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Sermon: The Good Samaritan - What's Really Going On Here?

Date Preached: Sunday 11th July 2010

Bible Reference: Luke Chapter 10

Some of the best-known and best-loved stories are the hardest to understand – because there’s lots going on at different levels. I’ve always loved the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis, that even his fellow Inklings in Oxford, like Tolkein thought were quite simple and ‘twee’. But in 2008 Michael Ward published some research that proposed that each of the seven books actually related to one of the seven moving heavenly bodies or "planets" known in the Middle Ages, according to the Ptolemy’s classic model of cosmology (how about that!). So sometimes there’s more to simple stories than meets the eye – and I love to think C.S. Lewis was having a bit of chuckle at his eminent academic colleagues. Anyway this gospel story of the Good Samaritan has passed into folklore - has even succeeded, confusingly, in changing the meaning of the word ‘Samaritan’ itself in modern usage. It’s the task of the well-known organization which took the name to give help to people in the direst need. But that certainly wasn’t what people would have meant by Samaritan in Jesus’ day.

So if someone asked you how you understood the meaning of this much loved story, I’m sure like most people you’ve heard the basic moral message: ‘if you see someone in a ditch, go and help them.’  Some might remember that the Samaritans and Jews in Jesus’ time actually hated each other like poison – so we expand this into a further moral lesson about the wickedness of racial and moral prejudice and discrimination. But let’s try and have a fresh look this morning, because if we’re to have any chance of getting at what Jesus himself might have been meant – and what was at stake in his conversation with this lawyer, we need to go a little deeper – and I’m indebted to Tom Wright, who was Bishop of Durham until and has now taken up a Professorship at St. Andrew’s University for helping me get my own head around what is an incredible story.

If we look at what was happening at the time, the hatred between the Samaritans and the Jews had been going on for hundreds of years  - and is still tragically reflected in the tension that smoulders between Israel and Palestine today – because both sides claimed to be true inheritors of the promises of Abraham and Moses; both sides regarded themselves as rightful possessors of the land. Few Israelis today will ever travel from Galilee to Jerusalem by the direct route because this would involve going through the West Bank and to risk violence. And in exactly the same way, most first century pilgrims making the same journey would prefer, as Jesus himself did, to travel down the Jordan valley to Jericho and then turn west up the hill to Jerusalem. It was much safer. But it still wasn’t completely safe. The desert road to Jerusalem had many twists and turns, and robbers – brigands – could hide in the hills ready to strike out at any unsuspecting traveller – especially those who travelled alone and were defenceless. So when the man in the story – presumably a Jew - was left half dead, those who happened to pass by wouldn’t have been able to tell whether he was dead or alive. It was important for the two Temple officials mentioned in the story – which is was what the priest and Levite were – NOT to contract impurity by touching a corpse – because under Jewish Law this was (?) forbidden. It was better to remain aloof, preserving one’s own sense of personal purity – but at what cost? (and this is Jesus’ point…) – and he goes on to illustrate that this ‘rectitude’ would be at the cost of really obeying God’s law of love. (My my! how we’ve continued to get this so wrong through the years – and still do today – every time our religiosity becoming more important than sharing the love of God.

You see the lawyer’s question and Jesus’ answer don’t quite match up. (And by the way he wasn’t a solicitor or a barrister – he was a specialist in Jewish religious law). He wants to know who counts as ‘neighbour’. In his thinking, God would have been the God of Israel alone – so ‘neighbours’ would (by definition) have been Jewish. But for Jesus (and Luke, the Gentile physician, really highlights this theme in his gospel), Israel’s God is the God of grace for the whole world – and a neighbour is anybody in need. Jesus’ telling question at the end is asking who was it that turned out to be the neighbour of the half-dead Jew lying in the road? So underneath the apparently straightforward moral lesson about ‘going and doing likewise’) is a much, much sterner challenge – which exactly fits with the emphasis in Luke’s gospel so far. Can you recognize the hated Samaritan as your neighbour?

(Okay so far?) But even THAT doesn’t get right to the heart of it. Jesus himself is on the road to Jerusalem – and isn’t it significant that the story he tells is about people on the same road he’s just about to take. The main point being? – that the way of violent confrontation with Samaritans, Romans and pagans of whatever sort, is no the way of living and showing God’s grace. Jesus’ way – the way of the kingdom – is a way of peace – and only the children of peace will escape the self-inflicted judgement that follows those bent on violence or hatred.

