Saint Andrew's Presbyterian Church


The Good Samaritan

"A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead." "On no!" I hear you say. "Please not again. Not another sermon on the Good Samaritan." You have a good reason to protest. We have heard the story so often and have had its meaning carefully explained again and again and so we see it as kindergarten stuff. Indeed the first time we heard this story, it was told us by a lady in a primary school or a lady in a Sunday School. It was wonderful then, truly wonderful. In the freshness of childhood we recognised that here was a great story told by a great storyteller. But now at the umteenth telling it has gone rather stale. Do we have to go through the infant class again? Must we encounter yet again the Samaritan whose lessons we swallowed long ago? Surely by this time we ought to be taking a course in Advanced level Christianity?

The term "Good Samaritan" has entered the language of our culture. It is given to anyone who lends a helping hand from the engineer who mends your washing machine to the lady next door who minds the children while you pop round to the shops. We know the story very well. We understand that the man who went from Jerusalem to Jericho on his own was a fool. That is bandit country. Only an idiot would travel that road without companions. We understand the priest and the levite too, those guys who "passed by on the other side". Passing by on the other side has also entered our language to refer to everything from nations who ignore human rights abuses in neighbouring countries to people next door who don't tell you when you have washing on the clothes line and a shower starts. We know that those two fellows, the priest and the levite, were on their way to fulfil their duties in the temple, for them a rare privilege. If they had touched a dead body (and for all they knew the robbers' victim could have been dead) then they would be ritually unclean and unable to function in the temple. It was religion that made them refuse to get involved in any rescue operation. We know all that. We have heard it so often.

We also know that in the eyes of Jesus' contemporaries Samaritans were a half-breed race, who had intermarried with foreigners and had betrayed the true spirit of Israel. They were outcasts and not the sort of people you accept favours from. We learned that long ago.

We also know the context in which Jesus told the story. A certain lawyer was testing Jesus, checking that he was orthodox in his theology. The lawyer asks what he should do to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks the lawyer what the law says and the lawyer replies that you should love God with heart, soul, strength and mind and your neighbour as yourself. Jesus tells him he has hit the nail on the head. But then the lawyer, being a slippery character, starts looking for loopholes. "And who is my neighbour?" he asks. In reply he gets the story of the Good Samaritan. At the end of the story Jesus hammers home his message to his shifty heckler: "Go and do thou likewise."

So there it is, a fine story, perhaps the greatest story of all time told by the greatest story-teller of all time. But we know it; we know it backwards. No offence, preacher, but there is nothing new here. Why don't you end now and let us all go home early?

All right, you can go home, but not before you have answered one question about the story. Who is the Good Samaritan? Who is he? Ponder the question, please.

Who is the Good Samaritan? Who is he? It is obvious who he is, isn't it? For goodness sake, it is not rocket science. It's a simple story. It starts with a certain man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. A certain man means any man. In modern translations of the Bible it is just "a man" any man or every man. He's Joe Bloggs, Joe Soap, Joe Public. And the Samaritan is the same, a certain Samaritan, any Samaritan, or at least any Samaritan with a kind heart. These are what the literary critics call stock characters, a certain man and a certain Samaritan. But when you think about it, shouldn't we thank God for the kind-hearted? Yes we should. Our churches are full of compassionate people, people who will gladly go the extra mile, help lame dogs over stiles and guide frail pensioners over pedestrian crossings. Given the wickedness in the world, it is amazing that there are so many kind people. Kindness is a gift really. Kindness is a gift for which we should be thankful.

Who is the Good Samaritan? Who is he? Why persist with the question? Well, it's not us that's for sure. It's not us. "Go and do thou likewise" is a heavy burden. We find it too heavy. You see there are so many people needing our help, making demands on our time and our money. We are now suffering from charity fatigue. "Go and do thou likewise" weighs us down with duties and obligations that are increasingly hard to bear. Where does the giving stop? Homeless people come to the door asking for money and we can smell the drink off them. When you come to church, hoping for peace and quiet, there are appeals for everything: droughts in the Sudan, war in Gaza, earthquakes in Pakistan. And let's be honest. We hate to pay higher taxes. Even though we expect our government to help the poor at home and to provide aid in the developing world, we resent any politician who expects to squeeze any more out of us. Who is the Good Samaritan? Don't look at me!

