One of my all-time favourite characters in fiction is the lawyer Horace Rumpole – popularly known as Rumpole of the Bailey – and I’m sure some of you will remember the TV series in which Rumpole was portrayed so brilliantly by Leo McKern.
For those of you unfamiliar with Rumpole let me give a bit of background. Horace Rumpole is a character in a series of wonderful books by the writer and barrister John Mortimer. Rumpole is also a barrister, working from his chambers in Equity Court, and he likes nothing better than defending his clients in the Central Criminal Court at the Old Bailey. Indeed, his skill at defending his clients – and he only ever defends, never prosecutes, is legendary among the criminal classes. He is famed for his success in his greatest ever case, the Penge Bungalow murders, and for his forensic knowledge of typewriters.
I raise Rumpole this morning because he had a golden rule – one which the lawyer in our gospel reading perhaps ought to have been more aware of. And his golden rule was this. When in court, “Never ask a question of a witness unless you already know the answer.”
Never ask a question unless you already know the answer!
In our reading this morning a lawyer asks a question of Jesus – a question to which as a lawyer he already knew the answer. And as we hear, Jesus gives the answer he is expecting.
Question: What must I do to inherit eternal life?
Answer: Love the Lord your God et cetera, and your neighbour as yourself.
But then he makes the mistake of asking a supplementary question – to which he thinks he knows the answer, but he gets an answer he isn’t expecting at all. As a devout Jew and a lawyer – someone who would have known the law inside out – he expects Jesus to say: Your neighbour is your fellow Jew. We know that, because that’s what every law-abiding Jew at the time thought. But that’s not what Jesus says – and Jesus in reply to his question gives us the now well-known story of the Good Samaritan, and an answer that the lawyer is not expecting at all.
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 relatively easy if not necessarily readily forthcoming: it only costs time or effort or money and even then usually only as much as 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 really 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 was notoriously dangerous! And people were regularly attacked, robbed and killed. A common way of luring travellers off the road was to use a body as a decoy. So people never travelled alone, unlike the two main characters in our story.
And the lawyer who asked the question of Jesus, and expected to get the stock answer from Jesus that his neighbour was his fellow Jew, gets a shock. For Jesus, in this story about generosity, 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 and Samaritans hated each other. Jews would never extend generosity to Samaritans. 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. So they were no longer seen as pure Jews, and were despised by Jews because they were considered to have debased their religion and their racial purity. How on earth could a Samaritan ever be seen as your neighbour – nobody would expect you to love them.
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. And it is this Samaritan, representing as far as the lawyer is concerned an unclean, irreligious race, 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, someone who kept the Law but who lost the point. And 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; many people of all faiths and none show generosity and goodness to others. 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 Jesus thought about 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. Loving people and showing that love in action – no matter who people are, or where they come from, or what their lifestyle or background is – not simply loving those who are like you!
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.
Jesus finishes by asking a question of the lawyer – a question that he already knows the answer to, but he wants to know whether the lawyer does.
“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.”