The parable we read this morning is a familiar one for many people, so much so that “being a good Samaritan” is an expression we use today. When hearing this parable it is always very easy to cast ourselves in the shoes of the Samaritan traveller, and to think “I would have done the same thing”. Consequently we may look on the priest and the Levite who precede him along the road as heartless individuals, who by moving to the other side of the road, seem to be trying to avoid the voice of their own conscience telling them to help the poor man on the side of the road. In short, we could risk typecasting “the bad” characters of the story and then leave it at that promising ourselves we would never ever be as bad as them. But, as the old saying goes, ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ and by looking at the parable of the Good Samaritan in this way we could end up dismissing it as a Sunday School story that does not have much to say for our times.
Yet, this parable has inspired countless people, even outside Christianity, to reassess the way they relate to others and the way they follow the second of the two great commandments, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ This is because in the parable, besides all the details taken from first century life in Palestine, Jesus instructions touch on two basic realities about being human – being in desperate need, and being confronted by someone in desperate need.
Yes, Our Lord is obviously teaching us that a person in need of help is, in that moment, the neighbour to whom we must show compassion and mercy. But regardless of how straightforward this teaching may sound, it is a rather more difficult to put into practice, not simply because of the sheer number of people in need, but because a crucial part of Jesus’ teaching often goes unnoticed. According to the gospel, it doesn’t matter whether or not the neighbour is known to us already and actually lives near to us; it doesn’t matter whether or not he is seemingly deserving of help according to our individual standards, and it doesn’t matter whether or not we think that our help may be wasted on him. The commandment says “Love your neighbour” and the neighbour is anyone we encounter.
Jesus reinforces this point by cleverly crafting the parable to build up a moral punchline. He employs a common literary device used in storytelling to capture the audience attention by introducing three different characters posed with the same ethical question. Nowadays this could sound along the lines of, “A priest, a curate, and a churchwarden walk into a bar…” but in case of our gospel reading it would have been “A priest, a Levite, and an Israelite walk into a bar…” except that Jesus does not say Israelite, he says ‘a Samaritan’. His substitution of the Israelite with the figure of a Samaritan is very powerful. To his first listeners, if the priest and the Levite did not help the poor man, then the Samaritan would have probably done him even more harm – because, if you remember from last week, Samaritans were seen as outcasts.
Jesus surprises his listeners by attributing the role of the proverbial “Good Samaritan” to, well, the Samaritan traveller and in this Jesus shows that especially when we are confronted by people in need any discrimination between ourselves and the others must give way to mercy. Jesus shatters the well-known saying “Charity begins at home”. Instead, Jesus explains that if the commandment says “Love your neighbour” then the neighbour is anyone we encounter (truly!) regardless of where or who they are.
‘A Samaritan traveller who came upon him was moved with compassion when he saw him. He went up and bandaged his wounds… and looked after him’
Looking at the parable in its proper light, I wonder how arbitrary many of our discriminations may sound, and how sinful many of our reasons for not helping others may look. Looking at this gospel passage I wonder what we are going to do to follow Jesus’ teaching more closely.