Let us pray.
Loving God, may the words of my mouth and the thoughts of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord our God. Amen.
In the time of Jesus, the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was notorious for its danger and difficulty, and was known as the ‘Way of Blood’ because ‘of the blood which is often shed there by robbers’.
Martin Luther King Jr., in his ‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop’ speech, on the day before his death, described the road as follows:
I remember when Mrs King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. And as soon as we got on that road I said to my wife, ‘I can see why Jesus used this as the setting for his parable.’ It’s a winding, meandering road. It’s really conducive to ambushing. You start out in Jerusalem, which is about 2100 feet and by the time you get down to Jericho fifteen or twenty minutes later you’re actually 846 feet below sea level. That’s a dangerous road. In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the ‘Bloody Pass.’ And you know, it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over at that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking, and he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the priest asked, the first question that the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’
However, King continues
But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question. ‘If I do not stop, to help this man, what will happen to him?’
Portraying a Samaritan in positive light would have come as a shock to Jesus’ audience. It is typical of Jesus’ provocative speeches in which he turns things round, to ask questions of his audience.
Samaritans and Jesus
Samaritans were hated by Jesus’ target audience, the Jews, to such a degree that the Lawyer’s phrase ‘The one who had mercy on him’ may indicate a reluctance to use the name Samaritan. The Samaritans in turn hated the Jews. Tensions were particularly high in the early decades of the first century because Samaritans had desecrated the Jewish Temple at Passover by scattering human bones in it.
Over the centuries, as the story reached those who were unaware of the oppression of the Samaritans, this aspect of the parable became less and less significant.
Today the story is often recast in a more modern setting where the people involved are those in social groups known not to be comfortable with each other. Cast in this way, the parable regains its message to modern listeners: namely, that an individual of a social group they disapprove of can exhibit moral behaviour that’s better than that of the groups they approve or belong to.
Many Christians have used it as an example of Christianity’s opposition to racial, ethnic and sectarian prejudice. For example, anti-slavery campaigner William Jay described clergy who ignored slavery as ‘following the example of the priest and Levite.’ Martin Luther King, Jr, in his ‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop’ speech, described the Samaritan as a man of another race, while others saw the Samaritan more specifically as an example of a mixed-race person.
Samaritans appear elsewhere in the Gospels. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus heals ten lepers and only the Samaritan among them thanks him, although Luke depicts Jesus’ receiving a hostile reception in Samaria. Luke’s favourable treatment of Samaritans is in line with Jesus’ favourable treatment of the weak and of outcasts generally. In John’s gospel, Jesus has an extended dialogue with a Samaritan woman, and many Samaritans come to believe in him. In the Gospels generally, though the Jews of Jesus’ day had no time for the ‘half-breed’ people of Samaria, Jesus “never spoke disparagingly about them,” and “held a benign view of Samaritans.”
Priests and Levites
In the culture of Jesus’ day, contact with a dead body was understood to be defiling. Priests were particularly required to avoid uncleanness. The priest and Levite may therefore have assumed that the fallen traveler was dead and avoided him to keep themselves ritually clean even though they were coming down the road from the temple. Since the Jewish law made an exception for neglected corpses, the priest and the Levite could have used the law to justify both touching a corpse, as well as ignoring it. In any case, passing by on the other side avoided checking whether he was dead or alive. Indeed, “it weighed more with them that he might be dead and defiling to the touch of those whose business was with holy things, than that he might be alive and in need of care.”
Some time ago I watched a Horizon programme on TV about the closeness of the behaviour of chimpanzees to that of human beings. We’re extremely close; I’m sure that’s not a great surprise. It started me thinking of any areas of behaviour which are different, and it seems to me that, although chimps can look out for each other and protect each other, they don’t appear to show the same degree of caring and helping as humans.
Let’s look at some of the questions which arise when we think of our ability to ‘care’.
Do we have any ‘hang-ups’ about helping? Do we say to ourselves that we are too busy?
Are we not going to be around long enough to make any difference? Is it too much bother?
