Two days ago we saw, indeed much of the world saw reported, the funeral of Pte Lee Rigby. In case the name is not familiar to you let me remind you that he is the young soldier who was murdered outside his barracks in Woolwich back in May. A car driven by 2 men forced him to stop and they then stabbed him to death before dragging him into the middle of the street. I remember watching the news as the reports came in and feeling horrified and disbelieving at the same time. How could this happen on the streets of London?
As time went on and I watched the scenes again in subsequent programmes, it occurred to me that there were many issues being pointed to in the reports and the more I thought, the more the similarity with our reading today struck me. The scenes were of the body lying in the street and people standing by simply watching as the events unfolded, perhaps unconcerned or perhaps afraid of what might happen if they did become involved. These reported scenes had come from people who were there at the very time, some taken by mobile phone from a bus, and it occurred to me that, not only were these folk disengaged and unwilling to intervene but that they were dispassionate enough to video the tragedy being played out before them, perhaps even then thinking about financial gain.
And then there is one scene where the gunmen were still armed and wandering around the area and the emergency services have not arrived when suddenly a woman came into the camera. We now know that she is a Cub Scout leader from Cornwall and she had got off her bus thinking it was a road accident and seeing an injured person, was going to help. She realised that Pte Rigby was dead and then proceeded to engage the gunmen in conversation in an attempt to distract them from hurting others.
Today’s story might be the 1st century equivalent. The story begins in verse twenty-five where we read, “And behold, a certain lawyer stood up and tested Him, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
We are told that this man is a lawyer; but he is not the kind of lawyer who goes to court in a civil or criminal case. This “lawyer” is an expert in Old Testament Law he is an Old Testament scholar.
The question asked of Jesus by this lawyer is: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Basically, he is asking, “What must I do to be saved?” When he asked Jesus the question about eternal life, he was asking what Jesus saw as the essential requirements of the Law. Much like the rich young ruler in Matthew, he seems to be saying, “What good thing must I do in order to have eternal life?”
Jesus throws the question back in the lawyer’s lap. He says to him, “You know the law, what does it say?”
The lawyer answers Jesus, “… You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself.” Jesus answers “Do this and you will live”, not “KNOW this and you will live but DO this and you will live.” Jesus is not saying that the lawyer could be saved by the law. He is reminding the man what the law says. The law requires not only that a person keeps the law, but that it is kept perfectly. The law must be kept without omissions or failures. Therefore to be justified under the law a person must be perfect. Jesus wants the lawyer to see that law cannot save anyone because no one can keep the law perfectly.
Now the Old Testament lawyer did what lawyers do so well – he looked for a loophole in the law. He says, “And who is my neighbour?” Why did the lawyer ask this question? Luke says that he wanted to “justify himself,” that is he wanted to make himself seem right in his relationship with God. The lawyer measured himself against both commands and he reckoned that he met the first one well enough, but his keeping of the second one depending on how you defined “neighbour.” He was asking, “Who and how much do I have to love?” We are often like the lawyer in that we try to reduce God’s commands to something we can live with. We would like to believe that loving your neighbour means loving people who love us, or at least loving people who are lovable. Loving your neighbour therefore comes to mean; doing nice things for people who will probably do nice things back to me. That is probably what he lawyer thought too.
So Jesus defines neighbour with a story but notice that Jesus did not call this story a parable, so it could be the report of an actual occurrence not unlike that of Pte Rigby in Woolwich.
And this story teaches some basic lessons concerning compassion.
1. Compassion Is Based On Need Not Worth.
In verse thirty we read, “Then Jesus answered and said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.” Our compassion is to be driven, not by the “worth” of the recipient but by the need. This man needs help in the worse way.
As the unknown victim lay beside the road a series of three individuals came along the way. The first passer-by is a priest. But when he saw the man he crossed to the other side and continued his journey. The priest has been excused by some, by saying that he didn’t want to touch the man because he might have been dead, and this would have made the priest ceremonially unclean and he would have been unable to carry out his duties. But notice it says that both he and the Levite who came along next were coming “down the road” thus they were leaving Jerusalem and had already performed their duties.
