The Good Samaritan

Rev Heather de Gruyther, 2019-07-14 (Luke 10:25-37)

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How many times have we heard the story of the Good Samaritan? I’d bet you’d need every finger, on both hands, and all your toes and then some to count. It’s one of those stories that gets everywhere isn’t it? It’s become a figure of speech, a short-hand way of referring to someone helping a stranger in everyday language and in the media. It’s been used more times by politicians in parliament than you can shake a stick at, on both sides of the house, applying it to anything from reform of the EU, encouraging military intervention in Syria and the necessity of accruing personal wealth and even in America for shooting someone dead – the politicians shall here remain nameless, you can all look them up later if you like – but I saw it described this week as the most abused parable in scripture as politicians misquote it and bend it to serve their own agenda.

And it’s also one of the core Sunday School stories we teach our children – over and over and over again – anyone who’s taught Sunday School for any length of time will probably groan inwardly when it comes round AGAIN on your rota week and you have to think of a different craft activity to fit with it. It’s one of the core Christian stories covered each year in our Church Primary Schools – if I look back through the RE books of my children, I see the same cartoon strip re-telling again and again.

So here we have a story which we are completely familiar with – maybe too familiar really. The sort of over-familiarity that can easily breed contempt. ‘Yes, yes’, we say, ‘we know all about the meaning of that one, thank you very much’ – it’s easy. We’ve all learnt that the moral of the story is that we must help those less fortunate than ourselves whoever they are.

But the problem is that we’ve turned Jesus’ parable into a moral fable, a bit like Aesop and the Hare and the Tortoise, or the Boy Who Cried Wolf – cautionary tales with a firm and clear moral message. But that’s not really how parables work. They are tricky and complicated beasts – and really the Sunday School approach of revisiting them over and over again is the right one. We NEED to come back to them time and time again and to wrestle with them if we are going to grasp their meaning.

When I have used Godly Play with children in Sunday School, the parable stories are always kept in gold boxes – this marks them as precious, and gifts to be unpacked. There is even one session where as you open each box, there is another one inside, and another and another, and another, like a nest of Russian Dolls to help us realise that a parable has many layers. We must take it out of its box and then carefully look at it from all angles, try it on for size and listen carefully for what it might be saying to us today. If we approach them like this, we avoid thinking we know the moral of the story before we’ve even begun.

So, let’s take the story of the Good Samaritan out of it’s box today. Let’s look at it from different angles and see if it might speak to the world we walk through day by day. We always focus on the positive action of the Good Samaritan but I think the other characters in the parable have something to say to us as well. There are five roles in this story; the robbers, the victim, the priest, the Levite and the Samaritan.

Let’s start with the robbers. What might they have to say to us? It might feel uncomfortable hearing truths from the ‘baddies’ of the tale but I think they are most notable in their absence from the story. Their part is over almost before the tale has begun. Their existence is really only known about because the man is found lying in the road. They have no character, no background – they’re not brought to justice, so we don’t get to hear their defence. We simply don’t know their story. There might be many reasons why they became robbers in the first place. Perhaps, sometime before they too had been left beaten by the side of the road and no one stopped to help them. The invisible causes of crime should never be reduced to faceless statistics. The robbers in this story might remind us of all the valuable work carried out by the justice system when it works at its best to rehabilitate offenders and the work of so many agencies in early intervention programs that look at ending the causes of crime – poverty, substance addiction, abuse, neglect and so many more. The perpetrator can often also be a victim – but society doesn’t always notice.

So, what about the Priest and the Levite – representing religion and the law. We can’t get away from the fact that they didn’t stop and help – Whatever reasons we try and find to explain WHY they passed by on the other side. But I think we can use the Priest and the Levite to see the bigger picture that goes beyond our own failures to act.

We should always be aware that we are hearing these stories 2000 years later – it’s a bit like reading a newspaper that’s gone a long time out of date. There’s so much cultural understanding around a story that can get lost when we try to read it in a modern western society. I read somewhere recently that to 1st century middle-eastern listeners the fact that the victim had been beaten and stripped would tell them something about the victim. I don’t know if the author is right or not, but he’s spent many years researching middle-eastern culture, and he suggests that first century middle-eastern robbers didn’t tend to beat people up – they just took all their stuff. Apparently, they only beat people up if the person resisted the theft and the listeners would have been aware of this and that the Jericho Road was a risky place to travel alone.

