Breakfast with the Bible, Chelmsford Cathedral (23rd July 2017).
1. SAMARITANS BE DAMNED!
‘Samaritans be damned!’ summed up the attitude of most Jews to Samaritans.
The Samaritans were regarded as half-breeds, traitors to the Jewish race.
The roots of this bitterness went back to the return of Jews from exile in 539 BC.
Almost a century earlier (720 BC) Assyria had conquered the northern kingdom of Samaria, and transported much of the population back to Media, and in their place had put people of other races. Those who were carried away never came back; they simply assimilated into the country to which they had been taken – while those Jews who remained in Samaria intermarried.
All of this was very different from what happened to the Jews living in the southern kingdom. They too were defeated in 597 BC and many of them were carried off to Babylon.
But unlike their Northern counterparts, they didn’t lose their identity – instead they retained their racial purity by refusing to marry non-Jews. When these southerners returned, they would have nothing to do with the Samaritans left in the northern kingdom. The Samaritans offered to help rebuild the Jerusalem temple – but the southerners refused. They would having nothing to do with these northern compromisers. So a bitter quarrel was born.
Eventually the Samaritans built a rival temple on Mount Gerizim and gradually developed a ritual, if not a religion, of their own.
In the meantime, neither side lost a chance to do one another in.
Five centuries later when Jesus came on the scene, this state of hostility between the Samaritans and the Jews was as real as ever. When John in his Gospel wrote, “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans” (4.9) he was making an under-statement. The Jews had as much in common with the Samaritans as a right-wing Jew has with a Palestinian terrorist. It is ironic that we talk of the ‘Parable of the Good Samaritan’. As far as Jews of Jesus’ day were concerned, the only good Samaritan was a dead one!
This then is the background to the parable.
2. A LEADING QUESTION
But we’re going too fast. Let’s set the parable in its context.
A teacher of the Law set out to trick Jesus: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (10.25). Anticipating Jesus’ answer that he should love God and love his neighbour, he immediately came up with a supplementary question: “Who is my neighbour?” (v29).
Probably he expected Jesus to launch into a technical discussion about the term ‘neighbour’.
By and large the Jews of that time regarded the term ‘neighbour’ as a term of ‘limited liability. It certainly didn’t include those ‘dogs’, the Gentiles; nor did it include those ‘half-breeds’, the Samaritans. Indeed, as far as many Pharisees were concerned, it didn’t include the ordinary ‘people of the land’.
For many religious people the term ‘neighbour’ was restricted to those ‘orthodox in faith and practice’. They believed that it wasn’t right to show love to all and sundry.
Indeed, the rabbis used to say that heretics and informers “should be pushed into the ditch and not be pulled out”. There were limits as to how far ‘neighbourliness’ could be extended.
I.e. the question “Who is my neighbour?” in reality was ‘How far does my responsibility extend? Where are the limits of my duty of loving to be drawn?’
3. A PARABLE WITH A PUNCH
Jesus answered with a parable. PG Woodhouse once said: “A parable is a Bible story which at first sounds like a pleasant yarn, but keeps something up its sleeve which suddenly pops up and leaves you flat”. I believe that on this occasion Jesus floored this teacher of the law.
Jesus began: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him up, and went away leaving him half-dead”(v30).
This particular 17-mile stretch of road was dangerous beyond.
With its sudden turnings and rocky defiles, it was a happy-hunting ground for robbers.
Not for nothing it was known as the ‘Path of Blood’. Anybody travelling that road was a fool, just asking for trouble. It was not at all surprising that he got mugged.
“Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side” (vv31.32).
At first sight the behaviour of the priest and the Levite, both God-fearing men, sounds an incredible. Why didn’t these religious characters lift a finger?
There are a variety of possibilities:
- Maybe they were callous, hard-hearted men
- Alternatively they could have been cowards, who thought that robbers might re-appear any moment. Maybe they were afraid that the guy who had been beaten up was being used as a ‘booby-trap’.
- Or was their behaviour determined by their religious scruples? Perhaps they thought the unconscious man was dead. According to Num 13 no Jew could take part in a religious rite if he had touched a corpse. So both the priest & the Levite refused to get involved, because it would mess up their service for God.
Probably at this point Jesus’ audience was expecting an anti-clerical dig: “Now along came Benjamin, an ordinary Jew”. But surprise, surprise: “But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity” (v33).
This must have knocked Jesus’ audience flat. If he had walked by on the other side, it would have been understandable. Indeed, it would have been understandable if the Samaritan had crossed over and booted the Jew a final ‘coup de grace’. But no: “his heart was filled with pity” (GNB).
To be precise:
- “He poured oil and wine on his wounds” (v34): the oil would have acted as a mollifying agent, soothing the pain; while the wine with its alcohol content would have acted as a disinfectant, cleansing the wound.
- “He bandaged his wounds”. Almost certainly he didn’t have a First Aid kit to hand. Rather we are to imagine him tearing up his own head cloth and using that as a bandage. That would have cost him something
- “Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii (20 £50 notes?), gave them to the innkeeper and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend” (vv34,35). This Samaritan was not content to do the minimum – he went the second mile. I’m told that the cost of a day’s board was normally one-twelfth of these silver coins: i.e. he gave the innkeeper enough money for three weeks board. He was incredibly generous.
Jesus then drives his point home: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the band of robbers?” (v36)
Do notice how Jesus subtlety turns the tables: while the teacher’s question concerned the object of love (‘Whom must I treat as a neighbour?’), Jesus asks about the subject of love (‘Who acted as a neighbour?’). I wonder, was Jesus saying: ‘Think of the sufferer, put yourself in his place, and then consider who needs help’.
The teacher of the Law answered somewhat grudgingly: “The one who showed him mercy” (v37a). Poor fellow, he wasn’t able to say ‘the Samaritan’ – that would have been too much!
Jesus replied: “Go and do likewise” (v37b)
4. JESUS CHALLENGES YOU AND ME TODAY
The Parable of the Good Samaritan is a challenge for us too to “go and do likewise’.
Reflect on the words of John Havlik, a popular American writer:
- Your neighbour is “anyone who hurts that you touch in the regular traffic pattern of your life”.
- “Love is not a profession, it is a demonstration… It is not just ‘caring about’, it is ‘caring for’”.
Who is our neighbour today? What actions are called for? Is there a challenge not just to us as individuals, but also to us as a Cathedral community?