This is one of the most shocking aspects of this parable when Jesus told it. The priest was considered the holiest person there was among the Jews. He was taught the Scriptures, he was entrusted with offering sacrifices for the sin of the people. If anyone was going to reflect the character of God, it would be the priest.
The second passer-by is a Levite and the Levite at least went over and looked at the man, but he too did not feel a need to do anything to help.
Like Lee Rigby’s neighbours, the first two passers-by just didn’t want to get involved. They didn’t want any trouble. They weren’t monsters. They were nice ordinary people who loved their children and tried their best to get on in the world. Just like the witnesses in Lee’s murder, they saw the need, did not do anything about it.
2. Compassion Feels Something
In verse thirty-three we read, “But a Samaritan, while travelling, came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.”
It would have been surprise enough that Jesus told the people that this man was helped by just an ordinary man. But it is not even a Jew helping a Jew, but rather a Samaritan helping a Jew who had been ignored by his fellow Jews. Today we call this story “The Parable of The Good Samaritan.” In fact the very phrase, “good Samaritan” has become part of our common language. But this was definitely not a phrase in use by Jews of Jesus’ day.
The passage says that “when he saw him, he had compassion,” the Greek word used here for compassion (splagchnizomai) is a very vivid one. It comes from a word that refers to the intestines, or bowels! Perhaps it’s the equivalent of what we mean when we talk about a “gut feeling.” A gut feeling is one that comes from the deepest part of who we are. The Samaritan saw the same pitiful man lying in agony beside the road and his heart stirred within him so that he could not pass by without helping. That’s the way compassion affects us. It stirs us; it troubles us, it keeps us awake at night until we do something.
The Samaritan helped him because of how needy he was.
There is no a logical reason for the Samaritan to rearrange his plans or to spend his money to help an “enemy” in need. Of all the people who passed this injured man by the Samaritan had the least reason to help
3. Compassion Does Something.
Not only was the Samaritan’s compassion based on the need, rather than the worth, of the victim, but it caused the Samaritan to feel something so deeply that it had to be expressed in action.
He doesn’t pass by on the other side. He moved toward the injured man. You must move toward people to express compassion, in order to build relationships. It is not something that just mystically happens, it takes concentrated effort. It often is not convenient. And don’t forget that the Samaritan is moving toward someone who if he was conscious would despise him; someone who no doubt would not do the same for him if the situations were reversed.
Jesus details in a series of six verbs just how active this man’s compassion was: he went to him, he bandaged his wounds, he poured oil and wine on his wounds, he put him on his donkey, he brought him to an inn and he took care of him.
4. Compassion Cost Something.
On the next day, the Samaritan took two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, “Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.” This man really went the extra mile: he took this man to an inn and saw to it that the innkeeper would take care of the recovering victim. He also promised that he would return and fully reimburse the innkeeper for any additional expenses that he incurred in caring for this man. He left money to take care of this man’s needs and he put no limit on how much he would spend to see the wounded man taken care of. There is nothing more the Samaritan could have done to show his compassion for this man.
5. Compassion Demonstrates Our Relationship to God
At the conclusion of His story Jesus asks the lawyer the question, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to him who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer almost chokes on his words here. He cannot even bring himself to say the word “Samaritan” and so he responds with, “He who showed mercy on him.” And for the second time Jesus tells this man to, “Go and do likewise.”
The lawyer is left without any of the excuses or the vindication that he wanted. The second question that the lawyer had asked was, “Who is my neighbour?” the question had been turned on him and is now, “What kind of neighbour am I?”
Compassion demonstrates whether we have we have a relationship with God. In this story Jesus is separating the person who has a real relationship with God from the merely religious. We saw what the religious folks did when they saw this man bruised and battered by the side of the road. They kept walking. In fact, they crossed the street and kept walking.
The way we live our lives as Christians is probably the most eloquent way in which we tell others of Jesus. Our love for those who are unlovely, our love for our neighbours, is one of the ways in which people can see Jesus in our lives and one of the ways in which they may come to know him.
Haddon Robinson said, ”One cannot define one’s neighbour; one can only be a neighbour. Your neighbour is anyone whose need you see, whose need you are able to meet”.
To God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit be all power and glory, now and forever. Amen.