A parable to shake us out of prejudice and complacency
Liz Stuart, 10 July 2022
Deuteronomy 30: 9–14; Colossians 1: 1–14; Luke 10: 25–37
I have been lucky enough to go to the Holy Land twice. The first time was on a proper pilgrimage. I was a doctoral student at the time and my know-it-all attitude to the Bible grated with some of the other pilgrims. They came close to lynching me, in fact, when, as part of the pilgrimage, we were taken to the Inn of the Good Samaritan, situated, of course, on the road between Jericho and Jerusalem. I, inevitably, had to pipe up and say that this was ridiculous because the story of the Good Samaritan was a parable Jesus told, and not a historic event. I could see a nun reaching menacingly for her handbag.
Then the bus broke down and I understood why Jesus had situated this parable on that road. It is a steep mountain road dropping I think around 3,000 feet in less than 20 miles. Even in 1984 it did not feel safe. It felt less safe when I returned in 1999 with 30 students – never again! – because by then Jericho was under Palestinian control. When I visited the Israeli government had just turned off all the electricity in Jericho. You could feel the tension. In Jesus’ day this road was notorious for hiding brigands who would attack travellers. It was not then and is still not the sort of place that you go alone.
It would have come as no surprise then to those listening to Jesus’ parable that a lone traveller was beaten half to death on that road. Nor would it have been a surprise that the clergy walked past on the other side. Jesus is playing with the fact that religious people tend to be rather anti-clerical. Sometimes you hear people say that the priest and the Levite would not want to risk being made liturgically unclean by touching a corpse (they didn’t know whether the man was alive or not). But in fact Levites (who served in the Temple as functionaries) were not forbidden to touch a corpse and in Jewish tradition even a High Priest was allowed to touch a neglected corpse. In any case they were travelling away from the Jerusalem. Jesus’ listeners would probably have expected the next character to appear to be a lay Israelite, an ordinary person who does the decent thing.
As I have said before, I think one way to think about parables is that they are very like jokes. Their power lies in the ending, an ending the hearers could not have anticipated. Once you know the punchline, as it were, they lose their power. This is why quite quickly followers of Jesus tried to find new meaning in his parables by reading them as allegories.
One way to think about parables is that they are very like jokes. Their power lies in an ending the hearers could not have anticipated.
St Augustine did a real piece of work on the parable of the Good Samaritan. He said that the man who was travelling was Adam, Jerusalem was the heavenly city. The thieves were the devil and his crew. The priest and the Levite represented the Old Testament. The Samaritan was Jesus, the donkey was Jesus’ human flesh. The inn was the Church, the innkeeper was St Paul, and so on. I love St Augustine in many ways, but I think here he just misses the point.
To understand the parable, you have to understand how much Jews and Samaritans hated each other. They hated each other with the passion that only religious people can show. Think of the hatred that has existed between Catholics and Protestants down the years. It’s a peculiar hatred that people who are very alike feel for each other.
The Samarians still exist today though they are decimated in number. I think there are only about 1,000 Samaritans left. If you ever want to get a sense of what worship sounded like in Jesus’ day, find a documentary about contemporary Samaritans. They still have a high priest, they practise ritual sacrifice, and interestingly, their women often have very distinctive red hair which was quite unusual for that part of the world (which I always think might explain why people were able to know that the woman at the well was a Samaritan). They believe that the religion they practise is the authentic religion of ancient Israel preserved by those who were not deported during the Babylonian exile.
Believe me that no one, no one listening to Jesus’ parable for the first time would have expected a Samaritan to be the hero of the story. Everyone would have assumed that Jesus shared the cultural despising of the Samaritan people. And Jesus not only makes the Samarian the hero of his story but makes him a model of God’s excessive grace. The Samaritan doesn’t just do the minimum; he leaves an open cheque book. There are no limits to his generosity.
We need to remember the questions that the lawyer asked Jesus that led Jesus to tell this parable. First, ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ and then, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ Jesus has confirmed that loving God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind and your neighbour as yourself is the answer to the first question and now tells the lawyer that the person he despises is his neighbour. Notice that the lawyer cannot even say the word ‘Samaritan’ – he calls him ‘the one who was merciful to him’. Suddenly, it must have seemed that eternal life was not so straightforward to lay hold of.
We must not let ourselves be clouded by our own magnanimity here and think, ‘I despise no one’. ‘I have no enemies’, because, speaking for myself, I know that I pass by on the other side every day. Sometimes literally as I walk through the streets of Winchester, but I also change the channel when adverts focusing on human or animal suffering come on. There is a limit to how much I can bear to think about the pain my consumer choices inflict on brothers and sisters in other parts of the world, the earth herself and on animals. I pass by on the other side all the time and if eternal life depends on me not doing so, frankly, I’ve had it.
But Jesus subtly suggests in this parable, through the character of the Samaritan, that actually eternal life is not something that can be claimed, only given through the outrageous generosity of God. Being conscious of that generosity which has saved us should in turn enlarge our hearts to love our neighbours as the Samaritan did, because we will see God in them.
I saw something this week that stopped me in my tracks, and it was this: ‘Being a Christian is not about how much you love Jesus, it is about how much you love Judas’. Amen.