Luke 10:25-37 - If Jesus is the Good Samaritan.
This has to be one of the most familiar stories the Bible has to offer us. Jesus tells us about 3 potential helpers who find a man, robbed and beaten, on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho.
Just as we have jokes which begin ‘There was a Scotsman, an Irishman and an Englishman…’ so in the time of Jesus there were jokes which began ‘There was a Levite, a priest and an ordinary Israelite…’ – and the hero of the joke was always the ordinary Israelite. When Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan he takes this familiar pattern and changes it, to make his listeners sit up and think. So the hero, the third person to come along, is not an Israelite, the one like his listeners, and liked by his listeners, but the hero of Jesus’ story was the Samaritan, a person who would have been ignored and even hated.
We are used to hearing this story, we know it tells us that everyone is our neighbour, that we must ‘go and do likewise’ – and reach out to everyone in need, even if they are not like us. In fact, we’ve learnt that lesson so well that when I once tried to ask a group of young people in Sunday school ‘who is like the Samaritan to us? – who do we hate or feel suspicious of?’ they all said “No-one, Jesus says to love your neighbour whoever they are!”.
But as I've just come back from a thought-provoking General Assembly of the United Reformed Church, I wonder how far our love for our neighbour has got us, as a denomination or as a local church.
At General Assembly last weekend we acknowledged the closure of more than 30 churches, and welcomed just 3. We heard stories of exciting things happening in some places: but I also spoke to plenty of people living with fear, decline & near despair.
What does Jesus say in the story of the Good Samaritan to help us in our struggle to understand how to be the church in the twenty-first century? I think it has to be something more than a message to be nicer to our neighbours, even if Jesus wants to stretch our understanding of who our neighbours are to include those whom we do not like. If the church of Jesus Christ is to survive it needs something more than a message to be nicer to people.
Perhaps it’s time for a new reading of the story.
There is a re-reading of this story from the Orthodox tradition, which might help us to look at this afresh. In some Orthodox icons of the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan, helping the beaten man, is shown with a halo. Maybe that's not so surprising, as he is described as 'Good' - but in icons halos are not for good people, but for God's people - the Saints. If you look at the icon, you’ll see that the halo also contains a cross - this halo identifies Jesus. And in case you miss it, it is given the title “Jesus Christ - Good Samaritan.”
Our reading of the story changes dramatically as we remember that Jesus is the Good Samaritan. Because if Jesus is the Good Samaritan, then who are we. If we are not the ones doing the good deed in the story – then perhaps we can be the ones who are rescued by Jesus.
This doesn't let us off the hook about 'going and doing likewise', but it stops us getting totally consumed by the trap that the whole purpose of following Jesus is to be driven by the thought that 'I ought to be a better person'.
If Jesus is the Good Samaritan, it means that whatever assails us on the road of life, Jesus is there to rescue us. We might feel that the world today is beating up the church – and if the fact that we are not as many as we were is leaving us feeling battered and broken, there is good news in this story. Jesus is the one who will rescue us – he is the Good Samaritan – he will change and shape and revive his church - not all our schemes and plans and frameworks.
If Jesus is the Good Samaritan, we need to remember that we are the body of Christ. So, Yes, Jesus does tell us to go and do likewise – to love our neighbour, but not just to be individuals who are called to make a difference. We are the body of Christ together - we are called corporately, as the church, to do good in our world, ad to ask how, together we are going to serve the world in the name of Christ. Then instead of hearing the story and asking 'how can we be better people?', the question then becomes 'how can we be more aware of the presence and leading of Christ?'.
If Jesus is the Good Samaritan, then just maybe the role of General Assembly, and the role of each local church is to be the donkey - the vehicle used by Jesus to carry us home: the means by which all may brought to safety and made whole.
May it be so. In the name of Jesus. Amen.