The telling of this parable was the result of a conversation between Jesus and a scribe. A scribe was someone who made copies of the Scriptures by hand. However, they weren’t just copyists; they were scholars and teachers. And, because of their expertise, they were looked upon as authorities in the interpretation and application of the OT Law/Torah. They were respected as men of wisdom and had great influence in the regulation of Jewish life – both civil and religious.
So, it was nothing out of the ordinary that one of these experts should test Jesus about his orthodoxy, vs25: Teacher … what shall I do to inherit eternal life? It’s not the first time that a lawyer has phrased a trick question – I saw that many times through the trials I sat through in Crown Courts.
However, the wording of the lawyer’s question is quite revealing. He didn’t see the contradiction of his own words: What shall I do to inherit eternal life? Nobody inherits anything by doing things. An inheritance is something we receive because we have a relationship with someone, such as a parent, it’s not something we achieve by something we’ve done.
What Was The Motivation Behind The Question?
I think Jesus showed great discernment here. Although the question was put to him respectfully and thoughtfully, Jesus sensed the inner motive wasn’t spiritual illumination and so he didn’t enter into a theoretical debate with the lawyer but, rather, asked a question in return: What is written in the Law? How do you read it? (vs26). The lawyer had no hesitation in quoting from part of the Shema (Deuteronomy and Leviticus 19:18) a confession regularly used in Jewish worship:
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 Love your neighbour as yourself Jesus approves the lawyer’s reply: Excellent! You have answered correctly (vs28).
This shows that Jesus didn’t deny the moral demands of the Old Testament law.
The lawyer thought knowing and keeping every rule and regulation would make him ‘right’ in God’s sight, God says that we should love him with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength and, the truth is we don’t. We fail to do that; we redefine the command to mean that we should love God to the best of our ability. To love him most of the time. To love him with exceptions for extenuating circumstances. And the lawyer knew this.
However, Jesus complimented the lawyer on his answer, which was theologically sound – the law of love towards God and neighbour. Do this, said Jesus, and you will live, vs28. When the lawyer heard this, I guess he was a bit sheepish.
He’d asked, what seemed to be, a profound question but now it was apparent to the crowd who were listening that he already knew the answer. And so, he did some quick thinking to restore his dignity, and came up with another question, vs29: Who is my neighbour?
The lawyer wanted to make the issue complex and philosophical, but Jesus made it simple and practical. The lawyer wanted to define and limit his obligations. But it seems to me that he was only digging a hole for himself. He wanted to restrict the number of people he was required to love. He wanted to make up a list of his neighbours, so that he could love only those and ignore everyone else.
That’s human nature. We want to know the minimum requirement and what’s the least we can do and still consider ourselves to be good Christians. Some may set that standard high, and others may set it low. But that doesn’t matter when God sets the standard we are to follow.
So, let’s set the scene: The hatred between the Jews and the Samaritans had gone on for hundreds of years and is still related to the tensions between Israel and Palestine today. Both sides claimed to be the true inheritors of the promises to Abraham and Moses, and both regard themselves as the rightful possessors of the land. And today few Israelis will travel from Galilee to Jerusalem by the direct route because it will take them through the West Bank and the potential of violence.
The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was a notoriously dangerous road. Within a 20 mile stretch that drops 3,600 feet; through narrow rocky gullies; sudden turns and it was full of robbers – this path was called the Bloody Way! I wonder why!
The interesting thing in this passage is that Jesus didn’t actually say that this story was a parable, and so it could well be the story of an actual event that took place. For Jesus to tell a story that made the Jews look bad and the Samaritans look good would either be dangerous or self-defeating. They could say: “You just made that up and we know nothing like that would ever happen.” And so, it is possible that some of his listeners, as well as the lawyer, knew that such a thing had actually happened.
Meet The Characters
Let’s take a closer look at the characters in this story:
The Traveller. He could be viewed as a reckless and foolhardy character. I say this because no one would travel this route alone – they always travelled in groups. He had no one to blame but himself for his plight.
