Today we hear once again what is perhaps the most familiar and most recognizable parable of Christianity: The Parable of the Good Samaritan.
It’s in this great parable that Jesus summarizes the entirety of the law: Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. It’s in this parable that we learn the importance of serving others and seeing every person as our neighbor, regardless of who they are.
It’s a familiar parable, and we’ve all heard it preached many times; but sometimes, it’s that same familiarity that causes us to over-simplify the message; sometimes, familiarity with a passage keeps us from hearing all that it has to say.
Today I want us to hear the parable of the Good Samaritan, but hear it, and perhaps even put ourselves in the perspective not of the Samaritan who saves the day, but put yourself in the shoes of the man in the ditch.
Many of us will know a little about the tensions between Jews and Samaritans at the time of Jesus. This was a time, as we’ve sadly seen at other points in our history, when race and class meant everything. In many respects, a person’s value to society was not in what they did with their life, what they accomplished, but was measured by their lineage, their language, and even how they dressed.
This was a time when Israel had been conquered by Rome, when, from the South and the East, Arab and Syriac herdsmen were taking over the best pastureland, and on the west, Phoenician fisherman had claimed the ports along the sea. The great Jewish Nation, a proud people living in a Promised Land, had become land-locked, and even in their own land, they were subject to outside rule and heavy taxes from Rome.
To make matters worse, the Samaritans, to the North, are ethnically and historically descended from Abraham and Isaac – they’re Hebrew people, descendants of the 12 Tribes of Israel, sons and daughters of the same Covenant that God made with Moses; they’re essentially cousins to the first-century Jews, but they’ve become bitter enemies, caught up in a centuries-old boundary dispute.
When the Jews at Jerusalem were attacked by the Babylonians and Solomon’s great temple was destroyed, the Samaritans to the North built their own temple in their homeland, and worshipped God there.
Then after several generations, when Jews were able to rebuild the temple, the Samaritans, who had been worshipping for years with their own priests in their own temple, said “no thank you, we’re the one’s who are worshipping God properly; sure, you’ve got a shiny new temple, but ours was here first. There’s no way we’re giving up our priests and our temple in our homeland.”
And this began generations of hatred and fighting between Jews and Samaritans, even though they were related, they were members of the same family, surrounded by enemies on every side.
And this was age when appearances meant everything.
Samaritans had their own accent, such that a Samaritan walking into a Jewish market or town square would be instantly recognized as soon as he opened his mouth. At the same time, the educated Jews – the priests, the lawyers, the doctors – spoke what they called a “pure form” of Ancient Hebrew, a language they, in their expensive colored robes, could speak to each other while the farmers or peasants in their undyed linen, wool, or fur robes couldn’t understand. And then those involved in government, wearing their Roman purple, spoke Latin, the official language of the empire, and the sign of foreign rule.
Appearances meant everything. It was a society built so that you could see from one’s clothing whether or not they were your neighbor, whether or not they were in your social class. It was built so that the second someone opened their mouth, you knew instantly from their accent and language whether or not they were your equal.
And here, on our way on the 7-mile journey from Jerusalem to Jericho, we find ourselves robbed, beaten, stripped off, and left to die in a ditch.
Lying in the ditch.
This is a well-travelled road; it’s a road that you travel every year on your way to the festivals in Jerusalem. But this time the road isn’t busy, and you find yourself as one of those poor victims that you’ve heard about many times.
But, beat up, broken, half-dead in a ditch, you know someone will save you. You’re a good Jew, a good member of your community, and people pass by here every day; someone will save you.
An hour passes by, and your bruised broken body is lying there, baking under the hot Mediterranean sun. You’re dehydrated. You’re too exhausted to call out for help.
In the distance, you hear the slow clatter of hooves on the road; it must be someone wealthy, it must be someone educated, who knows the law, who knows that it is sinful for a Jew to leave a Jewish body exposed to the elements. As the sound of the donkey draws closer, you open one eye, the other one swollen shut. “Oh, good” you say, “it’s one of my people”. You can tell from the colored cloak that it’s priest, coming back from his two weeks on duty at the temple.
You do your best to call out, but all you can manage is a weak groan as you see the priest draw closer.
Now, the priest, sitting on his donkey, notices the half-dead body. He knows, in fact, he has taught others, that every Jew has a duty to care for another Jew at the point of death.
The problem, though is that you in the ditch are naked, and you’re too dehydrated and in shock to speak. Sure, the priest could help you. But you’re not wearing any clothes, so the priest can’t tell what tribe or social class you belong to; you’re too weak to speak, so he can’t even figure out if you’re Jewish.
