Virginia asked us not to fuss. She asked specifically not to be referred to in the sermon. And I wont. Because I believe we all know why she named todays gospel reading as one of her favourite Bible stories. This one and the one about Jesus becoming a companion on the road to Emmaus. They are stories that have informed her life and guided it, catching glimpses of Jesus beside her, as she told us, along the way.
The story, the so called story of the Good Samaritan, looks, like most of the stories Jesus told, deceptively simple on the surface.
But when you go deeper into it the story proves not to be simple at all and leaves you wondering at the end about where you stand in relation to it.
Jesus was a Jewish rabbi, and he does what Jewish rabbis do: He tells stories. And when he responds to a question he doesnt give a straight answer but throws up even more questions, confronting the person who asked the question with the flaws of his reasoning and addressing issues that go much further than the intention of the original question.
"Who is my neighbour?" asks a lawyer who has come to "try" Jesus insights in the law.
"Who is my neighbour?" Is a question about boundaries: Who is my neighbour implies there are people who are not my neighbour and that the issue of where the boundaries between neighbour and not neighbour is something that can be discussed, can be defined and negotiated.
Jesus answers like this:
"A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead."
Immediately we are confronted with the first twist in the story: Nobody in their right mind would have travelled down that road on their own in those days. The crime rates were astronomical! And Jesus audience would have known this. They would have nodded sagely: Of course, he should not have expected differently!
Along comes a priest. Also travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho. Presumably he has just finished his duties in the temple and should be in a most pious - intimately connected to God - frame of mind. Does he even see the man on the side of the road? Or is he so full of the wonders of worship and the religious experiences he has had in the past few days he doesnt look right or left? On the other hand he may have been afraid of touching the man because of the consequences it could have for his serving in the temple. He would have defiled himself and would probably have needed to subject himself to extensive cleansing rituals, perhaps abstain from duty for a while...... Wasnt his first priority the worship and service of God? And of the people of God who would gather in the temple and expect him to be there for them, ready to serve, and not to be deterred from this holy service by the blood of one man?
Here is another twist in the story: The one we expect to help goes by on the other side. The priest makes a choice that goes against our expectations. When the lawyer summed up the law earlier he said: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and with all your strength and with all your mind; and the neighbour as yourself". Perhaps this priest is doing just that: putting God and his service of him before anything else and walking past because he has a duty to perform, a commitment to keep, a service to perform in the house of the Lord in the service of God and his people.
It doesnt say this in the story, and Jesus audience would probably have had a better idea of why the priest passes by than we have, but it is not unlikely that the pious answer of the lawyer earlier on in the story comes into it.
Likewise does the Levite. He follows the priest. As he should. It was his job to follow the priest and support him in the service of the Lord. He is a good Levite, faithful to the law and to the teachings of his superior, following in his footsteps.....
Love the Lord God with everything youve got and the neighbour like yourself. When in doubt, follow the leadership of your superior.
And again of course this bit is full of twists, and humour, especially in the direction of the lawyer who asked the question. Here is somebody who follows the law to the letter and those in authoritys every step. Which leaves the man in the ditch.
But a Samaritan - "but" indicating an important change in the direction of the story here. A Samaritan: for Jesus audience the last person youd want for a neighbour. Despicable, abject creatures no one in their right mind would want to have anything to do with. But - it is with this Samaritan that the downward spiral of the story comes to an end. He stops. He stoops. He cares. He heaps mercy on the man beside the road. Bandaging his wounds, pouring oil and wine, putting him on his animal, taking him to an inn.
There is no end to it!
Plus two nights accommodation from this man who has the goodness of God written all over him.
A most unexpected turn of events.
A Samaritan stops to heap mercy on one in need, regardless of who the man is and what it may cost him, while those we would have expected to be close to God and intimate with his ways pass by on the other side.
"Which of these three do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" asks Jesus.
And the lawyer answers, apparently unable to get the word "Samaritan" out: "The one who showed him mercy".
I imagine he was gritting his teeth by then.
"Go and do likewise......"
Not likewise the priest, or the Levite, but likewise the Samaritan. Galling to say the least. Unbearable. And yet. He cant deny that it is the Samaritan who has been the neighbour.
The lawyer is shown that neighbourliness has nothing to do with us determining who would be deserving of our help. Of putting boundaries in place. But that it is about us seeking to become a neighbour when we are given a chance.
Would you have stopped and helped the man? Of course you would! No question about it. Even if it was a drug addict who had brought the gutter upon himself, even if it meant turning up late for work or not at all, or being beaten up ourselves. Of course......
We follow the man from Galilee, a man despised, cast out, and killed on a cross. We are doers of the word, jumping at every possible opportunity to help. We cant wait to be a neighbour to somebody! Look at our programs, our charities, our contributions to the life of the community, how we look after the weak, the poor, the needy whenever and wherever we can. Not ashamed to emulate the Samaritan who heaped mercy on the man he found beside the road. And trying, every day, to do more and better. To serve, to help, to look after those who end up on the side of the road with no one to help them. So yes, here at least is a story we have taken on board and have been busy living out. No doubt about it.
But we have not understood the story if we think that that is its point. Because it isnt. Just how despicable and unimaginable a Good Samaritan was at the time is really beyond our imagination. So it is easy to see the good deed, the mercy heaped upon the man, the way in which the Samaritan becomes the image of the merciful God, or even of the despised Christ, as an example to be followed. And likewise it is hard to imagine religious purity or piety could ever keep anybody from helping a person in need. So it is very easy to judge the priest, the Levite and even the lawyer and cheer on the Samaritan and be done with it.
But wait just a second. Try identifying with the lawyer. He is somebody who knows the law, thinks he understands it. One of those who likes his life straight forward and manageable, his faith ethical and unambiguous. He wants to know where he stands. Faith a set of instructions he can put into practice, authority that can easily be identified. I am sure some of you will be able to identify with that!
Try identifying with the man. Stupid sod. Knew he shouldnt gone down that road. As so many of us do, knowing full well we should not. Addiction, debt, unrealistic expectations or commitments to name but a few of the crippling robbers that leave us for dead on the side of the road.
Try identifying with the priest: He loves his religion. He knows what is right and proper. Piously he steers clear of what may endanger or contaminate the purity of his heart, his dedication, his commitment to be a man of God. And wouldnt you agree that there are people and places you should stay away from if you want to be a good Christian?
Try identifying with the Levite. Following the priest, following established and trusted authority and tradition. Most of us do!
And then there is the Samaritan.
Something Virginia said once came to mind. She said:
People ask me what I get out of it? My question is: What do you put into it? Faith for me is about being able to serve, to put something in.
And by serving life changes in the image of Christ.
I would like to add to that: The Samaritan in the story took the chance to serve when he could. He didnt hesitate, he did not hold back. And it changed him from a despicable person nobody would expect anything from, into a neighbour, into someone in whom Christ took shape. By becoming a companion for someone else.
The neighbour is not the man on the side of the road needing help.
We are the neighbour. And by letting ourselves become his neighbour, we allow him to change our lives in the image of Christ.