“Go and do likewise” says Jesus at the end of the parable we call the Good Samaritan. Here’s a familiar story we might think, and one with a simple meaning and message that everyone can assent to. We should all be ready to help one another. Perhaps I should just sit down at this point and leave it at that. But you know I’m not going to…
The thing is that if this were just an uncomplicated instruction to be nice to one another, it would be a very unusual. Jesus’ parables are often very simple in form, but they aren’t usually just morality tales. Like all really good stories they have many more layers than they seem to have at first glance, and this story is no exception.
“Go and do likewise” says Jesus, to the lawyer who has come to question him. But what, actually, is the “likewise” that he is being told to do?
Jesus is inviting him to identify with this story, to step into it, to shape his life on it in some way, but in what way?
Is he being told that he must pick up every waif and stray he finds by the roadside? That would be fine if you only came across one or two of them, but trying to meet everyone’s needs is a swift route to complete burnout, an impossible task. Those of you who commute to London on a regular basis are probably faced with dozens of homeless and very genuinely needy people every day, huddled in doorways or begging in tube stations.If you stopped to take them all to the nearest hotel you’d never get to work, and you’d soon be penniless yourself. It was the same in Jesus time –worse in fact. With no welfare state, no NHS, destitution and begging would have been an ever present reality.
But if Jesus isn’t saying that, what is he saying? Is this lawyer being told to stop being prejudiced against Samaritans – a group regarded with suspicion by Jews? Or is this parable, as Margaret Thatcher once suggested, a subtle endorsement of capitalism. If the Samaritan hadn’t had any money he’d have been no use to the man by the roadside at all…?[i]
Hmm! Perhaps what looks like a simple story might not be so simple after all, but it’s worth looking at more deeply, because if we do, we’ll find it is much richer than it first appears.
The context, as ever, is the key.
Jesus doesn’t just tell this story to pass the time. It is told in answer to a specific question from a particular man who has his own agenda, a lawyer who is trying to catch him out in some heresy. As it turns out though, his question reveals more about him than it does about Jesus. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he asks.
That word “inherit” is the first clue. The Greek word he uses isn’t limited to the property you might get when someone dies. It’s about anything to which you have a legal entitlement. In modern terms we might think of an insurance payout or a pension, perhaps – something you’ve paid for or earned and have a legal right to claim. If the insurer or pension provider doesn’t pay up, you can sue them, because that money is yours, not theirs. That’s all very well in human terms, but this is eternal life we are talking about; God’s gift. I’m sure this lawyer doesn’t realise it but he is actually asking, “What do I have to do to make God realise that he owes me…?” It is as if he wants to wave some spiritual claim form in God’s face, demanding his rightful payment. It might sound obviously upside down, put like that, but most of us do it sometimes. We think that if we pray enough, give enough, do enough, God will have to do what we want.
The lawyer’s question also implies that he is thinking of eternal life very much as a commodity, something which can be owned and passed from hand to hand, a “thing”, like a trophy to be displayed on the mantelpiece.
Jesus, though, directs him back to the commandments he’s already familiar with – love God, love your neighbour. Now, love is not a “thing”; it’s a process, something you do, something you experience, something which can never be owned, something which is only real and tangible when it is happening. Love is its own reward. It is in the process of loving that we find what we are really looking for.
But still the lawyer isn’t satisfied. He wants Jesus to say something more controversial than this. So he presses the point. “Who is my neighbour?” Surely Jesus will say something now that will get him into trouble. I don’t know what the lawyer expected, but all he gets, as we know, is a story to ponder.
A man goes down from Jerusalem to Jericho, on a notorious road through a barren, rocky wilderness. He is set upon, beaten and stripped, and left half-dead by the side of the road. We aren’t told anything else about this man. We don’t know his name. We don’t know if he’s Jewish or not, whether he’s rich or poor,. We have no idea why he’s making this journey, whether he knew the dangers or just wandered carelessly into trouble. I’m sure Luke’s vagueness about him is deliberate. He’s just an anonymous victim, no one the Priest, the Levite or the Samaritan could be expected to recognise or identify as he lies there. There are no obvious signs of his race, religion, language, or tribe, so no reason for them to feel any obligation of kinship to him.
The Priest and the Levite seem to feel that absolves them of any responsibility towards him. They see him, we are told, but they pass by on the other side of the road and leave him there. Commentators speculate why that might be. They could be reluctant to make themselves ritually impure by touching what might be a dead body, which would mean they couldn’t do their duty in the Temple, or they could be afraid it’s a trap, or they could just be in a hurry, but in the end it doesn’t matter what their reasons are. The result is the same. They do nothing. Though they see this man, actually they don’t see him at all. He never becomes real to them as a person. If he had, then they couldn’t have just ignored him. Imagine they’d suddenly realised that this was their child lying there, or their brother, or their father. They would have stopped then. They would have done everything in their power to help, but he’s just A.N. Other, and somehow that means he doesn’t matter to them.
It ought to be the same for the Samaritan. In fact, he ought to have even less reason to stop. He’s in Jewish territory, so he might well assume the man is Jewish , and there was no love lost between Jews and Samaritans. To add to that Samaritans, were, if anything, even more precise in their observance of the purity laws than Jews were, so if that was the problem, he should be even less willing to pollute himself. But when he sees this anonymous bundle of suffering by the road he is moved with pity; the Greek actually says he was gutted, moved to the depths of his being by the sight of this man. Unlike the priest and the Levite, he starts from the assumption that this person, like any person, is his concern, his business, just as much as it would if he’d been his child, or brother or father, so he can’t just leave him there. Jesus calls him a true neighbour. The Greek word, like the English implies someone who is physically near to you – from the old word “nigh”. A neighbour is someone who shares your space, someone whose life is intimately tied up with your own. What happens to them affects you too. For this Samaritan, every human being matters, and he acts accordingly.
But that still leaves us with the same problem we started with. What does it mean for us to “Go and do likewise”, when the reality is that we can’t help everyone?
And that’s where I think we need to look even deeper into the parable.
Remember that this started with the lawyer’s question about eternal life, that life which God wants for all his children. What does that life look like, and how do we find it? asked the lawyer. This story tells us that we find it wherever love is at work. In these places, God is at work too. They are holy places, these encounters and experiences which transform us and those around us. When the Samaritan turns aside from his journey to care for this wounded man, despite the dangers, despite the cost to him we are witnessing one of those holy moments.
Although God is never mentioned in the story at all, it is a story which is full of his life. We could see the Samaritan as representing Jesus, who comes to a broken and battered humanity, who takes the risk, and pays the cost of loving us, because he sees us with God’s eyes, not as a nameless lump of trouble, a massa damnata, but as - each one - his precious children. But we could also see the victim as Jesus too, naked, bleeding, half-dead, while the people who ought to recognise him as one of their own pass him by. That’s how it will be when he hangs on the cross, despised and rejected just like the outcasts he spent his ministry championing, and perhaps Luke is reminding us of that here.
This story, then, is far, far more than a simple tale of moral instruction – important though it is to be reminded of the need to help others. It is also a story about one outsider rescuing another, a story that reveals how God can be present in those pointless, squalid diversions from the straight path to success we’d rather be on. It’s a story that reveals how God can be present in those the world calls losers, and in our lost and broken places too. The Samaritan and the victim in this story find God, holiness, life which nothing can destroy, eternal life, in one another as they give and receive love, and recognise their shared humanity.
“Go and do likewise” says Jesus to us.
[i] “No-one would remember the Good Samaritan if he'd only had good intentions; he had money as well.”http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Margaret_Thatcher TV Interview for London Weekend Television Weekend World (6 January, 1980)