Let us pause for a moment in prayer:
You call us to be people of compassion
experiencing in our living the lives of others.
Help us to understand that whether friend or stranger,
near to home or far away,
that everyone in the world is our neighbour.
Give us strength to grieve with those in sorrow,
to celebrate the simple joys of life
and walk with others, as brothers and sisters,
on this journey of faith.
In this time of worship,
whisper to us your words of love
and remind us of your call to fullness of life.
We pray in the name of Jesus,
our companion on the journey
and our guide and teacher
of your Way of love and justice.
(Adapted from a prayer from Seasons of the Spirit, July 15, 2007)
The scripture reading from Luke’s Gospel, The Parable of the Good Samaritan, is probably the most well known of Jesus’ parables. In its familiarity lies the greatest challenge for contemporary listeners. We all know the story so it’s easy to “tune out” because we’ve heard it so often and we all know what the moral of the story is — right? We know that it is a nice story about a good person who goes out of their way to help another person in distress. The story reminds us that we should all respond with compassion when we encounter a person in need. What else do we need to know?
When we only glimpse this parable at face value we miss the deeper layers of meaning and the shock value it had for 1st Century people who heard it for the first time.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan is found only in Luke’s Gospel. In order to understand the implications of this parable it is important to realize the extent of the animosity between Jewish and Samaritan people in the 1st Century. The religious traditions of Jews and Samaritans had common roots. They worshipped the same God and followed the teachings of the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures). At some point, the details of which are not critical for us to know, there was a fracturing of the relationship between the people of Judea and Samaria. Judeans embraced the Torah as well as the teachings of prophets and located their holy Temple in the city of Jerusalem. Samaritans embraced the Torah but did not recognize the teachings of the prophets and centred their holy Temple on Mount Garizim in Samaria. One comment that I read this week is helpful in putting into perspective the animosity between 1st century Jews and Samaritans:
“Imagine the hatred between Serbs and [Croats] in modern Bosnia, the enmity between Catholics and Protestants [in recent history] in Northern Ireland or the feuding between street gangs in Los Angeles or New York, and you have some idea of the feeling and its causes between Jews and Samaritans in the time of Jesus. Both politics and religion were involved.” (website: American Catholic. org)
In Jesus’ day, Jewish travellers would go well out of their way to avoid travelling through Samaria. Jesus, who was exceptional, did not have any qualms about visiting Samaria or speaking with the people who lived there as seen in the story of his encounter with the Samaritan Woman at the Well (John 4:1-42). Given the general enmity between Jews and Samaritans it would certainly have caught people by surprise to hear Jesus talking about a Samaritan as the rescuer of an injured man (who was presumably Jewish) on the road to Jericho. The Jericho road was notoriously dangerous as it traversed miles of wilderness where robbers were known to lie in wait for unsuspecting travellers. No one, with local knowledge, would travel that road alone or unarmed. So, when Jesus began his story, “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.” (Luke 10:30) his listeners would have nodded in acknowledgement for they’d heard many such accounts of muggings along that route. They wouldn’t even have been surprised to hear that a priest and a Levite passed by on the other side of the road and did not stop to help. Who could blame them, they’d say to themselves, for they knew that the priest and Levite were bound by the Purity Code of their religion and that if they had stopped and touched a body they would be rendered unclean. If rendered unclean they would not able to perform the duties they were entrusted to carry out in whatever place they were travelling to. And, when Jesus’ listeners heard that a Samaritan had not only stopped but also touched the wounded man lying by the side of the road they would have been horrified. In that day and age a self-respecting Jewish man would literally rather die that be touched by a Samaritan! I wonder at what point the listeners of Jesus’ story might have been in awe, or utter confusion, as Jesus described the extreme and gentle care the Samaritan offered the wounded man. Jesus goes into great detail when he tells that the Samaritan felt compassion for the wounded man and immediately went to him and poured oil to cleanse the wounds and wine to dull the pain. He carried the wounded man and put him on his donkey and took him to the nearest Inn where he took care of him and paid all his expenses.
Jesus often used provocative parables to shock people into thinking about the deeper meaning of stories and how they might impact the decisions people made about how to live their lives. The Parable of the Good Samaritan is not only a provocative story but it is also a call to action. Jesus knew there were many dangers and challenges in this journey of life.
Jesus encouraged everyone he met to see the world through God’s eyes. That meant that other people, even ones who were of a different culture or religion, are brothers and sisters, beloved in God’s sight. The barriers set up between people, due to societal wealth, status or religion are then understood as human constructs that have no place in God’s Commonwealth.
Martin Luther King Jr., understood the larger social commentary revealed in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. In 1967, in a book entitled, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, King said,
“We are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be beaten and robbed as they make their journey through life. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar, it understands that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring.”
The restructuring King refers to, Jesus called the Kingdom of God (or as we might say today the Commonwealth of God). Jesus wasn’t talking about some eternal paradise in the afterlife but rather a radical transformation of life and community, in this life, where a neighbour is simply identified as another human being deserving of love, compassion and justice.
In recent history, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, has embodied these beliefs in the midst, and aftermath, of Apartheid in South Africa. In a sermon that he offered in London in 1995, Archbishop Tutu commenting on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, said that, “Jesus was constantly trying to alert his hearers and followers to the fact that people mattered more than things, more than systems, even religious systems. He was forever scandalizing the religious leaders of his day by his belief that meeting a human need took precedence over every other requirement of the law.” (Sermon at St. Martin’s in the Field, London, 1995)
One of the most powerful examples, I know of, that supports this view came from a key note address that I heard at Epiphany Explorations a few years ago. The speaker was former Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire. Dallaire was stationed with the United Nations peacekeeping force in Rwanda during the brutal genocide of over 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in the early 1990’s. He spoke, with feeling, about an order that was given to UN Peacekeeping troops who were moving through an area where there had been horrific ethnic cleansing and massacres. The order that was given to the UN troops was to keep on the move, without stopping or offering assistance. The reason for that military command was to protect the troops. It was deemed that the threat to UN troops of contracting
HIV/AIDS from blood soaked victims was too great a risk. Dallaire went on to tell a story about one of the UN units from Canada who came across a field of women who had been violated, maimed, killed or mortally wounded. When this Canadian unit saw that some of the women were still alive they went immediately to their aid without thought of their own safety or care about any future disciplinary action against them. In contravention of a direct order they responded with immediate and compassionate action. Romeo Dallaire called this response the “instinct of compassion which is so desperately needed in our world”.
I believe it is this “instinct of compassion” which is at the heart of what it means to be human beings. This is what Jesus is pointing to in the Parable of the Good Samaritan where thought of self, religious and cultural practices, purity, and safety are secondary to the well-being of another.
The biblical commentary, Feasting on the Word, says “The parable of the Good Samaritan is a story for travellers on the road, a scriptural GPS, routing us in the only direction God desires – the way of love and compassion for others. This is more than a parable about a helpful stranger; it is about the transforming power of God at work in those who travel the dangerous roads in our world, moving us into the fullness of life, eternal life, here and now.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3, page 243)
Jesus calls each one of us to respond to the situations and people we meet with compassion and courage. We do not face the dangers of travelling on the road to Jericho in the 1st Century, or coming face to face with the horrors of genocide but we, each in our own way, face challenges that require faith, courage and compassion. Jesus is our exemplar for living God’s way of peace and justice. All he asks is that we “Go and do likewise.”
That, my friends, is our challenge and our calling.
May God bless each one of us
and guide our actions,
that we may be a blessing
to those we meet on our journey of life.