The Good Samaritan
Readings: Isaiah 58:3,6-10; Luke 10:25-37
Last Saturday (19th) was a good day. I swapped my day off so I could spend the day with two ex-teacher friends who were down for a couple of nights. So, after a lazy morning, we set out in the sunshine to Llanwonno, had a leisurely lunch, sauntered back and settled in for the evening, watching the film ‘Pride’ and ordering in a take away. Bliss! By the end of the film, Alice, one of my guests, started to feel a little dodgy but we all put it down to the prawns she had for lunch and headed to bed. Well, most of you know how the rest of the story goes. Alice and I were up all night with her in pain, me trying to do my best Florence Nightingale impression, there were many phone calls to NHS Direct, a taxi to the out of hours surgery, referral to the Royal Glam and a few hours later, Alice and her appendix had a ‘conscious uncoupling’. She stayed in hospital the night after the operation and then convalesced at mine until friday whilst I, when home, bought her magazines, made her cups of tea and poured her parents appropriately large glasses of wine. So here I stand before you, a modern day, living, breathing model of the Good Samaritan!
Except, I really wasn’t. In fact, my thoughts and motivations were far more aligned to those of the priest and Levite in the story, than to the Good Samaritan. And seeing as we’ve just had Yom Kippur, the sacred Jewish festival on which Jews around the world pray and fast, hear the words from Isaiah that we just heard and spend time confessing their sins, I thought I might spend the next few minutes confessing mine; how I was more pious priest than sympathetic stranger last weekend in the hope that I won’t merely indulge in some public self-flagellation but that it might aid us in our reflecting of how we might try to emulate the Good Samaritan and the one who told his story today.
So first, the context. One fine Palestinian day, Jesus is out teaching and preaching to the crowds when an expert of the law, usually one of the social elite, gets down to brass tacks with Jesus. “Teacher,” he asks, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Maybe he was having an existential crisis; maybe he had just suffered a bereavement and was questioning what life there was to come; maybe it was purely an intellectual wonderment but whatever the prompt, Jesus, never really known for giving easy answers, responds with two questions of his own – “What is written in the law?” Jesus asks, “How do you read it?”
Being no fool, the expert answers with the Old Testament commands ‘to love God with all your heart and soul and strength and mind, and to love your neighbour as yourself’. And seeing as in Matthew’s account of things, Jesus tells the Pharisees that all the Jewish scriptures hang on these two commandments, the expert has answered wisely and gets a rare commendation from Jesus who says, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”
Love God completely, love your neighbour as yourself. Pretty simple stuff, eh? Well, no, not quite. Putting aside the huge question of how in practice do we love God with all of our heart, soul, strength and mind for now, there’s the question of who exactly constitutes our neighbour. And the lawyer has had a bit of a bad time of it in commentaries through the years for asking this very question. “He’s trying to limit his responsibilities’ some scholars argue, “He’s wanting to include some and exclude others,” some theologians suggest. But I think ‘who is my neighbour’ is a fair question, don’t you? After all, the command that he quotes from the Old Testament doesn’t say ‘love everyone as yourself’. Quite the contrary, it comes in the middle of a passage that also talks of putting people to death who commit certain sins; one which could be seen to condone slavery and which doesn’t exactly promote a feminist outlook on women’s rights. More than this though, the question of who counts as our neighbour, of who we have a duty to love or care for is one that is apposite for us amidst talk of how much we should give to charities at home as opposed to international aid and discussions concerning whose responsibility is it to welcome and house the stream of refugees we’re faced with. “You’re their nearest neighbour, you sort them out.” “You’re their richest neighbour – you look after them,” so many of the EU leaders seem to be saying to one another.
‘So, who exactly is my neighbour?’, the expert asks Jesus.
“A man was going from Jerusalem to Jericho,” Jesus responds and so the story begins.
And it’s a story most of us know all too well, isn’t it? Traveller gets stripped, robbed and beaten. Priest and Levite avoid him. Samaritan helps him. Be like the nice Samaritan, not the nasty priest. It’s a simple story with a decent twist and a good message. And I’d hope that if any of us came across a seriously injured person on our travels, we would get involved rather than cross the street. And yet, speaking personally of course, I don’t encounter that many injured folk on my way up and down Graigwen so what do we do when the situation isn’t quite as clear cut as in Jesus’ parable?
All of which brings me back to me and Alice…
“There cannot be a crisis next week,” Henry Kissinger once said. “My schedule is already full.” And last week certainly felt like such a week to me. Synod, denominational and ecumenical meetings meant that I’d be travelling between Ponty and Cardiff, Orpington and London, Nottingham and Birmingham and back again, with no chance of a day off and the need to squeeze preparation for both of today’s services into small gaps in the schedule. It would be a good week, thought I, but a full one so all crises were to be avoided. So at 2am, when Alice woke me up telling me of her pain, along with sympathy for her, the overriding feeling was sympathy for me! ‘But I’m going to be shattered for worship in the morning’, I thought at 5am. ‘But this is taking away my already limited time to plan for next week’s worship’, I thought when in the hospital that afternoon. Like the priest in Jesus’ story, who may well have had a service to prepare or a congregation to get to, I so wanted to pass by on the other side and get on with the ‘to do’ list.
