Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopalian priest, tells of a time when she was preparing a sermon on today’s Gospel. As she drove to work, she mulled over it in her head. Suddenly she came upon a car broke down on the road. As she approached, a tall man stepped onto the road, holding a pair of jump leads, and looked her straight in the eye. Several hundred pieces of information went through her head in three seconds; The man needs help …you are a single woman alone in a car…never open your door to a stranger…go to the nearest service station and send a mechanic…the man needs help…I’m sorry I cannot help…maybe the next person will. At that she drove off to work to finish her sermon on the good Samaritan.
I think we can all have sympathy for that woman and given the dangerous world we live in today most of us would say she did the right thing rather than risk falling into a trap. However, it can’t have been easy for the same woman to write up a sermon on the good Samaritan after that. The priest and the Levite who passed by also could easily give excuses for doing so. If the poor unfortunate that was left for dead was actually dead, then to touch him would have rendered them unclean for temple worship. It all begs a question however. When do the excuses stop and we reach out to help our neighbour? One thing is for sure; Jesus is not asking us to water down this parable.
We can take many lessons from today’s parable but what is the key message that Jesus intended. The first lesson is that one should be a decent person and help anyone in need. This is a valid and important point but that is not the message here. The second is about the priest and Levite who did not practice what they preach and that is particularly loathsome coming from the ranks of the religious. Again this is valid but not the main point. Or the parable points to the golden rule; ‘do onto others what you would like others to do onto you!’ This is the basis for many a moral code. Again valid but not the main point.
In this parable Jesus is concerned with the far bigger picture that involves God’s way of looking at things. From the outset God has wanted to bring a lost and sinful humanity back to himself through a relationship built on love. The covenant with Moses is the beginning of that process and the new covenant with Jesus is its culmination. Thanks to the incarnation and Jesus’ death and resurrection, the barriers between God and humankind have been torn down. But this implies that the barriers between peoples must also come down and that is the essence of the story in today’s gospel. And that, as the saying goes, is a work in progress.
The key question, rightly asked by the lawyer then, is who is my neighbour? The lawyer, however, is more interested in word games than the truth. His narrow and sectarian worldview is quickly exposed when Jesus asks him to conclude that a deeply hated, despised, and ritually unclean Samaritan turns out to be his neighbour. He cannot even mention the name Samaritan so he simply says, ‘the one who showed mercy to him’. Yet this Samaritan is the only one who behaves in accordance with God’s will. This is a wakeup call for all of us to examine our attitudes and our tendency to try and make God in our image and likeness, rather than let him restore his image and likeness in us.
It is quite natural to think of our neighbours as the people close by, those we get on with and have dealings with. We have all learned, from the age of dot, to be good neighbours to those of our clan, to forget self and reach out in love; to care and help those that we mingle with on a daily basis. All of this is fine and good but today Jesus is saying that his is not enough. The Kingdom of God is not about my clan or my tribe. It is about all clans and all peoples because all belong to the Kingdom of God.
In today’s world where there is so much strife, hatred and enmity on the basis of racism and religion, the parable of the Good Samaritan is asking us to be proactive, to reach out across all borders and cultures and to see the good in others. For lessons in this we don’t have to go to the ends of the earth as first reading reminds us. Jesus is close by and all we have to do is look to him for inspiration. He could tell this story because he was the good Samaritan himself. His heart went out to those who were suffering most at the hands of others. He could tell it also because he knew what it was like to be an outcast – rejected by his own people, and in danger all the time of being victimised even to death like this man at the side of the road. For Jesus the neighbour is the one of any colour, nationality, age or family.
In our time it is incumbent on us to ask who are the ones thrown to the side of the road today? The former prisoner, the asylum seeker and refugee, the forgotten young person, the addict, among others. All can be helped to their feet and to carry on in life through the help and care of another. The final words to take from the gospel today are simple yet difficult – ‘go and do the same yourself.’
Sunday, 10 July 2016