13th July 2016
The Good Samaritan revealed
Sermon by Rev Dr Max Champion, Pentecost 8, 10th July 2016
Lessons: Psalm 82; Micah 6:6-8; Luke 10: 25-37
The parable of the Good Samaritan has inspired many people to act on behalf of the vulnerable. Good Samaritan organizations have provided much needed financial, medical and personal support to disadvantaged groups. There is even a Good Samaritan donkey sanctuary (good news for donkeys, but not for understanding the Good News).
The Good Samaritan is ‘the patron saint of all who equate Christianity with good deeds and have no time for obscure points of doctrine. He is the lay person's model of virtue and the preacher's great example of true Christianity.' 1 He represents all who don’t care about theology but live by morality thought to be shared by followers of all religions, and none. He encourages us – Christians, fellow-travelers and unbelievers - to show kindness to the ‘down and out.’
This is fine as far as it goes, but it isn’t the point of the parable! Remember. It is told by the One who was rejected, crucified and raised from the dead. When the whole (big) Christian story is forgotten, and (little) memorable stories, like this, take on a life of their own, the original meaning is distorted. When this happens, Jesus is treated simply as a teacher of good works.
Consider the context in which the parable is told. Jesus is replying to a serious, earnest but very selfish theological question by a teacher of the law. ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 'How can I be saved?' (v25)
Jesus asks him what the law says. His reply is theoretically correct. He is to obey the ‘law’ by loving God and one's neighbor. Why, then does he persist? He is anxious to make sure that 'he has all bases covered.’ He want s to 'justify himself' (v29); to make himself just, righteous and good in God's eyes. So he asks for a more precise definition of 'his neighbour.'
This is understandable in view of lively debate on the subject at the time. Fellow-citizens and converts were alright but heretics, informers, renegades and personal enemies, like the Samaritans, were not. But it betrays a terrible misunderstanding of faith. He wants to know the 'limits of his responsibility for others.'
The parable exposes the pious man's selfish religion. It shows him that even the best people, like him and the priest and Levite, who are serious about doing what God requires, may fail to meet human need, as God requires. Their religion is exposed by a despised, heretical, racially-impure man.
The point of the story is not to idealize the goodness of the unreligious, like the Samaritan, in comparison to religious hypocrites, like the priest and Levite. It is designed to shock the self-appointed custodians of God's law. The God of grace hates safety-first religion. ...
It is important to see that the Good Samaritan does what is necessary for the beaten traveler without fuss. Unlike the priest and Levite, he doesn’t worry about being ritually unclean for seven days according to the law2 if he touches a dead man. He cleans and bandages his wounds, puts him on his own beast, takes him to the nearest pub, makes him comfortable and safe, pays the licensee enough for meals, accommodation and care for two days, and promises to pay extra, if necessary, on his return.
There is nothing patronizing or condescending about the Samaritan's attitude. He doesn't treat the man as an 'object of concern' but as a person needing help. He doesn't have a 'charity mentality' like some social justice advocates who are self-conscious about helping the 'victims of society.' 3 He doesn't help because it makes him feel good or to prove his faith. He doesn't become his friend or make himself indispensable. He doesn't 'blow his own trumpet' or wait to be thanked. He simply does what is necessary for this unimportant, unnamed man in a straight-forward, unselfconscious manner.
1 W. Clarnette, The Year of Luke, Vol 2, page 11
2 Numbers 19:14ff
3 E. Schweizer, The Good News According to Luke, page 187
It is ironic that a man considered by the Jews to be an enemy of Israel and ignorant of God's law, fulfils its requirements simply by helping the person in need. Unlike the priest and Levite – experts in the law and committed to doing God's will in all areas of life – the hated Samaritan fulfils the purpose of the law by being ready to help the real neighbor.
The Jewish theologian is so horrified by the story that, when Jesus asks him which of the travellers was neighbor to the beaten man, he can’t even bring himself to say 'the Samaritan.' Instead, he says, 'The one who showed him mercy' (v36&37). To him, there is no such thing as a ‘Good’ Samaritan.
The parable teaches that 'inheriting eternal life' (v25) is not to be understood selfishly. We are not to ask 'what good works must I do to be approved by God' but 'how may I be open to human need.' The question is not 'how can I define my neighbour in order to be sure that I am doing the right thing' but 'how may I be a neighbour by showing mercy to those in need’ (v37). The question isn’t ‘How can I have my religious needs met?’ but ‘To whom am I called to be neighbor?’
It shows the gulf between self-centered religion and the life of faith which responds to God's mercy by showing mercy to others in a straightforward way. It shows the chasm between self-interested religion, which calculates our goodness, and faith which overflows in unselfconscious love for the neighbor in need. ...
We would see this clearly, and stop identifying our good deeds with the 'practical sympathy of the Good Samaritan'4 if, like the early Christians, we associated him not in the first instance with ourselves, and what we should do, but with Christ, and who he is for all of us.
Icons of the parable often show Christ as the Good Samaritan and Adam representing humanity, as the beneficiary of his mercy. They enable us to see ourselves as 'wounded travellers' and Jesus as the Samaritan who, having been rejected by those who want to ‘justify themselves’, nevertheless heals our broken lives.
This interpretation commends itself when the parable is considered, not as an isolated story plucked out of context, but in relation to Jesus’ whole ministry. The unselfconscious compassion of the Good Samaritan is a response to the Good News about 'eternal life.' God himself has come among us in the person of Jesus Christ, whose life, death and resurrection embodied the mercy of God who heals our wounds and opens us to the neighbor in need ' (v33-35).
If we see this, we shall be truly 'saved.' We will be ‘saved’ from thinking that, out of our natural goodness, we can be Good Samaritans. The Good News is that, because, in Christ, God has first been merciful to us, we do not have justify ourselves by our deeds.
It is only in response to such overwhelming compassion that we are freed to see to the needs of others and act in an unselfconscious, matter-of-fact way. Then, and only then, and without any sidelong glances at our own imagined goodness or piety, we will be enabled to 'Go and do likewise' (v37).
The encounter between Jesus and the Jewish theologian ends without us learning whether he comes to know the meaning of 'eternal life.' This is deliberate. We who hear the parable can't avoid the word spoken to us by judging his final decision. We are being addressed. We are being challenged to shun self-centred faith concerned to justify our good deeds. And we are being invited to rejoice in the knowledge that God's gracious will, embodied in Christ's life, death and resurrection, heals our broken humanity.
Therefore, we will have truly understood this splendid, but all-to-familiar parable, when we think of ourselves as belonging, not to the Church of Good Samaritans, but to the Church of the Good Samaritan.5
4 JB Phillip's translation
5 W. Clarnette, Ibid, page 14
Rev Dr Max Champion is the convenor of the ACC Theology and Ecumenical Relationships Commission