The story of the Good Samaritan is probably one of the best-known and possibly best-loved bits of the Bible. Many of us have known it since childhood. Its hold on us has to do partly, I think, with the story’s satisfying structure. Like many fairy tales, there is a repeated action, a first, second, and then the all-important third. The priest passes by the wounded man, the Levite does the same, but then, at the third approach, things are different and a resolution is achieved. The characters are satisfying too: two clear villains and one hero; not totally unlike Cinderella and the ugly sisters! As readers and listeners, we also enjoy the justness and richness of the hero’s generosity. Not content with tending the wounds and getting the victim to an inn, the Samaritan promises to pay back whatever the innkeeper spends on the wounded man, over and above the two denarii, a sign of his ongoing care and concern. In learning an ethical lesson, we as readers are happy to identify with the Samaritan and to assent to the moral his behaviour presses on us – that you should act generously and selflessly towards anyone you come across in need. The point about how to be a neighbour is forcefully made by means of a darn good story and, if we stopped here in our receiving and understanding of the story, we would have gained much. But I’m not sure we’d have got quite the hold on it that Jesus intended.
To do that, we need to ask why Jesus has a Samaritan as the hero of his story. Why a Samaritan and not just any old body? Why not a third Jew, after the priest and the Levite? Well – what’s your immediate thought when you hear the word ‘Samaritan’? Perhaps you think of the organisation that listens to the suicidal, The Samaritans. If so, you probably take it – and rightly so – that the organisation has been so named from the hero of our Gospel story today: the Good Samaritan who reaches out a helping hand to one in need. A Samaritan in our general understanding is someone unequivocally, unarguably good. So we might call someone who gets us out of a fix ‘a Good Samaritan’. That is fair enough, but it is quite different from the way ‘Samaritan’ would be understood in the Jewish culture of Jesus’ time. For the Jews, Samaritans were considered as despicable. ‘Good Samaritan’ would have been pretty much a contradiction in terms.
So who were the Samaritans? The Samaritans of Jesus’ time were descendants of the people of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and their 8th century BC invaders, the Assyrians, with whom the Israelites intermarried. So here’s the first problem. The Samaritans were racially not proper Jews. Hence, the concerns of the priest and the Levite with keeping the rigid purity laws, distancing themselves from the blood of the attacked victim. Samaritans were problematic in the religious sense as well. They worshipped the same God as the Jews, but they held only the first five books of the scriptures authoritative, and they had built their own Temple on Mount Gerizim and held that its rites and priesthood were valid, rather than those of the Temple at Jerusalem, whereas for the Jews only the Temple at Jerusalem and its practices were legitimate. So when Jesus makes the hero of his story a Samaritan, it might well seem strange to the lawyer who asks the question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ and to others listening in. I suppose in comparatively more recent contexts it might be like an Afrikaaner in apartheid South Africa telling a story to fellow Afrikaaners and making the hero of the story black. Or like a Roman Catholic in N. Ireland making his hero a Protestant. Or a Jew a Palestinian. Or a Christian teacher making the hero of a moral tale a Muslim. Or a Western novelist setting up an asylum seeker as the hero.
Swapping the Samaritan in one’s mind for a Muslim or an asylum seeker perhaps begins to bring home to us what Jesus is doing. To feel this properly, though, you have to become in your imagination not the Samaritan, but rather the lawyer hearing the story. And to do that, you have to try to feel the shock of Jesus making the example of both law-fulfilment and neighbourliness one for whom the lawyer would feel an instinctive contempt. So perhaps we should ask ourselves the uncomfortable question now: to whom do we have a tendency to feel superior, being honest about our innermost thoughts, feelings and attitudes, most of which we tend to keep hidden? Perhaps it is Muslims, or asylum seekers, but also perhaps black people or white people, women or men, Jews, Arabs, gay people, the uneducated, those who don’t speak quite proper, alcoholics, drug addicts, people from sink estates, the nouveau riche, Radio 2 listeners, Roman Catholics, Evangelicals, Conservative or Labour or Liberal or UKIP supporters, Guardian readers, Sun readers, fat people, or the anorexic, Brummies, Geordies, Irish, Scots, the French, all Europeans, Americans, people on benefit, the unemployed, those with learning disabilities, the old, the unfit, gypsies, criminals, prisoners, townies, country people, fox hunters, animal rights campaigners, single mothers, cigarette smokers, baseball cap wearers, reality show participants, couch potatoes, youths who roam in gangs. The list could go on, but that should cover most of us somewhere! Pick out of that lot all the categories to which you feel superior or hold in contempt and make a composite picture: whoever turns you off! Just for a moment, go with your prejudices. Find the image of a person who can best embody all that you loathe and fear and despise. Once you’ve got it, hold it. That’s your Good Samaritan.
And that’s the sting of this story. Yes, it’s a challenge to have to be neighbourly to anyone in need, to have to love everyone, but the really sharp difficulty – if you are identifying with the lawyer who asks Jesus the question – is that the person you despise, who seems to you to be most inferior, stupid, or morally suspect – is, in this story, represented as being a better neighbour than you are. The sharp difficulty is that your careful consideration of the boundaries of your neighbourliness, your desire – like the lawyer – to extend your neighbourliness only so far, are completely undercut and exposed as rather mean by what are, evidently, the right actions of one you despise. So receiving the story as the lawyer would have, as other Jews would have, too, is awkward, to say the very least. You want to identify with the story’s hero, but you can only get the satisfaction of identification if you are prepared to suspend your ingrained contempt for the category of person to which the hero belongs.
Jesus might have told a different, blander, less challenging story – and indeed we tend to make the story blander and less challenging than it is by our too easy identification with the Samaritan. Jesus might have made his hero a Jew and the victim a Samaritan. That would have been demanding in its way – the lawyer would have been asked to recognise that to be a neighbour means helping those you are inclined to condemn. In fact, Jesus gets that message across anyway when he makes the hero a Samaritan. The Samaritan has to take no notice of the fact that the victim is a Jew, from the race who despised him and whom he would be likely to view with a similar contempt.
The most crucial part of today’s Gospel reading has to be the lawyer’s question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ Jesus’ story makes it very plain there are no barriers, we cannot pick and choose and go only to the aid of those we feel comfortable being alongside. To bring it into today’s real world, our neighbour might be a Muslim with terrorist intent, a drug dealer, an anti-social hoodie, a benefit scrounger, a paedophile, a drunk in the street, or a smelly beggar in a shop doorway. The Good Samaritan may be a great story, but at its heart is the challenge that, in Jesus’ radical philosophy, all these people – and more – are our neighbours, with all that implies.