There is a story about the wonderful Anglican priest and poet Father George Herbert who lived at the beginning of the Seventeenth Century which came into my mind over the last few days as I was reflecting on today’s Gospel reading. Father Herbert arrived at a meeting of clergy late and covered in mud. His fellow priests were aghast but he simply made his apologies and left it at that and the meeting continued. Later it transpired, so the story goes, that he had spent the previous few hours pulling a poor man and his cart out of the ditch and seeing that he got to his destination safely. That had been more important to him than the cleanliness of his clothes, or his punctuality at that clergy meeting.
We can all resonate with that story. In my mind I imagine myself being the hero who stops to help a stranded driver on the freeway after their car has broken down. That’s the good bit, but then the panic sets in… I wonder what I would do next. I wouldn’t know how to fix my own car, so I am not likely to be able to fix anyone else’s; and then in my mind I imagine that this was all really a set up, and a large man emerges from the bushes, and he and the other person take my car and leave me with their old broken one in its place. An overactive imagination I know, but you get the point, it is a risky business crossing over the road.
Plenty of people have done it of course. We celebrate throughout the Christian year, men and women who have given up everything that they had to live and minister amongst those in deepest need. In our own times there are missionaries who serve in health care, agriculture and education in far flung lands, and in caring ministries in the outback of Australia and in our inner city areas of deprivation today. You do not need to be a disciple of Jesus to qualify as a ‘Good Samaritan’ there are many of them in the story of the history of Australia, and around us today in this community in which we live. Heroes who give their time and energy to help others.
The idea of the ‘Good Samaritan’ has probably touched more areas of secular society than any other phrase from the Christian Bible. We don’t need to hear a homily about this Gospel to know what a ‘Good Samaritan’ is. Jesus paints a picture for us that is universally understood. Being a ‘Good Samaritan’ can be as easy as that, and as difficult as that.
The setting for the story that Jesus tells is the road that covers the twenty or so miles between the city of Jerusalem and the city of Jericho. The elevation of Jerusalem is more than 2000 feet above sea level, and the elevation of Jericho is about a thousand feet below sea level. So, as a traveller literally made his way down from Jerusalem to Jericho, he journeyed on a narrow and winding road that was riddled with rocky outcroppings where bandits could easily lie in wait for an ambush. It was known as a very desolate and very dangerous journey. In fact, as late as the Fifth Century, Saint Jerome referred to the road between Jerusalem and Jericho as the ‘red’ or ‘bloody way’. The danger to a traveler on his own was well known. It is on this road, in Jesus’ story, that a man has been set upon, attacked, stripped, robbed and left to die.
Just like the location, the characters in the story would have been more familiar to the first hearers of this story than they are to us who hear it today. Firstly, there is the priest. He wanders by on the other side of the road. Then comes the Levite, the priest’s assistant who helps him in the worship in the Temple and was often involved in both guarding the Temple and leading the music. Neither stop, neither help. If that old phrase of being ‘too heavenly minded to be of any earthly use’ can be pinned on anyone it is surely these men as they pass by on the other side. Then a Samaritan comes along. We are so used to the connection between the name ‘Samaritan’ and the idea of doing good to others (just think about our own Samaritans Foundation, and the Samaritans telephone helpline) that we can easily forget that the Samaritans were a break-away group within Judaism who were despised and hated. They were no more renowned for helping others than the Priests and the Levites.
Now if Jesus was telling this story in a pantomime style, there would have been ‘boos’ and ‘hisses’ at just the name Samaritan from those who were gathered listening. There was long-standing animosity between Jews and Samaritans, dating back over 700 years by Jesus’ time. Samaritans were the descendants of the Jews from the old northern kingdom of Israel that had been defeated by the Assyrians. After their defeat they had been resettled and had intermarried with the Assyrians and because of this the rest of the Jews though of them as ‘half Jews’ – remember the stigma here in Australia when even Catholics and Protestants married each other… think of that and then multiply it by one thousand!
Over time, instead of seeing the Temple in Jerusalem as the centre and focus of their religious observance the Samaritans had set up their own Temple on the Mountain of Gerizim. They believed that Judaism as a whole had lost its way, so they set up a new way of trying to be faithful to God. There were about 1 million Samaritans in the time of Jesus, and they still exist today, although there are more like 1,000 left now in the Palestinian region. They were not only treated with suspicion by other Jews (who considered the Samaritans to be lesser Jews than they were), over the hundreds of years of their separation both groups had learnt how to mutually hate each other. And yet, in the story that Jesus tells, it is this Samaritan, who takes the time to care for the man who is in need.
This is the challenge that Jesus sets up for those who hear this story, both then and now. It doesn’t matter who you are, it doesn’t matter what your background is, what your job is: it is what you do when someone else is need that matters.
Here are two men who are faithful to God to the letter by keeping the religious laws, and through their work God is worshipped, but a man still lies on that dirty road uncared for. And here is another man, who is part of a group that have broken away and don’t worship properly as the law says that they should, but through his actions that man on the road side is restored to life.
I have to say to you that I have some sympathy for the Priest and the Levite in the story, I know I am not supposed to, but I do. Part of me is left wondering what they are supposed to do. They have signed up to a religious system in which they are unable to be close to or to touch unclean things. The man looks like he is dead – that is unclean. He is stripped naked – that is unclean. If they touch things that are thought to be unclean they are unable to be involved in the worship in the Temple, for fear of contaminating everything. So in their faithfulness to God and to their neighbours for whom they will be leading worship they pass by and carry on resolutely serving God. How easy it is to focus on keeping the law – either the formal law, or the law of convention or expectation that is developed by any group of people, but in doing so to be blind to the real needs of people around us.
The story directly challenges not only the expectations of its hearers, but also the disciples, who have only just asked Jesus whether they should call down fire from heaven to destroy a Samaritan village. Do you remember the scene from our Gospel two weeks ago? Jesus has begun his own long journey to Jerusalem, and he has sent messengers on to a Samaritan village to prepare for his arrival. But the Samaritans don’t want anything to do with him because he is heading for the Temple in Jerusalem, and the disciples return and say to him, ‘shall we call down fire from heaven to punish these people?’ So Jesus, in this parable, not only replies to the lawyer who asks the questions that prompted the story, but he also responds to his own followers. The hero of the story, is a member of the group who the disciples wanted to destroy. The people that the disciples would have assumed would be the heroes are found wanting. The point is that the story was designed to be unsettling, uncomfortable, for those who heard it both then and now.
Saint Augustine of Hippo, one of the early fathers of the Church couldn’t resist seeing the whole story as an allegory of the life of Christ himself. The Samaritan is Jesus, who brings wounded mankind to the Church, which is represented by the Inn. The two pence given to the innkeeper are the two sacraments of baptism and communion, and the assurance from the Samaritan that he will return is Christ’s assurance to his Church that he will return soon to fulfill the promises of the Kingdom of God.
In these weeks following Pentecost, we have been reading Paul’s exhortations and pleadings with the Galatians to leave the enslavement of bondage to every small detail of the law behind, and to grow instead, into the freedom that comes from God’s grace through Jesus Christ. “It is impossible for us to observe the Law on our own, we will never be able to do it,” Paul tells the Christians in Galatia.
“But Jesus has freed us from enslavement to outward rules and regulations. We now walk in the light of freedom… For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as you love yourself.’”