But notice that we are told nothing about this man; not his nationality, or his occupation, or whether he was rich or poor. Which points to an important principle: Love doesn’t depend on any distinguishing qualities of the one being served except their need. If the man had been wealthy, he might have been able to reward the person who helped him. If he had been a person of high status, the motivation may be respect to his position. If the injured man had been a Samaritan himself, you could explain the rescuers response as an example of ethnic solidarity (helping out one of your own).
The Priest and the Levite. Then we have the two who passed by – a Priest and a Levite. This really stings being a minister, and they both represent something that isn’t good about religious service. I am sure Jesus used these two to drive home a point to all those who want to serve God from a religious point of view. We may not relate to a Priest or a Levite, but we’d relate to an Archbishop and an Archbishop!
The Priest and the Levite were both busy in religious service—this is a real problem, there is a difference between religious service and Christianity. Sometimes in our quest for the good, we bypass the best.
The goal isn’t theology, or spiritual recognition, our goal is to be like Jesus. There is a real danger that ministry can become what others can do for us, rather what we can do for others.
The Samaritan. Then there was the Samaritan. The listeners of the story – the Jews- would expect that the villain of the story had arrived when they heard about the Samaritan approaching. After all he was a heretic – Surely, he too would pass by.
So, what do we learn about this man? We learn he was prepared to help. The love of God was in his heart – he was filled with compassion – he acted. He helped the man by cleaning his wounds as best he could; put him on his donkey and took him to an inn. He paid for the innkeeper to look after him until he is well and promises to pay the balance on his return. He didn’t know this man; he had no idea what he was like and whether he was a good person or not; he probably never had a conversation with him; but he recognised this man was his neighbour and he loved him and he acted.
Tony Campolo in his book ‘The Kingdom of God is a Party’ told how, upon arrival in Honolulu, he made his way unwittingly to a seedy part of town for a snack at 3:30 in the morning only to be surrounded by eight or nine prostitutes who had just finished her ‘work’ for the night. He overheard one talking to her friend, “Tomorrow is my birthday.” Her friend rebutted, “So what do you want from me? You want me to get you a cake and sing, ’Happy Birthday?’ The birthday girl protested, “Why do you have to be so mean? I was just telling you, that’s all. Why do you have to put me down? Why should you give me a birthday party now when I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life?”
When the prostitutes left, Campolo’s heart was touched. He decided to throw her a surprise party. He decorated the place the next night with the help of the bartender, who happily chipped in the cake. The next day, the stunned girl was deeply touched when the whole bar sang a birthday song to her. Campolo offered to say a prayer for the woman before the stunned crowd, and after the prayer, the bartender remarked, “Hey! You never told me you were a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to?” Campolo replied, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.” The bartender then sneered, “No you don’t. There’s no church in the world like that. If there was, I would join it.”
The Meaning Of The Parable
If you were to ask someone the meaning of this parable, they would probably say that it teaches that we ought to be kind towards those who are our neighbours. It’s simple, isn’t it? Wouldn’t the world be a completely different pace if everyone did just this? When you see someone in trouble – help them. Easy.
If Jesus had told the story of a Jew helping out a Samaritan, it would have made a powerful point, but to turn it on its head as he did and portray two pillars of the Jewish establishment as “non-neighbours” and a Samaritan as a true “neighbour” was radical teaching. This was a classic case in which Jesus reverses the expectations of his hearers.
It left the Jewish legal expert speechless. Priests and Levites were respected and honoured, while Samaritans were held in contempt. There is still this hostility between neighbours in modern times, isn’t there, between: Palestinians and Jews; Serbs and Croats; Sunni and Shiite; IRA and UVF; Black and White; Upper Class and Working Class; Travellers and the settled community and many more besides.
Yet, ignoring history, racial and social differences, the Samaritan, vs33: took pity on this man. There was such a compelling power in the Samaritan’s heart that he couldn’t just stand still. He had to do something. A heart of compassion is always followed by action.