So work it out! Who is the Good Samaritan? We still have not reached the heart of the story. Who is he? Let's examine the evidence in Luke chapter ten. Let's study the story and pay attention this time. The Samaritan has compassion on the victim of the mugging. Healing is his main concern. He takes the victim to an inn where there are people because he knows that healing involves community living, some kind of family. He looks to the future too and gives the innkeeper those two coins because he is not just concerned with what is, but also with what is to come. He leaves the person he helps, but makes a promise. He says, "I will be back." His promise implies that all will be well. Think about it. He deals in compassion, healing, community living, and the promise of a future when all will be well. Who does this remind you of? Could it be you know who?

Now such a suggestion is nothing new and was certainly not dreamed up by this preacher. No, this idea about the identity of the Samaritan has been proclaimed almost as soon as the story was first told. Back in the fifth century AD Saint Augustine, that learned bishop whose writings form the basis of all Christian thought, had some fun with this story. He read it as an allegory in which everything represents something else. According to Augustine the man's clothes taken away from him stand for eternal life and the priest represents the Old Testament law and the levite represents the Old Testament prophets, both inadequate by Augustine's reckoning. The Samaritan pours oil and wine on the man's wounds. Oil is the peace that passes understanding and wine is Holy Communion. The inn is of course the church and the innkeeper is St. Paul. And who is the Samaritan? Augustine is in no doubt. It is Jesus Christ. Even earlier than Augustine that great preacher John Chrysostom first made this claim. Nicknamed "Golden-mouthed" because of his wonderful mastery of words, Chrysostom in a famous sermon spelled out God's remedy for sin. "Only Christ," said Chrysostom, "Only Christ, the Good Samaritan can tend the wounds of mankind." More than a thousand years later burly Martin Luther took up this exciting idea. In an often quoted sermon Luther proclaimed: "The Samaritan of course is our Lord Jesus Christ himself who has shown love towards God and towards mankind." Who is the Samaritan? Yes, it's you know who.

Now this is good news indeed. This is glad tidings of great joy. "Go and do thou likewise" on its own is law and not gospel. It is a demand to be always working, always giving, always pouring out what we have for others. Armed only with this command we are soon exhausted. "Go and do thou likewise" makes this story burdensome. But if Jesus is the Samaritan, who are we? We are the man bleeding in the ditch. We foolishly thought that we could walk the Jericho road alone and get away with it. With arrogant self-sufficiency we ignored the warnings and we ended up robbed, stripped and half dead. But then it is that we are embraced by you know who. We receive his compassion; we rejoice in his power to heal; we join him in the inn, the church where our friends gather round us; we hope for the future which is his glorious gift. This is gospel truth; this is good news indeed.

So we respond with appreciation. We give thanks and live out our gratitude. Wounded and healed we become ourselves wounded healers. "What have you that you did not receive?" Paul asks the arrogant Corinthians. They are meant to reply with one voice: "Nothing; nothing at all." But knowing that all we have is a gift enables us to share the little we have. Knowing what it is like to lie in a ditch without clothes and without consciousness and without hope, we willingly reach out to hold the hand of other victims. Knowing that we are not THE Good Samaritan sets us free to become A Good Samaritan. Father Peter McVerry works with the homeless in Dublin's inner city. One day he was walking along Sean MacDermott Street when he noticed a man lying sprawled on the pavement. It was like a scene from the Bible. People were anxiously avoiding him. They were actually passing by on the other side. Father Peter is no stranger to the homeless, so he knelt down and turned the man over, smelling the fumes of cheap wine. "Are you all right?" he asked. The man opened his eyes and saw Peter's collar. "Yes, Father," he said, "I'm all right. But thanks for asking." Freely we have received and we are enabled to give freely. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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