Compare this, then, with the Samaritan. We’re not told what kind of a week he had on. Perhaps he was missing important meetings; perhaps he was missing worship or a great social occasion, yet when he saw the injured man, he was moved with pity for him and gave generously of his time, tending to his needs, taking him to an inn and promising to return to him once again. Time is the most precious thing we can offer to anyone – to God, to one another. The story of the Good Samaritan is the story of a priest whose self-important busyness got in the way of basic compassion and of a man from Samaria who generously gave of his time, lavishing it on an unknown stranger in need. Perhaps some of us here might need to be challenged over our use of time. Perhaps some of us might need to reassess the time we offer to God and our fellow sisters and brothers. Perhaps some of us might need to let go of strict to do lists or even schedule in unplanned hours for when crises might occur, compassion might be offered and strangers might be loved. Perhaps, as a church, we might need to consider whether our busyness, our worship even, ever gets in the way of our service to others.
Of course, it wasn’t just the priest who crossed to the other side but the Levite too. Some commentators suggest that those who crossed over might have thought it was a trap. There were many robbers on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho and they had many tricks up their sleeve. Perhaps it was safer to cross to the other side; perhaps the guy wasn’t as injured as he looked; perhaps it was better to worry about your own path. And when Alice told me of her pain, I was sympathetic, but a little sceptical. You see, Alice is many things. Funny, pretty, kind, someone who will be reading this sermon online…but Alice is no Bear Grills. She would herself admit that she can be a bit of a princess. When, for example, I made toast for her the day before she got ill, she complained about the way I spread the margarine…and even later, jokingly blamed her appendicitis on this fact! So when Alice told me that she was feeling quite rough…well, I took it with a pinch of salt. Trapped wind, I suggested to her only half-joking. ‘And now’, I thought at my waking, ‘I’ve got to lose sleep and precious free time taking care of someone who’s probably not all that ill’. Even Alice came up with embellished stories she would tell if it did turn out to be trapped wind after all! Well, we know now that she didn’t need to for her appendix was a-grumbling.
And unlike with the Levite, unlike with me, there was no moment of caution in the Samaritan’s response. No hesitation or consideration that the injured man wasn’t perhaps as ill as he first looked; that tending to him might be putting himself in danger. The Samaritan looked at the man and was moved to act – to bandage and tend to his wounds, to carry him to an inn to rest, to pay for whatever needs he might have. Perhaps his story might challenge us to be more trusting, more generous, more extravagant in our sharing of God’s love with others. Perhaps his story might stir us to speak against those who throw caution on helping the homeless, the foreigner, the refugee for fear that there will be recriminations and instead call upon those in power to be even more welcoming to the stranger in our midst. Perhaps his story might call upon us to give thanks to the God who risked everything in order to reveal his scandalous love for everyone in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.
Finally, of course, the story of the Good Samaritan cannot be tamed into a morality play about being nice to others, or believing your friend when they say they’ve got stomach pains! After telling the story, Jesus asks the expert ‘Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ In his reply, the expert cannot bear to even say the name ‘Samaritan’, such was the hatred in which they were held by most Jews of Jesus’ day. Instead, the expert replies, ‘the one who showed him mercy’. ‘Go and do likewise’, Jesus says.
Today, the shock of the Samaritan being the one who heeds the commands of God whilst the priest and Levite do not is largely lost on us. To say that the will of God, the love of God, was most fully witnessed in the actions of a Samaritan was a radical, incendiary twist which would have pricked ears, furrowed brows and generated much debate at the time. How might we emulate such teaching today?
Perhaps the story might go something like this…
“A woman enjoyed a few drinks after celebrating the win last night. She was walking back from Wetherspoons, through the underpass, when she was mugged by some teenagers who wanted money to buy drugs.
It so happened that I was walking by at the time and…well I did see a drunk, crying woman but…but I didn’t stop because she was in a state and making little sense – she might have just fallen over, how was I to know she’d been mugged! Besides, you know I’ve had a busy week and I needed to get to home to finish preparing today’s worship. So when I saw a couple of women who I recognized from the harvest lunches coming over I left it to them.
The two women – both lovely people, from Temple I think – apparently felt a bit intimidated. The drunk woman was slurring and swearing and to be honest, she wasn’t wearing very much, so they changed course and crossed at the lights instead.
Some time later, a man was heading home from the UKIP conference and saw the woman crying. He went over to her and was moved with pity. He comforted her, gave her his jacket and offered her a cigarette. He then invited her back to his place to get something to eat in the warm.
But the woman, slightly sobered by the chilly evening air, thought he had other intentions so she turned on him, beat him and ran away.
The teenagers who had mugged the woman had seen what had happened from a distance. They went to the beaten man, helped stop his bleeding and used the money they had taken from the woman to pay for a taxi to the hospital.
“And so it is that not all victims become heroes, not all characters are consistent, and not every story has a satisfactory end. Go and do what is good, but do not ask who deserves your good deeds”. God calls us to love and care for everyone. Everyone. Amen.
 The inspiration for the retelling and this direct quote are taken from the excellent ‘Surprised by Grace: Parables and Prayers’ by Revd Dr Susan Durber.