The Good Samaritan
The context of the Parable of The Good Samaritan writes Luke, is that an expert in the Jewish Law stood up to test Jesus. 'Stood up' is a sign of respect and was meant also to give emphasis to his question and its answer but the lawyer's real intention was to try to trap Jesus by exposing his teaching as being distinct from the Law of Judaism. That is how lawyers behave in court cases even in our culture today. They ask provocative questions, questions for effect, indirect questions to unsettle and embarrass. This lawyer was not a seeker after truth genuinely wanting spiritual enlightenment. The lawyer wished to make trial of the skill of Jesus in solving the question as to how to obtain salvation. They agreed on the first point – love God and your neighbour. But the lawyer did not want to be seen to be agreeing with Jesus – he wanted a fight. And so he continued by asking 'And who is my neighbour?' Jesus was probably teaching in some house or courtyard. It is possible that he was in or near Bethany, through which the road from Jerusalem to Jericho passes.
Jericho was thought to be on or near the site of what was thought to be the oldest city in the ancient world. Jesus met Zacchaeus at Jericho and that gives us an insight into the prosperity of the city at that time. Zacchaeus was the chief publican, a tax collector, a man of wealth and hated by the people. The record tells how Jesus, despite criticism, stayed in Jericho at this man’s house, and brought salvation to his household. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was a very dangerous road. Jerusalem is 2300 feet above sea level and the Dead Sea near where Jericho stood is 1300 feet below sea level. In 20 miles the drop is 3600 feet. The road was narrow rocky and with twists and turns. It was a place where muggers and thieves could operate with impunity, by quickly disappearing into the hills. In the 5th century it was known as 'The Bloody Way'. In the 19th century you had to pay protection money to get through. In the 20th century there were hold ups of cars and robberies of their occupants still. In some of our cities there are 'no go areas' for police and ambulances. Blackhill in Glasgow was known as such a district for many years. Thieves and muggers could survive there because it was unsafe to enter. There were houses without water and electricity supply. We know that there are Muslim areas in some English cities where the police don't want to go. And we have learned that in France and Belgium there are Muslim ghettoes with their own rules unaffected buy the law of the land. Somalia shelters brigands and pirates. One of ISIS income streams is hostage taking. There are many places in the world today where travellers are at personal risk, parts of South Africa, for example, and many countries in Central and South America. Jesus' teaching was not mystical poetry; it was founded on daily realities. The genius of Christianity is to keep heaven and earth together. Judaism does not do this as much nor does Islam nor does Hinduism nor Buddhism. Christianity has the highest and most beautiful aspirations alongside the mud and trouble of the world.
It is a great question 'What must I do to inherit eternal life?' Do you find many or any people asking that question these days? No-one seems that bothered. There are increasing numbers of humanist weddings and funeral services. Generally speaking, people do not take account of God in their lives. They seem not to care where they might end up after leaving this life. But Judaism is precisely about relating to the Living God, Maker of all that we see and know. That was Judaism's contribution to humanity. Christianity inherited that purpose by evangelising, communicating and channelling relationship to God through Jesus Christ to anyone who might respond rather than keep such privilege to a racial group. You might still be asking 'What must I do to inherit eternal life?'. You may not be sure. You may have gnawing anxiety. You may however have found faith and hope and confidence and peace in eternal life – that is – a living personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
'And who is my neighbour?' is a more common thought. There is a lot of good neighbourliness in society. In crises such as the recent floods, people pull together and help one another. But there are many cruelly lonely people also ignored by others in our selfish society. Due to 21st century communications, we live in what is called The Global Village. We know and we can see what is happening in many places in the world. And so, we might well be asking today, in the light of various issues such as refugees, the children suffering from hunger and lack of education, persecution of Christians and human poverty in under-developed countries 'Who is my neighbour?'
