The story of the Good Samaritan is one of the most well known parables and yet it still has the power to make us feel uncomfortable and to wish we did not understand that we too are commanded to go and do likewise. (RCL Luke 10:25-37)
This parable begins a bit like a joke: “A Lawyer, a Rabbi, a Priest and a Politician walk into a bar ...” or in our case “A lawyer, a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan walk along a lonely road and come across an injured traveller ...” Such jokes are usually on the wealthy and successful and the outsider (or cultural insider) wins in a curious way. Such parables usually have a twist in the tale which conveys a difficult but important teaching in a counter intuitive way. In this gospel reading we are set up for the twist twice over. Firstly because it is a lawyer asking Jesus a question which is more about tricking him than humbly seeking the wisdom of Jesus. And secondly the shape of the parable alerts us to a challenge. Clearly the twist is that it is the unlikely one who brings rescue.
But what else may be happening in this curious tale? Like all good teaching stories I think there are several things for us to learn. Firstly the question being posed is “Who is my neighbour?” To which the answer is not only the Samaritan but the one lying on the road in need. The twist is that it is the outsider who gets the lesson not the religious ones. Indeed it may have been their religiousness that precluded them from helping (if they thought him dead or near to death they would not be able to touch him without risking ritual defilement). And because neighbours infer more than one person then more than one of the characters in the tale is a neighbour.
And who is the Jesus or God character in this parable? Now it is possible that none of the characters are but parables were often ways that Jesus taught about the nature of God. Jesus could certainly be understood to be the Samaritan who stoops down and assists the one in need of a physician and pays for the injured ones accommodation and care. Given that Jesus is understood to have saved us and paid for us this character is Jesus like. Jesus might also be the broken one lying on the road in need of care. Given that according to Luke Jesus is now on his way to Jerusalem and will soon enough be the broken one and completely vulnerable to others. And if we think of Jesus’ words towards the end of Matthew’s gospel then whenever we care for another who is in need we are caring for Jesus this would make sense. It need not be either/or but both characters may well have Jesus like characteristics and we may well be called to go and do like both the neighbours to serve and save, and to acknowledge our brokenness and allow others to save us.
What is uncomfortably clear is that our neighbours include those who are in need and our rules about who is “touchable” or acceptable/deserving does not exempt us from caring and responding. The great commandment not only draws us closer to God but closer to the nitty gritty of our world. No wonder this parable makes us uncomfortable for it challenges our sense of control and ambition and self determination.
For many of us, myself included much of the time, my religion is my lovely spiritual journey that is about my self-development and the seeking of peace and purpose. I want to learn how to pray better, meditate more deeply, study the sacred scriptures more devoutly and to allow the love of God to seep deeper and deeper into my marrow. After decades as a social worker and then another two decades as parish priest I am tired, if I am very honest, of my neighbour being the needy and noisy – those who do not make appointments and ask interesting spiritual questions but who are in need in the most worldly and intractable of ways.
But this question of the lawyer’s, as to “Who is my neighbour?”, and the commandment of Jesus to “Go and do likewise” takes me to a place of disturbance and paradox. On the one hand my very legitimate, even worthy, desire to grow in wisdom and holiness seems to require me to be separate from the world. On the other hand this commandment is a call to care so deeply for every part of God’s world that no one and no thing is not my neighbour! And that I think is the teaching: That God created one wondrous interconnected world and that all God’s creatures are precious; that drawing closer to God is not about distancing ourselves from the world (that God created) but entering more fully into life in this place; and that doing the work of love is about responding to what is in front of us, of who is in front of us, much more than it is about deciding who is worthy and what is the least that is required of us; that the love of God is needed and available most fully in the unlikely place of need rather than the careful cathedrals we construct.
Sometimes we will be the Samaritan and sometimes we will be the broken one near to death. Both are locations of grace. Sometimes we will be called into silence and solitude in spacious intimacy with the divine. Sometimes we will be called into action and encountering the divine in the face of our rescuer or the one who is near to death on the side of our road. Both experiences will bring us deeper into union. We who long for the mercy and tenderness of God will find ourselves opening to those who also long for mercy and tenderness. And this longing shall be our undoing and our remaking in the likeness of the Christ.
Even so, come Lord Jesus the Christ, come to us in the broken and the merciful.