One of my memories of attending Sunday School myself as a young child, was of acting out the parable of the Good Samaritan with the other children in my group. I was delighted to find myself cast in the role of the victim of the robbery, who is left for dead, and then rescued by the Samaritan. This seemed to me to be easily the best part in the whole parable, not only because I was the only person who had to remain on stage for the whole of the action, but because the role had such terrific dramatic potential. So I lay on the floor under a desk, groaning dramatically, and generally throwing myself into the part with great gusto. And it was all thoroughly enjoyable.
The parables of Jesus are, of course, wonderful stories to use with children, precisely because they are so vivid and so memorable. But they are in fact emphatically adult in their impact and their implications, if one has the ears to hear what they are actually saying. Because the parables that Jesus told are stories of judgment; stories that challenge us to face the truth about ourselves, and our priorities, and how we behave, and what is really written in our hearts. And as such they can – and ought to be – deeply disconcerting. I always feel that I have glimpsed the truth at the heart of a parable if it leaves me feeling profoundly uncomfortable. And the story of the Good Samaritan is a case in point, although familiarity can sometimes have the effect of blunting the edge of what would otherwise be a very hard-hitting, disturbing, and challenging tale.
The context in which Jesus tells this particular parable is worth noting. He is responding to what is in fact a completely disingenuous question presented to him by a lawyer – who, within the context of those days, was a religious authority figure, and who was basically out to trap him. This man, looking for ways in which to trip him up, asks Jesus what he needs to do in order to inherit eternal life. In reply, Jesus asks him another question: ‘What is written in the law?’ (a perfectly reasonable question, given that the guy is a lawyer!). The lawyer answers by quoting two Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) texts together: one from Deuteronomy, the other from Leviticus: ‘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.’ ‘There you are ,then,’ says Jesus – ‘so run along and do it.’
But the lawyer is reluctant to be packed off so easily, so he presses Jesus further with a follow-up question: ‘And who is my neighbour?’ What an interesting question: because this is in effect a question about boundaries; about how we define our duties and responsibilities, and specifically our duty of care. And it is in response to this question that Jesus tells this famous parable.
You will all, I’m sure, be very familiar with the story: a man travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho is attacked by robbers, stripped, beaten, and left for dead. Along comes a priest, a highly respected and no doubt respectable member of the Jewish community – a religious authority, no less – who sees the man, but hurries past on the other side of the road. A Levite, another religious authority, does likewise, and he too passes by on the other side.
But before we all start booing those bad guys for their cruelty and heartlessness, let’s just pause for a moment to note how recognisably human their reaction is. I wonder how many of us recognise that fear of getting involved; the fear of not knowing what we might be letting ourselves in for, if we stop and try to give assistance to a complete stranger, particularly in difficult and potentially dangerous territory – whether that is a poorly lit back street, late at night. Or, as in this case, an isolated desert road notorious for banditry, such as the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. I wonder how many of us would actually find ourselves finding common cause with the Priest and the Levite in such circumstances?
But there may in fact be a whole other dimension to this story, too. According to rabbinic tradition, Jericho was the chief priestly city: half of those who served at the Temple in Jerusalem were resident there. So, if the priest and the Levite were in fact travelling towards Jerusalem, rather than away from it (as is often assumed), they were probably heading to the Temple to fulfil their religious duties. In which case it was imperative that they were in a state of ritual purity in order to do so. And if that was the case, they simply could not risk the defilement that would contaminate them were they to have contact with a corpse. (The injured man, remember, had been left for dead). In which case, the reason why the priest and the Levite gave the wounded man such a wide berth (and note that we are told specifically that both of them passed by on the other side – which is an interesting little detail to have been included), their deliberate avoidance of the man becomes even more comprehensible, for reasons that have nothing to do with their being mean and heartless scoundrels. Look at it from their point of view: could they really afford to put their religious duty to the whole Jewish community in jeopardy, in order to investigate the state of a man whom they may well have assumed was already dead in any case? Within their own context, and set within their own religious rules and requirements, one can perhaps envisage why they might possibly have believed that the ritual claim upon them was the higher calling.
And then we have the Samaritan. Of course, the huge irony is that if anyone had perfect justification for passing by the man lying in the ditch, it was he. He was a Samaritan travelling in Israelite territory, so it would have been reasonable for hm to assume that the man lying in the ditch was an Israelite. And Israelites were a people who despised and spurned the Samaritans, regarding them as an impure and inferior race.
So we need to recognise that the story that Jesus tells us here is not simply the story of one man going to the aid of another who is in need. It is much more than that. It is the story of the Ukrainian civilian whose home and livelihood have been destroyed in the present conflict, going out of his way to rescue a wounded Russian soldier; it is the Croat giving aid to a dying Serb; it is the Rwandan Tutsi saving the life of a Hutu; the Jew who goes to the aid of a grievously injured Nazi; the woman who goes to the aid of the man who murdered her son; the torture victim who goes to the aid of his tormentor.
And in the story that Jesus tells, it is not simply the fact that help is given that is significant. It is the intimate, complete, and committed nature of that help. This is no symbolic gesture; no stop-gap measure that is taken until proper help can arrive. On the contrary, the Samaritan binds the man’s wounds, takes him to an inn, and pays for his care into the future. He takes full responsibility for the man and his welfare. Because what the Samaritan sees is not an ailing Israelite, but an ailing human being, who is therefore his brother and who therefore deserves no less.
A book that had a very formative influence on my understanding of the Christian faith when I first read it many years ago, is an autobiographical work by Sheila Cassidy called Audacity to Believe. Cassidy was a medical doctor, who was working in Chile during the mid-1970s, and it is the story of her arrest and torture at the hands of the Chilean secret police. Her crime was to have treated a wounded man called Gutierrez, who turned out to be a member of an outlawed revolutionary party. At one point during one of her terrifying interrogation sessions, we glimpse a fleeting but powerful moment of human contact between her and one of her hitherto faceless torturers. Sheila Cassidy describes the incident in these terms (and I quote):
Again and again they returned to the question: ‘why did you treat Gutierrez?’, and again I repeated, ‘He was sick, I am a doctor.’ Exasperated, one of them said, ‘But if I had a wounded leg you wouldn’t treat me,’ to which I replied, ‘Of course I would.’ There was a long silence, and then he said slowly, ‘I do believe you would.’
Sometimes it is the oppressors who are in most profound need of liberation – and, paradoxically, sometimes it is only the vulnerable and weak who are in a position to initiate that transformation. The problem with the lawyer to whom Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan is that he thinks that he knows all the answers already: he is an expert; a professional in his field. The reason he asks Jesus what he has to do in order to inherit eternal life, is not because he wants to know the answer – on the contrary, he thinks he already knows that, because he has absolute confidence in the systems and the structures and the conventions that shape his religious tradition, just as the priest and the Levite had done.
And yet, as Jesus reveals in his parable, however significant and important the trappings of our religious adherence may be, just occasionally we need to be prepared to set them aside completely when the claim upon us is the higher claim of simple human compassion.
Christian love is not something that the strong, and the able, and the powerful, and even the religious, dish out to the deserving. Because Christian love is the love of Christ crucified. If we would learn the compassion of Christ, then we must be prepared to take risks; to make ourselves vulnerable in living out that love, and to hold up to the judgment of Christ all our worldly instincts about where our responsibilities to others begin and end. And in so doing, to declare by our actions and through our lives that things can be different. For therein lies the hope of resurrection; and the power of new life for all.
At the end of the parable, Jesus says to the lawyer whose questions prompted the story: ‘Go and do likewise’. If we are to follow him, we too can do no less.