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The Good Samaritan
Fr Dennis Smith, July 14th, 2013

There was this Jewish boy who got beaten up on the road. When he woke up he said, “What happened to me?” As they told him he stopped them and said, “I got rescued by who?”

Some of us are overfamiliar with the story of the Good Samaritan. How good it would be to hear it for the first time in a its radical freshness. Jesus was being challenged to one of those debates which religious people love to have.

We’ve been given a text which carries divine authority, but what does is mean? It’s all very well for God to say it’s not remote or difficult, in our hearts ready to be kept. There’s nothing so simple that we cannot make it complicated, especially when it becomes demanding.

In this spirit a lawyer challenges Jesus to enter a favourite religious debate, to det4ermine what qualifies us for eternal life. Jesus therefore returns the question by asking him how he reads the Law.

It was and in many ways still is, assumed we qualify for eternal life on the basis of our keeping the laws of God. So it’s a fair question.

The lawyer has a good answer, reciting the basic summary of the commandments from the book of Deuteronomy, love God and love your neighbour,

That’s the answer, says Jesus. But this isn’t enough for the lawyer, who wants to have a good religious debate, perhaps hoping to have the better of Jesus in the argument.

The moment you define specific laws you begin to find conflicts between them, which it’s a lawyer’s job to resolve.

At this very basic eve I may find it hard to ove both God and my neighbour when my neighbour is clearly living a life which defies the laws of God. The lawyer concentrates on this ambiguity and asks, “Who is my neighbour?” At this point Jesus was supposed to begin a subtle task of definition. “Neighbour” might mean my co-religionists. “Neighbour” might mean those of my neighbourhood. “Neighbour” might be my family and friends who I choose to regard as neighbours.

Any rabbi worth his salt would have subtle answers to these questions of definition. But sometimes a rabbi chose to cut through the argument with a story, which is precisely what Jesus did. “Who is my neighbour?” “This person whom I am to hold as dear as my own self?”

Well, there was this traveller from Jerusalem to Jericho who was attacked by robbers and left for dead by the roadside. That road is still there to be travelled, plunging down from the mount of Olives towards Jericho and the Dead Sea, well below sea level.

The story has become so real that the inn to which the victim was taken is pointed out to the tourist. However, it’s a carefully constructed story, rooted in the reality of travel in the time of Jesus. We are briefly told that a priest and a Levite travelling the same road pass by the half-conscious victim.

Here is the artifice of the story, for these are people well-versed in the Law of God. Since a great many of the priestly castes lived in Jericho they were often to be found on this road.

Their love for God was beyond question, or else why would they have dedicated their lives to religious service? It may be argued that they feared the man was dead and that any attempt to help him might lead to their becoming ritually contaminated which would involve them in considerable trouble to regain their purity. It’s equally probable that they had the human reaction of not wanting to become involved, especially if the thugs who had done this might still be around.

Jesus names them as religious people to make clear the discontinuity which can exist between professed religious devotion and actual keeping of the Law of God. As far as we can see, the victim by the roadside was a Jew, a neighbour, in very conventional sense, of the two holy men.

By contrast Jesus now introduces a Samaritan, in no obvious sense a neighbour to the Jews on the road. His understanding of the Law of God was by definition at odds with that of the Jews. One of the bones of contention between the two groups was over the historical priestly succession. As we all know, it is the Samaritan who does the humane thing. He gives first aid to the victim and takes him to a place of refuge. He doesn’t then simply hand him over to the medical attendants and the insurance companies. He nurses him at the inn and, the next day, as he resumes his journey, leaves money with the innkeeper to pay for the man’s further care, promising to call on the way back and make up any shortfall. This is in the spirit of Jesus’ teaching about going the extra mile.

This story told, Jesus asks the lawyer, “Who was neighbour to the man who was robbed?” The lawyer can’t bring himself to say “the Samaritan”, but answers, in the impersonal way, “The man who showed him kindness”.

One might almost imagine the answer coming through gritted teeth. For the orthodox Jew of Jesus’ time this was a shocking story, casting doubt on the true faithfulness of religious people. It’s not anti-Semitic, it’s against a narrow tribalism in religious matters which afflicts the modern world as much as the ancient one. Compassion is more important than orthodoxy.

The God who has made us all expects us to live with proper respect for one another. Love for God requires an understanding of neighbourliness which is broader than we can envisage as we set off on our journey through life. Neighbourliness found its meaning in a bond between the victim and the rescuer which transcended their religious traditions.

The ability to enlarge our view of God in ways which enlarge our lives is what St. Paul craved for the Colossians. The growth of spiritual understanding of God is matched by the growth of our capacity to live our lives with both generosity and fortitude. Generosity is an obvious virtue we see in the Good Samaritan. Fortitude takes a little longer to recognise.

Fortitude is what the priest and the Levite lacked. They were clearly not risk-takers, even when the situation required it. The Samaritan took on the problem immediately, and then saw it through to the best of his ability. St. Paul had his own share of generosity and fortitude. His religious views had been transformed and he was committed to showing that God’s love reached far beyond historic Israel, to embrace all humanity. What we find in the story of the road to Jericho isn’t simply that we’re required to be kind to one another, but that God intends all of us to live as neighbours with one another.

More than that. It lies within our grasp to do it, if we so choose.

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