Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’
Did you notice that nowhere in this parable does Jesus call the Samaritan “good”? We have labelled him such and he certainly is remarkable. He stops on a dangerous road to help an unknown victim of robbery and assault. He interrupts what he was planning and doing to stop and assist; he takes the man on his donkey (which means he had to carry stuff himself) to a nearby inn and, in essence, leaves a blank cheque, which the inn-keeper could easily abuse – by the way inn-keepers did not have a good reputation generally – think Monsieur Thenardier and his wife in Les Miserables!
We should also notice the import of the story – it begins with the lawyer wanting to justify himself, ‘who is my neighbour?’ he asks, ‘Who is it that I should love?’ (implied is that there are obvious boundaries beyond which we do not need to go). But at the end of the story Jesus asks him who was a good neighbour to the victim and the lawyer is forced to consider what being a good neighbour looks like not just who we do or do not have to love.
I think many of us will have heard that Jews and Samaritans did not get on – there was long-standing hostility and suspicion; again we might think along the lines of the sectarian divides in N Ireland, or the suspicion of people of colour or other religions – that will help us understand the shock of this story. The Samaritan outsider bursts into our neighbourhood as the person who cares more.
A modern version – and please think of your own versions: a man falls overboard in the Channel, and is struggling to stay alive; fishing boats and leisure boats do not stop, but a refugee boat with illegal migrants stops and they hoist him out of the water and make space, give him dry clothes (at the expense of their own warmth), and share their limited food and water. Jesus wants us to put ourselves in the life-space of those who are victims, and to think how we would want to be helped. The man in the boat might be processed and sent to Rwanda maybe .. (never sure if sarcasm works on the printed page!).
Another modern version from an American theologian.
“A woman was attacked one evening on the street – her cries for help could be heard in the flats and by passers-by. She was left for dead and died; no one went to her aid. Who then was a neighbour to the woman who was attacked?”
The parable sets us up with core values, developed from the fact that people suffer in this world and need help. It does not provide a practical programme, nor pace Mrs Thatcher, is it an argument for sufficient affluence so that we can help others, though it is an argument for those of us with sufficient affluence to help others.
This man who helped was outside the kinship group, someone the injured man would have seen as an “enemy”, as not to be mixed with. As the hymn puts it “When I needed a neighbour were you there?”
‘Who then was a neighbour to the man who fell among thieves?’ ‘The one who did something.’ ‘Go and do likewise!’
Revd Peter Reiss