We often read the parable of the Good Samaritan in isolation, as if it were a self-contained story. But it isn’t. It belongs in a specific context in St Luke’s Gospel. We know this from the way it begins: ‘Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.’
Just when exactly does the lawyer stand up, though? Just after Jesus has said, ‘I thank you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.’ In private to his disciples he has also said, ‘Many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.’
Just then up pops the lawyer. Granted that he would not have been party to the private aside to Jesus’ disciples about important people desiring to see and yet not seeing what is now being revealed to little children, it would still be pretty brazen for anyone to try to test Jesus about his understanding of the Law of Moses. The gist of Jesus reply fits in exactly with what has gone before. Intellectual argument about the meaning of words only takes us so far. We don’t discover who our neighbour is by poring over ancient texts, even when they’re taken from Holy Scripture. Faith is tested not by saying we believe in this or that proposition; it is tested in action. We discover who our neighbour is when we meet him or her on the road.
It’s not our wisdom and intelligence which will count when we stumble upon a wounded person lying in the road. It’s our gut response to someone else’s suffering, our compassion, our human kindness.
When my father fell over in the road during an attack of dizziness, banged his head on the ground and was knocked unconscious, he was fortunate that some of the passer-by recognised him as their neighbour and stopped to help him. The first person on the scene was a man with his little daughter, the proverbial infant of the story. She became hysterical at the sight of all the blood, so when two other neighbours happened along, a man on his way home from work and a paramedic, they were glad to leave them taking care of my father until the ambulance arrived. Who is my neighbour? The person who needs my help!
In the story, nothing would have distinguished the Samaritan’s understanding of the Law of Moses from the way the minister and the church steward, the priest and the levite, understood it. The difference is how they actually respond when they stumble upon someone lying injured deep in bandit country. Do they hurry on by, pretending not to have seen the person in trouble? Do they deny that they are really neighbours to the man who fell into the hands of robbers, or do they find that they cannot pass by on the other side? The crucial test is not what they understand the Bible to mean on this or that point; it’s whether they are filled with pity for him, whether they find themselves thinking, ‘That could have been me!’
One commentator points out that the lawyer’s question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ invites us to answer it from the perspective of the victim of the robbery. When we’re down and out we’re entitled to accept a helping hand from anyone, from capitalists or communists, Muslims or Christians, Remainers or Brexiteers, young people or the elderly, law-abiding people or shady people who sit light to the law, anyone in fact who is prepared to show mercy to us.
Like the time I was going home from a District meeting in a snowstorm. I was driving up hill when I came to a queue of cars struggling to get past a broken down bus. As you probably know, if you can keep your wheels turning on your way up a snowy hill, the chances are that you will get safely to the top, but if you have to stop then starting again is going to be very difficult. Well, I had to stop! And the only way any of the cars in that queue got moving again that night was because of some modern day good Samaritans. A group of young men on their way home from a good night out stopped and pushed each car, one after another, until we got going again. Anyone who takes pity on us is our neighbour.
And because it was the lawyer, who asked, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ we can also ask, ‘Who was it who showed mercy to him?’ The answer, according to the same commentator, is that Jesus is the lawyer’s neighbour, the person who recognises his vulnerability and tries to help him.
But, of course, in the end it is Jesus’ final advice to the lawyer which shapes who we see as the central character of the story. He tells him to go and do likewise.’ So who is he being called to imitate? Not the victim but the protagonist, the Good Samaritan with his oil, and wine, and bandages, his animal to carry the man to the inn and his readiness to foot the bill for the traveller’s convalescence.
A character in Tennessee Williams’ play, ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, says, ‘I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.’ If we’re honest, that’s true for even the most independent minded person among us. We all depend on the kindness of strangers at many points in our lives, especially at some of the most critical moments.
It’s doubtful whether the strangers in the play really are dependably kind. The priest and the levite weren’t as kind as one might have expected, either. Thankfully the man who fell into the hands of robbers, and therefore experienced the cruelty of strangers, also experienced the
Isn’t Jesus telling us that ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ means that being kind to strangers, and being able to depend on the kindness of strangers in our turn, is one of the key things that makes life bearable? That is why it is an absolute requirement, a commandment, for those who would love God.