopped to help. It was not the priest or the Levite. They were not cruel or wicked men. The trouble was, they had their religious duties to perform. To get mixed up with the injured traveller would mean contamination, and very elaborate and inconvenient purification rites.

That is why they passed by on the other side, and no doubt hoped that the traveller was a corpse and therefore beyond any human help.

The Samaritan, however, could not care less. He wasn’t worried about making himself unclean. It may even be that Jesus told the story with a touch of irony. There was a story that was probably untrue, but believed by Jews nonetheless, that around the time that Jesus would have been a boy Samaritans had broken into the Temple and defiled it with old bones. Yet it is this Samaritan, representing an unclean, irreligious race, who had supposedly desecrated even the Temple itself, who does his duty to God and to his neighbour – rather than two supposedly upright and religious people. The Samaritan is more concerned with showing love to those in need, rather than the priest and the Levite who were more concerned with religious procedure.

That is meant as a lesson to dutiful religious people like the lawyer who asked Jesus the question. No doubt a good man, like us. Someone who kept the Law but who lost the point. Jesus showed him something about the true nature of generosity, and also that it could be exercised not just by those who kept the Law, but by those whom Jews despised.

As Christians we have no monopoly of generosity and goodness; and we are not the only ones who do God’s will. It is often the ones we think of as ‘outsiders’ who put us insiders to shame. It is not the priest and Levite who are to be imitated, but the Samaritan: “Go and do likewise” said Jesus.

But the parable is not really just a lecture on how to behave. Jesus told the parable as an illustration of the nature of God. The question arose because the lawyer wanted to know what Jews called the “Shema” – the proclamation of his duty to God and to his neighbour really meant – hence his question, “Who is my neighbour?”

The Samaritan did not expect anything in return for his generosity; he was generous without any strings attached. When he took the risk with the traveller and got involved, and when he came to the inn and left money with the landlord, he was not casting his bread upon the water.

He simply took the risk, helped someone who would have hated him, did his duty and disappeared, leaving no forwarding address.

And that, says Jesus, is what loving your neighbour means.

And Luke in recounting this parable is clear that the message of Jesus is that Christian people must go and do likewise – Jesus is clear on that point. Of course, we fall short of what he expects. We always will, we are only human, but perhaps we need not fall as short as we do.

But because that same generosity that we are called to exercise is in God’s nature we have no need to worry. God loves us all, priest, Levite or Samaritan; whether we are someone who finds it easy to “go and do likewise” or someone who has to work at it because we always seem to be letting God down. And perhaps in situations where generosity is called for we need to ask of ourselves the question, “Am I going to be a priest, or a Levite – or a good Samaritan?”

“Which of these three, do you think,” said Jesus to the lawyer, “was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robber?” The lawyer cannot even bring himself to say the word “Samaritan”, and just says, “The one who showed him mercy”. Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”