I was listening to the breaking news on the way over here, so you may not have heard that Boris was attacked and seriously injured by a group of protestors whilst out walking in Westminster this morning. Dominic Raab, the Deputy Prime Minister, and Nadhim Zahawi, the new Chancellor, were with him but rushed away from the scene. However, Michael Gove, described by number 10 as a ‘snake in the grass’ a few days ago, was doing a TV interview nearby. He might have been expected to walk on by given all that had happened this week. But he saw what was going on and at no small risk to himself intervened and got Mr Johnson to safety. It will be interesting to see how the media deal with it in the next few hours and days since it messes with the usual picture of goodies and baddies.
And you guessed it. I made the story up! Just like Jesus did two thousand years ago. There’s a shock-value to it. A mixing up of the normal heroes and villains – but just about plausible enough to possibly be real. So, apologies to all concerned in the telling of that tale.
I wonder how we would read this parable if we gave it a different title. The parable of the man who got beaten up, or the parable of the people who walked on by. Instead, it’s the parable of the Samaritan, the stranger, who showed compassion and mercy.
In our tale from Luke, the lawyer is a little like a well-briefed journalist who thinks they already have all the answers to the questions that they’re going to ask but will ask them anyway in the hope that the interviewee will slip up.
Sure enough, Jesus turns the first question round and asks one of his own that the lawyer-come-journalist answers perfectly from Deuteronomy and Leviticus: Love the Lord your God with everything that you have and love your neighbour as yourself. It was the answer that Jesus himself gives in Matthew 22 and Mark 12.
Action not just words
But when scripture was read in the synagogue it wasn’t just single verses – it was a whole section. So, the passage from Deuteronomy sat within verses about teaching God’s word to your children, putting it on the doorposts of your house and speaking them at all times, from daybreak to sunset.
And the Leviticus verse sat within others about keeping the Sabbath holy, giving reverence to your parents and mandating care for the poor, the blind and the deaf. That’s to say that loving God and loving neighbour meant action, not just fine words.
The lawyer had asked about eternal life. Jesus reframes it and says do these things and you shall live, which is also taken from Leviticus (18:5). The point was that to enjoy eternal life you need to live now, make the most of your life now, rather than wait for some extension in the future.
Who can I ignore?
And maybe the lawyer then tried to justify himself or maybe it was a genuine question: Who are my neighbours – and so how far does this neighbourly love extend? By implication, who are not my neighbours, who do I not care for, who can I ignore?
Here the lawyer showed his lack of scripture. Because Leviticus 19:34 took it a stage further and said you should not only love your neighbour as yourself but love the resident stranger like yourself too.
So, Jesus answers with this famous parable. Because stories are easy to remember and because we have to wrestle with them to find meaning in our own contexts.
The unexpected hero
Whilst Roman rule had brought some level of peace, an injured person on the side of the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was probably no rarer an occurrence, sadly, than someone injured now by a bullet in Ukraine.
What would have caught the audience on the hop was a Samaritan appearing in the story. In story-telling terms, the first two failures – of the priest and the Levite – set up the third character to succeed. But the audience would have expected an ordinary Israelite to be that hero (Ezra 10:5 and Nehemiah 11:3). And the Samaritan wasn’t just some fringe, oppressed, figure. This was the enemy within. This was a modern-day Hamas Palestinian to an Orthodox Jew, or a Russian collaborator in Donetsk to a Ukrainian, or any two randomly selected present or former members of the Conservative Cabinet…
The Samaritan went to extraordinary lengths. He, a Samaritan, entered a Jewish village looking for an inn carrying a badly wounded Jewish man. Imagine a Russian soldier carrying a wounded Ukrainian into a Ukrainian village, or a Native American Indian riding into Dodge City carrying a wounded Cowboy. The Samaritan was lucky to get out alive.
Following the Torah
But the Samaritans and the Jews didn’t get on. There was hundreds of years of violence between them. But the Samaritan was from a group of people who, like the Jews, also traced their ancestry back to Jacob and who also upheld the Torah. They too had Deuteronomy and Leviticus to fall back on. Our Samaritan followed the call from the Torah to care for others – unlike the priest and the Levite who were bound by the same law but chose to ignore it. So, yes, the shock of the story is that it’s the Samaritan who helps out. But we should also remember that the ones who we expect to help did not, they walked on by.
And I say that because I wonder how frequently we are the ones who walk on by? Do we read the story, hear the sermon, think that was nice but that’s it? In the call to be neighbourly we are asked to care for the downtrodden and disenfranchised. For those who can’t care for themselves. And maybe, like the innkeeper, we are drawn into other people’s stories by the actions of some Samaritan, who actually isn’t us, but we get involved in the caring anyway.
Are we so busy doing ‘church’ work that we don’t stop to help the person in the metaphorical ditch?
All sorts of excuses are given for the two as to why they didn’t help. But no excuses are given by Jesus and no questions about it are raised by the lawyer. Perhaps the best reason was given by Martin Luther King Jr who said that it’s possible that these two men were afraid – and so the first question they both asked was: ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’. Whereas the Samaritan reversed the question and asked: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’
There’s also an invitation here for us to identify with the man in the ditch. If the Samaritan is our neighbour, then we are the ones in the ditch. That man in the ditch reminds us of what it’s like to be forgotten and overlooked. We are called to compassion, to suffer along with, those who know loneliness and being forsaken. And maybe the hardest thing is, in our weakness, to accept care from those that we fear most or those that we despise the most.
So, it’s possible for us to identify with any of the characters in this story. The man in the ditch, the one who cares and the ones who walk on by. Or maybe we’re the lawyer-journalist looking to minimise our responsibilities?
Which are you?
Which are you this morning? Whichever you are, we are all made in God’s image and Christ comes to us in many guises. Are we able to recognise that ‘Christ’ in our neighbours, in our enemies? Can we care for the stranger? And can we imagine that they might do the same for us?
‘Who is my neighbour’ is a great question – ‘how do I be a neighbour’ is a better one. The lawyer asked the first question – but Jesus answered the second.
Perhaps you remember Patrick Hutchinson, the Black Lives Matter demonstrator, who two years ago in London, picked up an injured far-right protestor, put him on his shoulder, and carried him to safety from being trampled in the crowd? He was hailed a Good Samaritan and the story went viral. It was a glimpse of the Kingdom of God breaking in.
We should hold on to moments of hope like that – and pray that we would know what to do for the best if we found ourselves in these situations. Amen.
“Walk on by” was given by Ian Banks at St James Heywood, and earlier on-line, on Sunday 10th July 2022. It was based on Luke 10:25-37. It didn’t quite have the start shown here but it was too personal to put in print.
- Bailey, K.E. (2008). Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes.
- Levine, A-J. (2014). Short stories by Jesus.