I don’t know about you, but there’s an element here that sounds all too modern. The idea that the victim must have done something to provoke their misfortune – walked alone, worn the wrong clothes, drunk too much, used the wrong short cut home. How often do we in society judge victims of crime for letting themselves get into bad situations and failing to get themselves out – perhaps the Priest and the Levite chose not to help because he’d brought it upon himself – we might call it victim blaming.

And it’s the same in our politics – where policies shape the systems that control the lives of the most vulnerable among us – policies that judge who is, or is not, worthy of housing, benefits, social care, asylum, medical treatment are shaped by the judgements of society, in how it will look to the voters to offer or withdraw help from certain groups. Our society is full of structures that give us permission to collude and pass by on the other side while shaking our heads sadly. Do we want to play the role of the Priest or the Levite?

So, let’s look at the Samaritan himself, how is he different to the others? Three times in the narrative we are told that someone approaches and SEES the man lying in the road, but TWO of them (the priest and the Levite) walk on past. This is the difference between them. It’s not that they don’t NOTICE the man. It’s not that they’re so caught up in their own lives that they don’t see him. They SEE him perfectly well, but they CHOOSE not to act to help him where the Samaritan does. We’d all like to be identified with the Good Samaritan I expect – but most of us are probably guilty of choosing not to see things sometimes – whether that’s a crime in the street or the true horror of events behind our headlines both at home and abroad.

And so, the moral understanding of the story might still be the same – be like the Samaritan and NOT the others – but I heard a sermon that suggested we’re looking at it all wrong. To see ourselves as the Samaritan suggests an arrogance that we’re all sorted and have all the answers and have the means to help people and the right to dispense it where we see fit.

Jesus’ instruction to ‘go and do likewise’ at the end of the story then becomes dependent upon us having the means – on having money, or tools or resources to hand. Perhaps we don’t have the means – does that mean we’re set up to fail? does that mean we fail to keep Jesus’ commandment to ‘go and do likewise’?
This doesn’t seem to fit with the picture from the rest of the Gospel and identifying ourselves with the Good Samaritan blinds us to the very heart of the Gospel – which is that we are all broken and in the gutter (even those who don’t at first glance look like we are) and that God lifted us up in his son and brought us home. God lifts us up, when we are broken and bruised and bleeding, and places us upon God’s son to bring home. God always SEES and God has already acted.

Jesus then is the Samaritan – the one ostracised, excluded, hated and abused. Jesus is the one who takes us to a place of greater safety and makes a home for us where we were strangers and promises to return when the time for reckoning is finally come. Jesus is the Samaritan.

We then become the person by the side of the road. The one who is stripped, the one who is bruised, the one who is half‐dead. And instead of comfortable arrogance in thinking that we have the all the right answers and the means to rescue others, we must accept the mercy offered to us by Jesus. This is to truly comprehend the grace of God. The Lawyer gets Jesus to tell the story by asking what he must do to inherit eternal life – the answer is nothing because to think we must work to achieve it is to put the emphasis on our own works and suggest that we earn God’s acceptance rather than receive it as the freely offered gift that it is.

We must love God with all our hearts, with all our souls, with all our minds and with all our strength – this love is first offered to us from God through Jesus who came to find us on the road whether we’d got ourselves into the mess or events had simply happened to us.

This love freely offered to us then leads us to be able to love our neighbour AND ourselves. When we see our own humanity reflected back at us in the eyes of the person we see at the side of the road, we must remember that Jesus has already bound our wounds and only because of that are we in a position to help.
In the end – we do follow the Good Samaritan as a role model. But only because when we ‘go and do likewise’ we are actually imitating Jesus himself and the love he shows each of us.

Theresa of Avila said that “Christ has no body now on earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ must look out on the world. Yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which He is to bless His people. Therefore, Go and do likewise – and let us not be like the Priest and the Levite and see but fail to act.

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