Do we have the resources to help? And isn’t easiest to help those who are closest and dearest to us?
Some of these dilemmas are dealt with in the passage we read about the Good Samaritan, which is brought more up to date in this passage from the Youth Bible. (Read Service; p1059):
Adam Withers rolled over the bonnet of the car and landed on the pavement, knocking his head as he fell. The driver looked around and quickly sped off, eager to get away from the scene of the crime.
During the next 20 minutes, three people stared at Adam’s body as they passed by.
An old lady stopped and looked at the blood which ran from his head into his long brown hair, then walked away.
A young secretary stopped and looked at the heavy-metal design on his tee-shirt, then walked away.
A taxi-driver stopped and thought it was just some drunk, so he drove straight off again.
Five minutes later, a skinhead saw Adam’s body and walked over to investigate. He could tell Adam was badly hurt, so he telephoned for an ambulance and waited with him until it arrived.
“If my mates saw me,” the skinhead thought as he waited, “they’d laugh their heads off. Everyone knows that skinheads are meant to hate long-haired metal-heads! We’re supposed to beat them up, but here I am, helping this guy as though he’s my own brother! But what else can I do?”
When the ambulance arrived to collect Adam, the skinhead went with him to the hospital. When he got there he used his own money to phone Adam’s parents and even went to visit him later.
This talks about helping regardless of perceived differences, and extra effort to see the job through. This is put neatly in words which we all know, from Matthew’s gospel; ‘Jesus answered (the Pharisees) “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind. This is the first and most important command. And the second command is like the first; love your neighbour as you love yourself”.
Some of the apparent limitations on our help are overcome by contributing financially to the work of the aid agencies, such as ‘World Vision’. In Lamlash Church, the young people in the Cool Club contribute towards the £22.80 a month which we pay to World Vision. This pays for the ‘sponsorship’ of a young boy who lives in a remote and poor part of Bangladesh. It pays for his education, food and clothing. It also contributes to overall improvement in his village, e.g. by helping to provide clean water and medical care and teaching efficient farming practice. Such a sponsorship scheme could perhaps be considered by any of us; it could be World Vision, Christian Aid, or Tearfund, or any other aid agency. If there is serious interest, I would be happy to discuss the matter with you.
Another way of showing care and responsibility is by contributing financially to research into areas such as cancer. I am sure that some of you already do this, and this is very commendable.
Helping others is a demonstration of the love which is a feature of being a Christian, as indicated in John ch. 13, where Jesus says:
“I give you a new command: love each other. You must love each other as I have loved you. All people will know that you are my followers if you love each other”.
A characteristic of the early church was that the members shared everything, because many were being persecuted for their faith and were being excluded from their former life-style. (China etc.) This is referred to in Acts ch. 2:
All the believers were together and shared everything. They would sell their land and the things they owned and then divide the money and give it to anyone who needed it. The believers met together in the Temple every day. They ate together in their homes, happy to share their food with joyful hearts’.
Our contributing to aid agencies or medical research agencies is one modern version of this sharing of responsibility.
Equally, nations and governments have responsibilities to each other. Overwhelmingly we are here united in the desire to abolish war. We must try to ensure that politicians look past outside influences which affect decisions relating to war. We must all pray that world leaders remember the message of Jesus and God that we go into the world confident in their message of love, and so to abolish conflict.
Martin Luther King, Jr often spoke of this parable, contrasting the violent philosophy of the robbers and the self-preserving non-involvement of the priest and Levite, with the Samaritan’s coming to the aid of the man in need. King also extended the call for neighbourly assistance to society at large:
‘On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar, it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that a society which produces beggars needs restructuring.’
In other words, we as a society need to deal with the more basic underlying problems.
And so we have a responsibility as Christians to care for others and help others. This may take different forms from that of the early Christians, but it is no less important. Our care and help may take many paths, and will often appear inadequate, but can be seen as well-meant and supportive, and as a badge of our commitment as followers of our Lord, Jesus Christ.