Our passage today is most often referred to as the Parable of the Good Samaritan. It is normally upheld as a story encouraging us to be kind and compassionate towards others, and indeed that is true.
What we don’t always fully understand is how radical this parable of Jesus would have been in Jesus’ own day. It is more than just a story about a random act of kindness. It is a story of radical cross-community compassion. It is also a story of showing love and care, even to an enemy.
We know the passage well. A scribe is trying to discredit Jesus. He asks Jesus to summarise the essence of his teaching. Jesus obliges, telling him the essence of it is about Loving God and Loving One’s Neighbour as oneself.
The scribe wants to justify himself… who is my neighbour he asks Jesus?
Jesus tells the story of a fellow Jew who is set upon by a band of robbers, assaulted, robbed, and left to die.
As he lies dying on the side of the road, the man is ignored by his fellow Jews. Interestingly, he is not ignored by just any Jews. He is ignored by some of the most well respected religious Jews of the day. He is ignored firstly by a Priest. Secondly he is ignored by a Levite.
The priests held exclusive rights to serve at the sacrificial altar and in the outer and inner sanctum of the temple.
The Levites were a kind of second tier group of people who also worked in the Temple and took responsibilities of non-priestly tasks like singing, guarding the temple, and other secondary tasks and work (Num 3-4; 1Chr 23-26).
The priest and Levite in the story therefore represent the religious elite, or the religious establishment. They were in a sense the guardians of the faith. They were the mediators between God and the Jewish people.
In the story, these two very religious people, ignore the man who has been assaulted, robbed, stripped naked and left to die.
We are told that they cross over to the other side of the road. And as we read that we imagine perhaps one of the roads in Dromore or Banbridge. If you had to pass on by on the other side of the road there would be a good few meters between you and the person. And so the Priest and the Levite attempt to distance themselves from the dying man. It gives the impression that they perhaps tried to avoid seeing how serious the situation was. Perhaps he was just a drunk who didn’t deserve their help. Perhaps if they were looking the other way, they could create the impression that they hadn’t really seen the man at all and they could go on their way pretending to themselves that it really wasn’t as bad as it seemed or that he didn’t really need their help?
But Rob Bell reminds us that the parable is set on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem. According to Rob Bell the road between Jericho and Jerusalem was an extremely narrow and treacherous one that wound up through the mountains. At the most, this road was only a few feet wide. To avoid the man, the Priest and Levite would have almost have had to step over him, perhaps to push themselves up against the side of the mountain to squeeze past the dying man on the road. There is something far more deliberate about this kind of avoidance than walking past a few meters away on the other side of a wide and busy road.
Then a third character enters the story. He is described as a Samaritan.
We don’t understand the parable fully, until we know what the relationship was between Jews and Samaritans.
The Samaritan and Jews shared a common past. At one time in the distant past they were one people. The Samaritans were the descendants of the Israelites in the north. But after the north was conquered by the Assyrians over many generations, the Samaritans intermarried with their conquerors. They became half-breeds in the eyes of the Jews.
But they also shared many religious commonalities. Jews and Samaritans both shared some common Scriptures. Samaritans accepted the first five books of the Bible, Genesis, Exodus, Numbers Leviticus and Deuteronomy. But the Jews had added extra books including the history of their kings and the writings of the prophets and some wisdom writings and psalms.
They shared similar religious practices, making sacrifices in a temple. But the Samaritan Temple was on Mount Gerezim and the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. The Samaritans believed that the worship of the Jews had new innovations and was illegitimate. Likewise, the Jews believed that the Samaritans were no longer worshipping the true God or upholding the purity or the fullness of the faith.
Jews and Samaritans shared a lot in common. Both had ancestral claims to the land in some way or another. They lived in neighbouring towns and villages but as much as possible avoided one another. To an outside the differences probably seemed small, but to the Jews and Samaritans, their differences probably felt enormous.
And so they were rivals. They had rival claims. They had rival religions. They had rival traditions. They looked down upon one-another. At one time, the Samaritans had even supported the Seleucid army when they came in and attacked Jerusalem and desecrated the Jewish Temple. And so walls of bitterness and hatred were erected on both sides and did nothing but harden over a period of around 550 years and perhaps going back even further.
And yet, in the story of Jesus, it is the foreigner, the stranger, the rival, the hated Samaritan who reveals what it really means to be a neighbour to the Jew who was attacked and left for dead on the side of the road.
Not only does the Samaritan stop. He uses his own water and oil to wash, clean tend and bind up the man’s wounds. He puts him on his own donkey, he takes him to a place where he can receive the further care he needs, and then promises to pay for it himself. This is an act not just of compassion, but of generosity too.
I imagine most of us would probably, hopefully do this for a family member or a close friend? Would we do it for a stranger? Someone from our own community? What about someone from a different community? A foreigner? Someone who is different from ourselves? Would we do it for a rival? Would we do it for an enemy?
At the end of the story, Jesus asks the Scribe?
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who showed mercy towards him.”
And Jesus replied, “Go and do likewise.” “Go, and do the same”.