You see what’s at the heart of this confrontation between the lawyer and Jesus is a clash between two completely different understandings of what it means to be Israel – God’s people. You can imagine the lawyer detailing the key requirements for entering the age to come as someone might recite a memorized piece of script – because his was the standard, legalistic answer. And (let’s face it) he was trying to be clever - putting Jesus on the spot –trying to force him to say something  heretical – aiming to win the point – to come out on top  in a very public confrontation – trying to smoke out this upstart of a young Rabbi with his outrageous views on God’s plans for his world. And Jesus doesn’t disappoint him does he? In response to the lawyer’s challenge he tells him about the amazingly wide-ranging grace of God – but (big but!!) he makes it clear that these views are not heretical – quite the opposite - it is Jesus’ view of God’s grace that is the real fulfilment of the very command that the lawyer claims is so vital. So here for all of us is a story that illustrates the dangers of getting tied up with all sorts of baggage based on our own feelings - our likes, dislikes and prejudices. And it never ceases to amaze me how people hang on - like grim death, it seems - to these ideas. It breaks my heart to see people held captive by things that have gone on in the past. While there’s no denying the hurt that might have been caused - there’s also no denying their refusal to budge.

I’ve preached on that bit of the Lord’s Prayer before that calls us to forgive as we’ve been forgiven. What you mean me - forgive others? Are you serious? ‘Handle hurts or injuries people have inflicted on me so that our relationship with them can be restored? That’s a tall order if ever I heard one…’.

But it’s not about whether we feel like doing it. Forgiveness isn’t about our emotions – it’s a decision of our wills to seek the very best for the other person - whatever it may cost to our sense of rightness – which is all about pride, if we’re honest.

And let’s be clear – we know we can’t do this on our own – we don’t stand a chance without the Holy Spirit’s infilling power as well as a dogged cooperation with the changes God wants to make in our lives – and (of course)it’s a process – it’s not going to be instantaneous. But it can start with a decision to bury something and declare it dead – and avoid the temptation to go dig up the corpse again!! You don’t forget that it occurred (‘forgive and forget’ might be an old proverb – but it’s not biblical) but we can decide that something takes no further part in the proceedings – and with that decision comes a wonderful sense of being freed up, and the possibility of moving on.

Why should we forgive? Why does Jesus push this idea home for us as his disciples? Why is he saying to this lawyer that he needs to see the bigger picture of God’s grace? Well because if we don’t, we’re the ones that are going to be scarred. It’s a common sense thing really – people can get eaten up by their failure to forgive – by holding on tenaciously to their grudges. 

But for Christians there are way more reasons for this practice of forgiveness. And in closing here are just a couple to chew on:

(For a start) Jesus commands that we do it – that’s a pretty good reason, I would have thought. And if we’re following his WAY we can’t get round the fact that his whole life illustrated forgiveness  - and most of all the manner of his death – and we know some of his final words – (what were they?) “Father – forgive them – they don’t know what they’re doing”.

Here’s the test: Can we, who have been forgiven through Christ’s death, not show mercy to others?

And second: If we fail to forgive, for a church – the community of God’s people - there are inevitable spiritual repercussions. Besides our own fellowship with God being hindered, our relationships with others are soured. And there’s always this two-way thing to be careful about – our relationship with God – and our relationship with others. On another occasion Jesus was asked to sum up the law? Do you remember what he said? Love the Lord your God… AND…your neighbour as yourself. Simple, yes – easy – no!

So what is this well-known encounter and much used story about? Well if you think about it, what’s at stake – just as much now as it was then – is the question of whether we will use the God-given revelation of love and grace as a way of boosting our own sense of isolated security and purity, or whether we will see this good news – the gospel - as a call and challenge to extend grace and love to the whole world. This is how Tom Wright puts it:

“No church, no Christian can remain content with easy definitions which allow us to watch most of the world lying half-dead in the road. We need to find fresh ways of telling the story of God’s love; fresh ways of living this in our attitudes and behaviour – which will do for our day what this brilliant parable did for Jesus’ first hearers.

So may we be – with God’s help – people characterized by the gentle and strong Kingdom and be joyfully freed up to share good news of God’s love and grace in Jesus our Lord. Amen.

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