St Michael’s and St Barnabas 5th June 2011
Setting the Scene
A journey from Jerusalem towards Jericho is a journey out towards the desert. As you leave the city walls behind and begin to descend towards the Jordan valley, the countryside becomes browner and more parched. The only trees you see are rows and rows of date palms. Camels pass by, as the favoured beast of burden. From time to time you see a nomad with a herd of sheep and goats, although what the animals eat amid all the dirt and dust is really quite unclear.
Of course nowadays you can make the journey in the comfort of an air-conditioned coach. But in Jesus’ day – unless you were very wealthy – you had to make the journey on foot. Ideally you’d want to make your journey in the cool of the day. But you have to be careful you don’t end up out on the road when it is dark. The sun sets quickly in those parts, after all.
And if at all possible, you’d want to avoid travelling on your own. Oh yes, the Romans try and keep law and order. But there are hungry, desperate people out there who would steal anything given half a chance – even the clothes off your back.
So here is a man on his own setting out on this journey. For some reason he doesn’t have any companions. The day’s getting hotter now. He’s concentrating on keeping going, making sure he reaches the shade and cool of Jericho before it gets too late. He doesn’t see the band of thugs coming up behind him. It’s all over in a flash really. A few blows, and down he goes, half-naked, bleeding, almost unconscious.
But the Jericho road is a busy highway, so it’s not too long before someone comes along. It’s a priest making the same journey. The man is vaguely aware of his footsteps approaching. He’s too weak to cry for help, but surely this stranger will stop. But no. The priest takes a quick look. What if the robbers are still around? What if this man really is dead? That would make him unclean according to the law of Moses. He really can’t afford to touch him, not with his urgent religious business to do down in Jericho. And so he hurries over to the other side of the road.
The man groans. He’s feeling weaker now. But there’s someone else here. Won’t he help? He looks like a Levite, and he too is an important religious person. But just like the priest, he stops, he looks and then quickly steps round the possible corpse.
Will anyone help, the man wonders? The sun is burning hotter now. There are flies starting to buzz around. He thinks about the people he’s left behind, the business he’s left unfinished. There isn’t much else to do but think when you’re in the middle of a road, unable to move.
But finally someone else comes. Wait a minute, it’s a Samaritan. What’s he doing out here? Jewish people do anything to avoid going through Samaria, and Samaritans are taking quite a risk if they venture out into Judea. They’re the local opposition, with their own version of the law, with their own special place of worship, their own traditions and their own customs. Some of them have even been rumoured to enter the temple in Jerusalem during Passover and defile it.
So he’s not going to worry about a half-dead Jew lying in the middle of the road, is he? But what’s this? He’s stopping. He’s not lecturing the man about his religion, or teasing him about his plight. He’s taking some oil and wine out of his bag, and washing out the wounds. It stings a bit, but it’s going to stop the flies getting in. He doesn’t seem worried there might still be robbers around. Instead with a grunt and a groan he picks the man up, and places him ever so gently on his donkey.
Where are we going, wonders the man, as he becomes aware of the jolting of the beast beneath him? It’s a hot, uncomfortable journey. But fortunately it’s not too long. Soon there is an inn in sight. The Samaritan leads the donkey to the door, and helps the man get off. He tells him not to worry, he’s going to look after him during the night, and he’s going to make sure the man’s looked after when he’s gone. And when the innkeeper asks about the bill, he takes two coins out of his purse, and tells him not to worry about the cost.
Strange, thinks the man as he is brought to a comfortable bed. I didn’t know Samaritans could care like that.
One of the problems in preaching on such a familiar story like the Good Samaritan is that we can think we know already what it means. Part of the reason I introduced today’s passage as I did was to try and help us understand what it’s really about. You see, the story of the Good Samaritan is not just about helping other people who are in need. Nor is it just about reaching out to people who are different from ourselves. It is – and this is sometimes forgotten – first and foremost a story about love. Not a love story – that’s something completely different – but a story which shows what it means to love your neighbour as yourself.
How, then, did the Samaritan care for this man who had been left for dead?
First of all, he actually reached out and helped him. It didn’t matter that Samaritans and Jews were traditionally enemies – rather like Catholics and Protestants today. Nor was he concerned that the man might be dead and somehow make him unclean. No, he saw a need. He stopped and he acted.
Secondly, he helped in a very direct and very practical manner. He didn’t just issue words of comfort to the man and tell him everything was going to be all right. Nor, I might add, did he tell him to repent of his sins and get ready for the day of judgement. No, he used what resources he happened to have – some oil and some wine – to bathe the wounds. He took some bandages – maybe torn from his own clothes – to stem the bleeding. And he reached down, scooped up the man in his arms and placed him on his donkey. There is no indication that he necessarily had any practical skill, or was trained for this kind of care. He saw a need, and he used whatever he had to help the victim.
