Preacher Revd Neil Summers
I guess the Good Samaritan is one of the most familiar and memorable stories of the Bible. I think its hold on us is at least partly to do with the story’s literary qualities. Structurally, for example, like many fairy tales, there is a repeated action, a first, second, and then the all-important third: first, the priest passes by the wounded man; second, the Levite does the same; but then, with the third approach, things are different and a resolution is achieved. The characters are compelling as well: two ‘villains’ and one hero – not totally unlike Cinderella and the ugly sisters! As readers, we also appreciate 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 basic cost – a sign of his ongoing care and concern. In learning the moral of the tale, we are happy to identify with the Samaritan and to assent to the ethic his behaviour urges us to imitate, which is to act generously and selflessly towards anyone we come across who is in need. The point about how to be a true neighbour is clearly made by means of an engaging story. Even if we stopped here in our understanding of the story, we would have gained much, though I’m not sure we’d have got quite the hold on it that Jesus might have intended.
To do that, we need to ask why Jesus has a Samaritan as the hero of his story, and not a third Jew, after the priest and the Levite? What’s your immediate thought when you hear that word ‘Samaritan’? Perhaps you think of the organisation that listens to the suicidal, The Samaritans. If so, you probably take it (rightly), that the organisation has been named after the hero of today’s Gospel story, the Good Samaritan who reaches out a helping hand (or a listening ear) to one in need. A Samaritan in our general understanding is someone unequivocally good. 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’s time. For the Jews, Samaritans were considered despicable, so any talk of a ‘Good Samaritan’ would have been a contradiction in terms.
Why were Samaritans so despised? Well, those of Jesus’s 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. That’s the first problem: Samaritans were, racially, not proper Jews. Hence, the concerns of the priest and the Levite with keeping the rigid laws of purity: they had to distance 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 certain scriptures as authoritative. Plus, they had built their own Temple on Mount Gerizim and held that itsrites and priesthood were valid, rather than those of the Temple at Jerusalem. For authentic Jews, only the Jerusalem Temple and its practices were legitimate. So when Jesus makes the hero of his story a Samaritan, it would seem very strange to the lawyer who asks the question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ and to others listening in.
Swapping the Samaritan in your mind for, let’s say, a religious extremist, or an illegal immigrant, or a racist, 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 the fulfilling of the law – and being a good neighbour – one for whom that lawyer would feel an instinctive contempt. So let’s try asking ourselves the uncomfortable question now: to whom might we have a tendency to feel ‘superior’, giving honest voice to our innermost feelings and attitudes, many of which (thank goodness) we tend to keep a lid on most of the time? Perhaps it is extremist Islamists, or illegal immigrants, but it could equally be black people or white people, women or men, Jews, Arabs, gay people, the uneducated, those who don’t speak proper like, alcoholics, drug addicts, sink estate residents, the nouveau riche, Radio 2 listeners, Catholics, Evangelicals, Brexiteers, Remainers, left wingers, far right activists, Sun readers, obese people, Brummies, Geordies, Irish, Scots, the French, all Europeans, Donald Trump, the travellers who set up camp on the Old Deer Park last week, kids carrying knives, prisoners, townies, country people, fox-hunters, animal rights campaigners, carnivores, vegans, cigarette smokers, Boris or Jeremy, reality show participants, Well, you get the idea. The list could go on, but that probably covers most of us somewhere. Now pick out of that lot all the categories to which you – albeit secretly – feel superior or hold in contempt and make a composite picture: whoever turns you off the most. 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 more than challenging to have to be neighbourly to anyone in need, and 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 or morally suspect – is, in this story, represented as being a better neighbour than you are. Your careful consideration of the boundaries of your neighbourliness, your desire – like the lawyer – to extend your neighbourliness only so far, is 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 least. You want to identify with the story’s hero, but you can only get the satisfaction of that 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. Indeed, we tend to make the story blander and less challenging than it is by identifying too easily 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 noticeof 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 this story has to be the lawyer’s question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ Jesus’s 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 context, our neighbour might well be a political or religious extremist, an anti-Semite or Islamaphobe, a drug dealer, an anti-social hoodie, a paedophile, an immigrant, a drunk or a beggar on the street. The Good Samaritan may be a great story, but at its heart is the challenge that all these people – and more – belong to the same human family as us, with all that implies.