Posted: Monday 15th July 2019
The Good Samaritan
Fourth Sunday After Trinity (14th July 2019)
I think that every sermon I have heard on the subject of the parable of the Good Samaritan has begun with the question put to Jesus “who is my neighbour?”. That is the question which the story seems to address. But the parable is actually told in order to explain an earlier question, “teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” . And it is easy to rush past this question and Jesus’ answer about loving God and loving neighbour to get to the well known, and in some ways over-familiar, story. But I just want first of all to pause at that first question, because it is critical as to how we then understand the parable that follows it.
The man’s question was “what must one DO to inherit eternal life?”, not “what must I believe, but what must I do”. Salvation, eternal life, rightness with God- may be God’s gift generously and undeservedly given to his imperfect children, but if we are to meet the gift giver ‘half way’ as it were, we do this not only by what we believe but by what we do.
Jesus said to some who gathered to hear him that “not everyone who says “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but those who do the will of my father in heaven”. It’s very easy to profess a faith – but to live it is another matter. Of course our relationship with God is important and without faith, prayer, study of scripture and sharing in the sacraments that relationship will not grow, but it is how we act which proves that our faith, however much or little we may think we have, is actually real and also through our faith develops. It is often rather surprising news to those with a very deep faith that the parable of the Good Samaritan tells us that believing alone won’t save us.
Of course, other passages of scripture might pop into your mind to question what I’m asserting here. Because you might think, well hang on a minute didn’t St Paul say that “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” ? and you’d be right (Romans 10:13), but that doesn’t mean faith is all that matters. Because what do those who call on the name of the Lord hear in response but “when I was hungry did you feed me, when I was naked, did you clothe me, when I was in prison did you visit me?” to quote Jesus in
St Matthew’s gospel. Faith and deeds are not fighting or competing in opposition, but the opposite ends of a scale and we are spiritually balanced when we give both faith and good deeds equal weight and we are held at the mid point . That’s where we meet, to use my phrase from earlier “the gift giver in the middle”.
If we didn’t have faith, we wouldn’t trust Jesus as being the one to turn to and ask what we must do to inherit eternal life; but hearing what he says we can’t say “that’s lovely” and ignore it.
This is the what the prophets had wailed about centuries earlier. They were intensely critical of those who proclaimed a faith and carried out all the rituals of that faith and yet failed to behave in a way that was really pleasing to God. Criticising the ritualistic keeping of fasts, the prophet Isaiah declared that God said “ Is this the kind of fast which you think is pleasing to me? No, the fast that I choose is to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo those tied to the yoke, to release those who are oppressed. to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless into your house: when you do this and call upon the Lord, then I will answer; you will cry for help and I will say ‘Here I am’” (Is 58: 6-7,9).
No matter how well intentioned, or how devoutly offered the rituals of the churches in the catholic tradition may be, or what emotions are stirred by the choruses in a pentecostal or evangelical church service, God tells us that he comes closest to us when we serve others, and work to release them from injustice, oppression, hunger or homelessness. The restoration of dignity to another human is the worship that gladdens God’s heart most: God is truly adored when we serve and honour the humanity of our neighbour.
And it is this understanding which then prompts the man in the gospel to ask “but who exactly is my neighbour?” and then the familiar narrative begins. Again, over familiarity with this parable can make us unreceptive to the revolutionary understand of the term ‘neighbour’ which Jesus holds out.
It is so easy for us to want to give ourselves a pat on the back for being neighbourly- nice to those around us who we know, kind to those we know
and like who live in our road, block of flats or work place, and think that, like cub scouts or brownies we have earned our ‘good neighbour badge’ and the job is done. And whilst such behaviour is good and right, in this parable Jesus tells us that true neighbourliness has no boundaries but extends beyond the local, familiar or friendly : we are to be neighbours to those who’ve never been nice to us and even to those who we do not know. The story of Jesus healing ten lepers, of whom only one returned to give thanks tells us we are to help those who won’t even thank us for doing so.
In the explanation of this parable it is often suggested that the priest and the Levite were hypocritical: either uncaring towards the injured man or that they were so obsessed with preserving their own ritual purity that they neglected this poor soul lying in the dusty road. But another understanding of this is that Jesus is using them to illustrate the point that true neighbourliness means going that extra mile, even at times at the apparent expense of our own principles, beliefs and practices. God would rather have the needs of a complete stranger met, than have a religious ritual observed. All our religious practice is in order to lead us to God so that we may truly learn to love him and serve him: but the ultimate worship that we offer is the service of our neighbour. Perhaps then this story invites us to hear God say to us at times something like “get your nose out of your prayer book and go and feed the hungry”. Not that it’s an either /or situation – stop coming to church on Sunday and go and support a food bank instead. But if our coming to church doesn’t lead us to some act of charity towards others beyond our immediate friendship circle, we practice our faith partially and selectively.
But there’s another and more surprising sting in the story for Jesus’ original audience. It was that the Good Samaritan was someone completely unlike them. The person Jesus holds up as the ultimate neighbour is the last person they thought he would hold up as an example. Jesus holds up this Samaritan, just as he would hold up the prostitute, the tax collector and the child as being closer to the kingdom of God than those who thought that they held a golden ticket to heaven. Never let your spiritual privilege or pride blind you to the goodness- the holiness- of others.
The Good Samaritan isn’t just a parable that tells us to put our faith into action, but to recognise through the truly neighbourly actions of others the poverty of our faith. To humbly accept that the one who technically shouldn’t be, is living a life closer to what God longs from us: whereas we who technically should be, so frequently aren’t. The neighbour is not simply those around us we know, it is not those who are like us, or who we like, and not those of the same faith or race: he deliberately chose someone from Samaria- a group of people despised by the Jews as unorthodox, unclean and best avoided.
The parable of the Good Samaritan may be familiar, and feel like a heartwarming story with a happy ending, but actually it is an uncomfortable reminder to us all that God calls us to actively care more widely than we naturally want to; and that others who may even reject the notion of God offer, through their active compassion for others, worship which is more pleasing to God than many of us who come reverently in church on Sunday may do in the following week.
The lawyer asked “ what must I do to inherit eternal life”? Jesus told him this parable and says to us all, “go – and do likewise”.