Sermon Luke 10:25-37
Who is my neighbour?
The story of the good Samaritan is really well known. It’s probably one of the Bible stories that people who know nothing else about Jesus have heard the gist of. We have a help-line called the Samaritans, where you can ring if you’re really at the end of your tether, and know that there will be someone kind and helpful on the other end of the phone. The phrase ‘a Good Samaritan’ crops up in the local paper regularly – it usually refers to someone who anonymously acted kindly, and often people are trying to find out who they are so they can thank them in person.
There’s a lot more to this story though than the story of kindness shown to a stranger.
First, let’s look at the context. A lawyer stood up to ask Jesus a question. This might seem a bit ‘so what’ but back in Jesus’ time the teacher sat to teach, and the pupils stood to learn. Here was a person standing, supposedly to learn, but his question was a challenging one, as if he were the teacher and he was testing Jesus to see how he would answer. The lawyer was putting himself in authority over Jesus, by asking this question.
Well, it’s a harmless enough question, isn’t it?
‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’
Let’s look at that word ‘inherit’. In the natural and legal world – a world the lawyer would have been well familiar with, inheritance isn’t something you earn by doing anything. It’s normal to inherit things from your parents or other relatives. Sometimes when we don’t really want them, we discover that Auntie Flossie has left that huge armchair we used to love as kids to us, and we have to take it, and it doesn’t fit either our space or our décor. If it’s financial assets,
many families are quite clear as the parents age about how they will divide their assets, and it was the same in Jesus’ day. The children – I think the sons – would have had equal shares. There was certainly no expectation that anyone had to do anything in particular to receive their natural inheritance.
This question of the lawyer shows that he wasn’t treating the idea of inheriting eternal life on the same terms as a worldly inheritance. But Jesus teaches us that we are all children of God, and as such the inheritance of eternal life is our right. We don’t need to jump through any particular hoops to pass from living on this earth to living with God in heaven eternally.
In typical and slightly annoying Jesus fashion Jesus doesn’t answer the lawyer’s question. Instead he tells a story.
Stories are a wonderful way of making a point that will be long remembered, and this one certainly has proven its stickability.
Jesus starts by painting a picture of a lonely journey over a dangerous road, a trip of 27 kms. The trip was from Jerusalem – the seat of the temple – to Jericho, where the temple priests lived when they were not on duty. They had a two-week duty at the temple, then they would go home until they were next rostered on.
A man had been stripped, beaten and left for dead. Along comes a priest, probably going home. The priests were a wealthy class then, so he would have been riding on a donkey, rather than walking. He saw this pile of human lying in the road, and immediately the priest was in a dilemma. Should he help or not? He didn’t know who the man was, whether he was already beyond help, and – importantly – he knew that if he touched a corpse he would be ceremonially defiled and have to undergo a week-long process of purification. He would not be able to eat from the tithes, or even to collect them. The same ban would have extended to his family and servants. If he had gone on to serve at the altar without being cleansed, and it was found out, the penalty was death.
He also knew that if the man was a foreigner he had no legal obligation to help him anyway – a sort of racism embedded in the law, which said that if someone wasn’t the chosen race they weren’t really worthy of consideration as a human.
There was another problem too- if the priest touched the victim, and the victim later died, the priest would have been obliged to tear his garments as a sign of mourning, which would have damaged valuable property, – and – you guessed it – that was forbidden too.
So, what could the priest do? He was so hemmed in by religious legal laws that he could not behave as a compassionate human being. His religion, his position in life, got in the way.
Too hard? The priest decided so, and went on his way. Let’s hope his conscience gave him a hard time.
Next to come along was a Levite. These were also ministers in the temple, a bit like deacons here. He didn’t have the wealth or the standing of the priest, but he may well have been on duty with him and going home at the end of the same rotation.
The Levite was probably walking, and could have got a closer look at the poor fellow lying in the sun bleeding. If he went to help the victim, when his superior hadn’t, that would have been seen as a criticism of the priest, and putting himself in a moral high ground above him.
Too hard, move on.
Well, these things come in threes, and the next logical actor in the story would be a Jewish lay person. A member of the congregation. But here Jesus turns it around, and probably shocked the audience, by referring to a Samaritan. This meant a person who lived in Samaria, the next-door kingdom, who worshipped God on Mount Gerizim not Jerusalem, and was hated as being the enemy, the Other.
It was very counter-cultural for Jesus to bring this Samaritan in. What would the equivalent be in our culture? Maybe if there has been a gang battle, the one side helping the injured of the other.
The Samaritan cleaned and dressed the wounds, bound them up, and when it was obvious that more help was need, he put the man on his donkey and took him into a nearby inn. This would have been in Jewish territory, and he was risking his life by entering. But he kept giving. He organised a room, and paid for two weeks help in advance. The amount of money he have was equivalent to about $300 in our money – how many people would do that for a total stranger to be cared for? Taking care of practical needs, especially when they can make the difference between life and death, is a huge way of extending God’s love.
Did you hear the story recently about the church in Florida which paid off the medical bills of 6500 people? The bill came to 7.2 million US dollars! That’ s God’s love in action!
But the kind Samaritan went even further than paying for care in advance. He told the innkeeper that he would come back and settle any further bill owing. There was trust at stake here – trust that the innkeeper wouldn’t just pocket the money and refuse to care for the man, trust from the innkeeper that the bill would be paid. Love is all about trust.
The audience would have been reeling at the implications of the Good Samaritan, which to them was surely a contradiction in terms – when Jesus challenged the lawyer directly with the full impact of the story. ‘Who then was a neighbour to the man?’
The lawyer had no option but to answer that the one who had shown him mercy was a true neighbour. Notice that he couldn’t even bring himself to say ‘the Samaritan’. But he got the point. Jesus didn’t leave it there – he told him to do likewise. There was no wriggle-room for legal evasions any more. The lawyer hadn’t managed to trip Jesus up, and instead had been given a clear lesson about where his duty lay.
What can we take from this story? First, from the priest, that we shouldn’t let laws and regulations get in the way of compassion. We shouldn’t let our reputations stop us for acting with kindness to the “Other”. From the Levite, that if we’re worried about offending the Higher-Ups, we night miss out on extending God’s love. And from the Good Samaritan, that Love may be costly but we don’t need to hesitate before we offer it, because loving the Lord our God with all our heart and soul enables us to love our neighbour, whoever that may be, as ourself.