The nationality and borders bill currently before parliament would criminalise not only those attempting to cross the English channel, and those involved in people smuggling, but those who take part in the rescue of boats in distress at sea. This new law would require those who see asylum seekers at risk to choose between ignoring a moral imperative (also established in maritime law) to assist them, or to risk prosecution and imprisonment. The new “turn back” policy, which will see boats forcibly returned to France, also raises significant moral concerns. In a letter to the Guardian last week, several Bishops wrote:
This amounts to a criminalisation of the Good Samaritan who did not pass by on the other side, and an affront to justice to put the saving of lives under any sort of legal penalty.
There’s no doubt there was a huge amount of neighbourliness kindness at the beginning of the pandemic, with neighbours going shopping, picking up prescriptions and so much more besides. However, it didn’t last for long with the panic buying of loo rolls when the fact that your neighbour may not have any didn’t seem to matter. We’ve seen that in recent days with a nationwide shortage of kindness – I’m talking about the panic buying of petrol which means many key workers won’t be able to get to work and even ambulances don’t have enough fuel to answer calls. Petrol, is a little bit like kindness, there is plenty to go round, but it is unevenly distributed and some people who desperately need some kindness can’t get hold of any.
The Samaritan broke through the racial barrier, putting the priest and the Levite to shame. He didn’t see a Jew but a fellow human being in need and the help he gave was costly. He would have ripped his own clothing to make the bandages, used his own wine to disinfect the wounds, his oil to soothe, his donkey to transport the man, and his money to pay for his keep.
His love wasn’t limited – it was practical with no thought for any return. It was the Samaritan who acted in accordance with the true meaning of the law, not the Priest or Levite. They used the letter of the law to justify their lack of love. The Samaritan, on the other hand, lived out the spirit and intention of the law by loving sacrificially. He took pity on the man, where the others thought only of themselves.
There are stories in the Bible where we all cheer the hero of the story, go home rejoicing in what they had done, but then go back to our ordinary lives. One of those stories is the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus tells this story to show the difference between heroes and the ordinary, between being religious or making a difference for God.
As many of you know I went to the Leeds Festival over the August Bank Holiday weekend with Festival Angels (along with 8 others from Emmanuel). I was a prayer chaplain in the prayer tent and organised daily prayer events. It was an amazing opportunity to pray with so many individuals, but heart-breaking at the same time to hear the stories of neglect and abuse from so many young people.
Although Jesus didn’t say anything disapproving to the lawyer, he questioned his thinking when he asked him: Which of these three do you think proved a neighbour to the man who fell among robbers (36). The only answer the lawyer could possibly give was: The one who showed mercy on him (37). He couldn’t bring himself to say the word Samaritan. The lawyer asked the question: Who is my neighbour? But Jesus turned this around and asked: “Who can you be a neighbour to?” Who can you love? And the answer to that question is: anyone. Everyone.
If you’re concerned with showing love, as Jesus did, then your focus won’t be on yourself at all, but on those who need you, those God has given you the opportunity to bless and care for. That’s the difference between false and true Christianity. And the obvious question to ask is this: which kind of Christianity is yours?
We live in a suffering world. There are people everywhere who are wounded and hurting. Some have been robbed by parental failure; others find their lives being destroyed as a result of their own decision-making and choices. Others continue to struggle with mental health issues as a result of the pandemic. Some have been damaged by false teaching or let down by so-called Christians.
We come across them daily. We never know when our opportunity will come to be their “neighbour”. What should we do? The words of Jesus to the lawyer, are the same words spoken to us: Go and do likewise (37). It’s not always popular or convenient to follow the example of the Samaritan, but it is, without any shadow of a doubt, the right thing for each one of us to do.
Who might God be calling you to be a Samaritan to this coming week? Why not think about ways in the coming week you can show God’s love to someone like this unnamed traveller. Just imagine the difference you can make to their life if you were to reach out to them?
This is a copy of a talk I gave at Emmanuel, Billericay, on Sunday 26 September 2021 as part of a sermon series on ‘Parables & Possessions.’ The Bible reading was Luke 10:25-37. You can view this sermon on our YouTube channel here