You are one of his people, so his duty is to help you. But, he can’t be sure. What if you’re a poor Arab shepherd or construction worker? What a scandal that would be for a wealthy leader of the community to bring a half-dead Arab home.
What if you’re a Roman, guilty of oppressing the priest’s own people; if he brought you home, he’d be accused of helping the oppressors, of being on the wrong side.
You groan again from the ditch. This is one of your people, this is someone you trusted. But he can’t risk it. So he passes to the other side and goes on by.
Now a few minutes later, the Levite, a respectable leader in the congregation, a teacher of the law, comes by. He’s also on his way back from his two weeks on duty in the temple. You know this man; you’re friends with his father, you’ve eaten at his table. You tell yourself, “we’re practically family. I would lay down my life for his father, surely he’ll stop to help me”.
But, after the beating you received, your own mother wouldn’t recognize you. This young Levite is going places; he’s an up-and-comer in the community, and his reputation would be on the line if he brought a lesser person into his home; it would be the talk of the town.
You do your best to cry out; you know this man, you know that he would be a hero if he saved you, but it’s no use. Because, in this state, the outward signs that you always depended on are worthless; who you are, what you do, what you wear and how you speak mean nothing when you’re lying naked, silent in a ditch.
Another hour goes by, and you start to pass out.
You hear hooves again, and as you come in and out of consciousness, you catch some strange words. This is a stranger. This is one of those people, one of those who don’t belong here. You see his foreign clothes, you smell the foreign food off his skin.
You think to yourself, “keep going, you thief. You’re probably related to the ones who beat me up and robbed me in the first place.” You’d call names and spit at him, if only you had the strength to open your mouth.
But then it happens. He stops. He comes over. He looks down as you close your eye, afraid of what this stranger might do, figuring, even hoping, that he’ll finish you off.
And this stranger, this foreigner, this man who is insulted and laughed at wherever he goes; this man who lives in fear of what others might do to him on a long empty road, he stops, he opens his bag. He rips an old shirt into bandages and wraps the gashes on your body. He pours in ointment. He lifts up your head, and opens his canteen.
You clench your lips shut; you’ve never drank from a Samaritan’s cup. But you’re too weak to refuse. He picks you up, and places you across the back of his donkey as you finally shut your eyes.
He gets close to the Jewish town. The kids outside town can tell right away that he’s a foreigner, they start laughing and hurling insults even though he can’t understand them. They don’t realize that it’s your beaten body, their own relative, on the donkey.
People in the market stop and stare as this lesser person heads to the inn with a beaten and bruised person in tow. Did he do it? Did the Samaritan beat this man? You’re naked, covered only in bandages, so maybe it’s another lesser person, his slave.
Then, at the guesthouse, as you’re finally resting away from the burning heat of the hot sun, this person whom you hate, this person who is hated by everyone, hands over his paycheque and mutters with a think accent, “take care of him”. And if it costs more, I will pay.
Will I be his neighbour?
When we think about being a neighbour, one of the questions we must ask is this: are there those to whom I will only be a neighbour if I’m the one giving something to them?
Am I willing to be generous, to be hospitable, to be loving to people? And, am I willing to allow them to be generous, hospitable, and loving to me, knowing that the way that they show generosity, or hospitality, or love, might be very different than what I’m used to.
In our pride, we so often think of neighbourliness, or the so-called Golden Rule as working only one way. But truly being a neighbor, means that we are in relationships that work both ways.
If we do to others as we would have them do to us, that means that we have to be ready and willing to receive from others, to learn from others, to walk with others, in the same way that we hope to be able to meet their needs or teach them.
When we visit the care home, we don’t go just to bring them something; we go to receive with open hearts what they offer us, to learn what it means to trust in God when strength fails, to experience joy in the little pleasures of life. The same has to be true no matter what we do: when we serve the poor, when we offer Bible Camp or messy church to the unchurched kids in our town, being a neighbor as Christ commands means that we stand ready to receive what they offer us, even if their way of thanking us seems foreign, or not as we would do.
Because, as the Good Samaritan tells us, all the earthly things that we trust in, all the ways that we build an identity and a place in our communities, what we wear, the way we speak, our positions, the friends we keep, they all pass away.
And, sooner or later, every single one of us will find ourselves with everything stripped away, helpless, at the mercy of God, with Christ alone as our only hope, as we learn to receive freely from him what we can never earn or deserve for ourselves: healing, hope, and the forgiveness of sins.
To God be the Glory. Amen.