When God shows up as a Samaritan

The Parable of the Good Samaritan is perhaps one of the best known of Jesus stories (Luke 10.25-37). But sometimes I think that the fact that it`s so well-known and so familiar can sometimes get in the way of really understanding it.

At its most simple of course, it looks like a story about compassion doesn’t it? The message seems to be: “If you see someone in need, well, do something about it”. In a phrase that’s become firmly part of the English language we are taught, don’t be someone who “passes by on the other side” aren’t we? So, to that extent, this story seems to work as a basic humanitarian tale doesn’t it? And that’s fine. We wouldn’t want to argue with that. But the problem is that behind what can appear like a heart-warming humanitarian tale there is actually much more going on. We might say, yes, it’s about compassion but a surprising compassion.

I say this because at the heart of what’s laid before us this morning, is our capacity for setting boundaries. I mean, Jesus tells this particular story to someone who thought there was a distinct boundary to be set when it came to compassion. Hes very much in league with those who say that some people are worthy of it, some people are not. After all, the question the lawyer asks is: “Who is my neighbour?” isnt it?

And what he receives is a picture of compassion that forces him to look far beyond what he would regard as acceptable. Far beyond the boundaries we might take for granted; for instance, to those who are not, (very much not) part of our group.

At issue, of course, was the bitter relationship between Jews and Samaritans. Jesus is painting a quite outrageous picture. So, even if we want to take this as I say, on the level of humanitarian kindness; it`s nonetheless quite challenging. In other words, this parable pulls us up short when we find ourselves, for instance, dividing the world into those we consider `deserving` or `undeserving` of our compassion.

There are echoes here of the Sermon on the Mount. The Lord says, ‘For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5.46-48) And that`s the point isn`t it. Since Jesus is telling this story, we would expect there to be something here about God, wouldn`t we?

And this is where we may be on to something. I mean, it`s interesting that the lawyer doesn`t ask about God, does he? No, he asks about his neighbour. What I mean is that he gives the impression that he has the `God` side of things side of things sorted out. But this is where Jesus has a surprise for him; and maybe a surprise for us as well. I think Jesus is saying to this lawyer; “If you really knew God, you simply wouldn`t ask `Who is my neighbour?` You wouldn`t play the `boundary` game. You certainly wouldn`t presume to set limits to compassion”.

Let`s use our imaginations for a moment. Let`s imagine ourselves for example, as the man who has fallen among thieves. Just for a moment, let`s imagine ourselves beaten and abandoned by the roadside and we call for help…. People walk by on the other side. Seen this way, the parable asks us to think about what it`s like to be let down by those you thought you could depend on?

My point is that Jesus is asking the Lawyer to enter into this story in the same sort of way. And sure enough, the lawyer might have expected assistance from the Priest or the Levite. But no, it`s the Samaritan that helps out. But Jesus wants him to see himself as someone who has fallen among thieves. I think Jesus is saying to this man: `You know, your religion is leaving you for dead`. `The Priest and the Levite are no good to you`, he`s saying.  

Again, the very fact that you have asked me, “Who is my neighbour?”; the very fact that you would consider whether there should be boundaries around your compassion show that (these people) are not leading you to encounter the generous mercy of God`.

So, we ask, where will the lawyer`s help come from…..? Well, don`t let anyone tell you there are no jokes in the Bible. His help will, of course, come from Jesus. And Jesus remember, is the one that lawyers like him, delighted to ridicule as a `Samaritan`, an outsider and an outcast…. The point is that Jesus isn`t fooled. He knows where this Lawyer is coming from and how disdainful he is of him. As the reading tells us, this lawyer was out to `test` this `Samaritan` Jesus. But this Lawyer is actually being invited to see this Jesus as the one who has come to bind up his wounds and bring him to life again. God disguised as his enemy?

So, the lawyer`s life is, in this sense, a tale of religion `gone wrong`. He`s an example of what Faith looks like when it`s devoid of humanity. The shame was that the Lawyer probably couldn`t see how much need he was in.

So, we can look at this tale as a nice, cosy story about being kind to those in need. And that`s fine. It`s even more edifying when we appreciate how it points us towards a compassion which extends to those who don`t belong to our group. And when it stretches us to care for those who are not like us and in worldly terms and (we like to think) they probably don`t deserve it.

But (and this is the point) this parable is essentially aimed at one whose religion had gone wrong. To Jesus`s way of thinking the lawyer has `fallen among thieves` and he has come to his aid. Jesus`s compassion extends not only to the publicans, tax-collectors and general riff-raff. He also embraces even the `religious` types who cling on to a diminished vision of God, like this lawyer. Those who use religion as a protective shield against the nasty world outside.

Again, we can begin by thinking of this as a wonderfully humanitarian tale. “Go and do likewise” is a lovely aspiration isn`t it? But if we`re going to hear it like this, it has to contain that radical edge which challenges our instinct to select only those we believe worthy of our attention. In other words, show the same compassion to those you really don`t like very much! Because it`s clear that Jesus is saying far, far more than “go and be good”. No, “Go and do likewise” means, “Go and bear the lavish mercy of God to others”.

Because that`s what he`s doing isn`t it? Almost tongue-in-cheek, Jesus is picking up the lawyer`s disdain for him as `A Samaritan` and saying, “But I`ve come for you”. Ironically, this `Samaritan` Jesus would turn out to be his and our Saviour. And God was not who this lawyer thought him to be at all.

This is how it works. All too often we live as those who have `fallen among thieves`. Our attachments, the people and things (even the religion) we use to shore up our reputation, security and fragile ego will all let us down in the end. The grace is that despite our foolhardy wanderings “The Son of Man (has come) to seek out and to save the lost.” (Luke 19.10)

As the lawyer discovered he often turns up in a way we least expect. So, we might ask: “Who are your Samaritans?” Who are those you would regard as `other`; beyond the pale; your `enemies`? These are the people who teach you more about yourself than you realise. Sometimes our enemies teach us more about ourselves- and God, than our friends.