And thirdly, he helped regardless of the cost to himself. No doubt he had other plans that day. Maybe he had an urgent appointment in Jericho. But he gave up time and changed his priorities. He gave up his own personal safety, not thinking about the possible risk to himself. And he gave up whatever it cost for the man to receive the care and attention that he needed in order to get better.
The more you think about it, the more you realise what a truly amazing story it is. And the more you think about this story and what it might mean, the more you begin to realise that in point of fact Jesus is talking about Himself. Because if you want a real life example of the sort of love that Jesus is talking about, if you want living proof of love in action, then there is no better person to look at than Jesus of Nazareth.
After all, how did Jesus show His love for us?
First of all, He came to earth on a rescue mission for all of us, no matter who we might be. He didn’t just come as a Jewish person to save Jewish people. That was one of the reasons He so shocked the religious people of His day. He came to bring good news to all, even and especially to those who realise they are dead in their sins, and in need of a Saviour.
And this rescue mission was more than mere words. I find it truly astonishing that people even today think Jesus was only a good teacher or a travelling preacher. Of course He taught about the love of God, of course He preached about the need to love our neighbour as ourselves. But Jesus went further than this. He took direct practical action to get to the heart of our human need. He used all the resources of God Himself to address our wounds of sin and shame and sorrow and to bring real forgiveness and healing and peace. Recognising that we were too weak ourselves to change our attitudes and our actions, He Himself did the work we could not do, to bring a new relationship between ourselves and our Heavenly Father.
So what exactly was this work? Well, to answer this question, you need to go a disused quarry just outside the city walls of Jerusalem. Because there Jesus performed the most costly act of love anyone ever has or ever will perform for anyone else. He gave up all privileges as the Son of God. He gave up all His dignity and His respectability. He gave up even His very life as He Himself was beaten, stripped of His clothes, crucified and left for dead. Because unless Jesus had loved us in this way we could not ourselves receive the Father’s love through faith and trust in Him.
The parable of the Good Samaritan is a parable about Jesus. And although we may have heard it so many times before, we should never grow dull of the challenge that it sets before. For it tells us that this business about loving your neighbour as yourself is not some airy-fairy religious principle it would be nice to follow. Nor is it, as the expert of the law believed, about showing particular love to particular people. No, it is about a practical, generous love that extends to all. And if you want to know what that means, look at Jesus and consider what He has done for us.
We’re getting here to the very heart of this subject called discipleship we’ve been looking at over the past few weeks. For a disciple is someone who accepts the love of Jesus into their lives, and then with the help of the Holy Spirit seeks to follow His example. Again, it’s so easy to look at this story and admire what the Good Samaritan did. But Jesus isn’t calling us simply to admire and to approve of His actions. The challenge which He set this expert in the law is the one which He sets us today: Go and do likewise. So the question is, are you up for the challenge?
Of course, you might well be wondering how exactly you are supposed to follow Jesus’ example. After all, there are so many people who are in such great need of Jesus’ love. You can’t give each and every person you meet the sort of attention the Good Samaritan gave this mugging victim. Indeed, plenty of people may not even want it.
So where exactly do you start?
This is where I’d like to turn to our other reading this morning, from 1 John. Quite rightly John 3:16 is the most famous verse in the Bible, but I’d like to make a case for then moving on and learning 1 John 3:16. If someone has a church Bible, perhaps they’d like to tell me what it says. That’s right – This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. Let’s all of us say this together and learn it.
So let’s get practical this morning. I want you to think about the person who is sitting next to you today. If they came with you to church, or are family, then focus on someone else. Do you know who that person is? Do you know their name? Do you know their needs? On the outside they may seem pretty confident, able types. But maybe deep down they’re feeling beaten up, wounded, in need of real practical care. How are you going to find out what they’re really like? Are you prepared to spend the time and effort to get to know them?
Let’s just pause for a moment and let’s each of us pray for that person you are thinking about right now…
Jesus said: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” As I have said before, and will go on saying, there isn’t a huge amount in the New Testament about evangelism and outreach. But there is a huge amount about loving one another, about being a community where the love of Jesus is seen in us and through us. If we can show the love of the Good Samaritan to each other, then others will see we are the body of Christ, and will want to find out more about following Jesus for themselves.
Because finally if we truly understand what it means to love our neighbour as ourselves, and to lay our life down for our brothers, then we will be fulfilling that command in the Great Commission about teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. For at the end of the day whatever arguments people may have against the Christian faith, whatever objections they may raise, nothing or no-one will able to deny the powerful message that is given out by a community living in obedience to Jesus’ command to love another. Let’s be that community. Let’s really work at loving one another. And let us trust God that others find healing and forgiveness and peace through experiencing our love for them.