Jesus told what may be his most famous parable. It is referred to throughout the world today. You see and hear it on TV, radio and the internet and in the printed media. It is the perfect illustration of good neighbourliness. But it is a wee bit more complicated than you might think at first. It can be argued that the traveller who was mugged and robbed had been very foolish to travel that dangerous route alone. He was asking for trouble. Maybe he was an over confident person who couldn't take advice. Maybe he just did not know the risk he was taking. Perhaps he had an urgent appointment, a family matter or a business matter to attend to. He could have just been going his holidays. By travelling just a short distance, about four hours walking time, a person could be transferred from the sometimes quite cold climate of Jerusalem at 777m above sea level, to the balmy warmth of Jericho, 250m below sea level. Herod built his summer palace there. The Priests and the Levites also used Jericho as their off-duty resting-place. There were as many priests in Jericho as there were in Jerusalem and Jesus may have used this fact to pointedly illustrate his parable.
We are quick to criticise the priest and the Levite. They are representatives of the divine understanding that Jesus was replacing. The priest may have been riding on a donkey because he belonged to the upper classes of society. He moved to the other side. How could he have been sure the wounded man was a neighbour since he could not be identified? If the person lying there was a non-Jew, the priest could be risking defilement, especially if the person were actually dead. If he defiled himself, he could not collect, distribute, and eat tithes. His family and servants would suffer the consequences with him. Priests were supposed to be ritually clean, exemplars of the law. There would be immediate shame and embarrassment suffered by them at the expense of the people and their peers for such defilement. Having just completed his mandatory two weeks of service, he would then need to return and stand at the Eastern Gate of the Temple along with the rest of the unclean. Furthermore, in addition to the humiliation involved, the process of restoring ritual purity was time-consuming and costly. It required finding, buying, and reducing a red heifer to ashes, and the ritual took a full week. The priest is in a predicament. Moreover, he could not approach closer than eight feet to a dead man without being defiled, and he will have to overstep that boundary just to ascertain the condition of the wounded man.
Levites were descendants of Levi. They assisted the priests who were Aaron’s descendants in the temple. For example, they played music in the Temple and served as guards. It is likely that Levites were among those arrested Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho allowed a person travelling it to see ahead of him a long way. The Levite, who was of a lower social class, may have been walking. He most probably saw the priest ahead of him and when he came up to the injured man could have thought to himself, "If the priest may pass, then so should I." Perhaps he might feared for his own safety. What if someone saw him with the naked and wounded person and reported to the officials that a Levite had committed a crime against the injured person? It is clear that in this parable Jesus was overturning the conventional and accepted relationship between religious observance and humanity.
The Samaritans were a mixed race between the Jews of captivity by the Assyrians in the 8th century BC. and the Samaritan people of the land in which they were captive. Samaria is where part of what is called the West Bank is today. The relationship between the Jews and Samaritans was one of hostility because of the past. There was a saying, "He that eats the bread of the Samaritans is like to one that eats the flesh of swine". Samaritans were not Gentiles. They were bound by the same law as the Jews. This Samaritan would not be naturally from that area, so the half-dead man would certainly not qualify as his neighbour. We know from the story of Jesus and the woman at the well that as the scripture says, “How is it that You, being a Jew, ask me for a drink since I am a Samaritan woman?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans). This Samaritan risks defilement. He approaches this unidentifiable man and helps him. Oil and wine were poured out on the high altar before God. The usage is mentioned after the Priest and Levite have failed to do their duty. The Samaritan forfeits anonymity when he stays overnight and then says that he would return. He also endangers himself by associating with the injured man. The wounded man has no money. When it is time for him to leave if he cannot pay the debt, he can be arrested. The Samaritan knows this and volunteers money - two days' wages - and whatever else is needed to see to the needs of this unidentified man. Additionally, the Samaritan had no way of insuring the return of his money. Therefore, it is safe to assume he did not expect it to be returned.
The Good Samaritan is stamped on human collective mentality as the highest example of how to live as God our Maker wants us to live. Our life expression of Christian Faith should not prevent us from helping others who are in need. If we are ungenerous in spirit we are not living close to God. The injured man was a victim of crime. Is this then different from those who bring misfortune on themselves by their lifestyles and conduct? There is a clear difference but if it is a case of life or death whether or not someone brought their situation on themselves must be secondary to humanity and love and practical care. Does that then justify these ways of life? I do not think that it does. But for Jesus' sake, we are obliged to help where necessary. The agencies of state largely do this on our behalf although there is still a role for personal good neigbourliness and there always will be.
'Go and do likewise' said Jesus to the lawyer. 'Show mercy'. 'Just do it'. He says the same thing to us.