A couple of weeks ago, my mother in law (who is 85), was driving to her theatre club.
She was late, she was in a hurry, she parked her car on a hill, but didn’t apply the handbrake properly. As she got out of the car, she slipped and the car rolled over her legs so she was caught on the ground, with the weight of the car engine, resting on her legs.
‘Ouch’ she called out, several times! And, because this is Surrey we are talking about, and I am sure it would be the same in Hampshire, two drivers stopped and helped her.
She is fine, thank goodness, astonishingly no broken or cracked bones, just some heavy bruising, extraordinary, a bionic woman.
I think the story of the Good Samaritan, is so hard-wired into our culture, that the behaviour of the two motorists, who came to her rescue, is just absolutely normal
for most people. It is obvious, that if you are driving and see a fellow traveller in distress,
you help. It is, of course, scandalous, if you don’t, but it is just normal to help.
So what has Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan, to tell us, beyond encouraging us to behave in a way, which is normal behaviour, for citizens of a civilised country?
In my view, this familiar parable, like so much of what Jesus taught, and did in his three years of ministry, has hidden depths, which easily get overlooked.
In fact, I think, the story of the Good Samaritan is a litmus test, for the heart.
Let’s start at the beginning of the passage, lets look at the question that Jesus is answering by his parable. The lawyer who speaks to Jesus asks ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’
OK there is the rather weird word ‘inherit’ ‘what must I do to ‘inherit’ eternal life?’…let’s leave that to one side for a moment, we will come back to it, I promise.
‘What must I do, to inherit eternal life?’
The lawyer is making a huge assumption: that eternal life depends upon what you do.
It’s a common misconception that I hear often from people, particularly in their final
months, weeks or days: ‘I think I have done pretty well’,‘I have been kind to lots of people’ ‘I have helped people along the way’,‘I have a clear conscience’ ‘I’m not fussed about death, about judgment’‘I’ve done it my way’…
It is so difficult for anyone in the clergy, to speak prophetically into the life of someone who thinks like this, because this sort of thinking is wrapped up in our own pride, what we have achieved, what we have done.
In Mark 2:17 Jesus tells us that he came to call sinners, not the righteous, sinners not people who thought they were good, not people who have ‘done it their way’.
And we have to be able to recognise, regret and repent of our sinfulness (three Rs), if we are to take advantage of his call.
If we don’t see ourselves as sinners, there can be no confession, no throwing of ourselves on God’s mercy, no recognition of being in the hands of God,as we cross that final boundary.
If we do not see ourselves as dependent on God, there can be no exercise of grace.
If we think that we think we are just fine, then Jesus died for nothing.
If we think that we are just fine, then all that suffering by God, was in vain.
The lawyer asks Jesus: ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ And Jesus responds
‘you are a religious lawyer, what do you read in the Law?’. The lawyer replies correctly: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.”
So how much love do we feel for God? Now? Today?
Do we even know God? How can we love someone, we don’t even know?
We may be feeling a bit uncomfortable at this point, ‘Oh leave all that abstract God stuff alone Alex’, we may say, ‘get on to the neighbour…that’s what I want to hear about, Do you know what I did for my neighbour yesterday? Let me tell you…..’
But Jesus does not let us do that.
Jesus says that: The first and most important commandment is to love God with ALL our heart; with ALL our soul; with ALL our strength and with ALL our mind.
How on earth can we DO that?
That means 100% of the time, all of our lives.
If we want eternal life, we must have loved God with all aspects of our being: Not just in what we say and do, but even in our hearts and souls, what we think or have thought?
Have we done that?
You know I think many of us struggle, with loving God at all, any of the time let alone loving God totally all of the time.
Now are we beginning to realise what a HUGE requirement this is?
And we may well be thinking: ‘well that’s impossible’; even if I were to start doing that today,and I have no idea how I would make myself love God, the rest of my life, before now
I haven’t loved him
If this is true, We may be thinking, with Corporal Fraser of Dad’s Army: ‘we’re all doomed’
And that is exactly the point! We cannot DO our way to eternal life, we fall at the first fence, because we cannot make ourselves love God, as he requires us to love Him
But, as if that were not enough, there’s another fence that we need to get over as well, another requirement for us to fulfil, if we are to try to DO our way to eternal life: how we are to react to our neighbours.
Again the Jewish Lawyer gets it spot on: ‘we must love our neighbours, as we love ourselves’.
OK so we only have to love them, as we love ourselves, not with our whole heart, mind and soul, as we are required to love God.
So that should be fine: ‘do as you would be done by’, the golden rule of societies and religions, the world over. Isn’t that relatively easy? Just normal considerate living, isn’t it? The sort of behaviour we should expect from anyone in Itchen Valley, the sort of kindness shown by the two motorists to my mother in law.
But the lawyer points out the flaw: how far does this go? Does it only mean the people next door? People like us? In the Valley… I mean, does it extend to people living in Kings Worthy….?
Who is my neighbour…? Do we have to seek them out? What if we see them in distress on the television? Can we just send money or must we give our time, our presence?
Jesus’ response to this question is just so brilliant, such a delight to study, because in this simple story, Jesus reveals not only the answer to the lawyer’s question but also lets the lawyer, and each individual in the crowd, know how he or she is getting on, where they are, in their journey towards eternal life…
Jesus exposes the lawyer’s heart, and the hearts of all those who are listening
And, as always with Jesus, it’s the heart, not the doing, which matters
As I said before, this story is a litmus test of the heart
It’s a story which teaches and then goes on teaching as it burrows down into our minds and souls.
We must remember the context in which Jesus is preaching; he has a crowd around him
mainly ordinary working people, but in that crowd there are also people who are publicly religious, the Pharisees, and perhaps some of the Jewish nobility, the Sadducees.
When Jesus says, that the Priest and the Levite just walk on by, the crowd are thinking
‘yes that’s just typical, of those people who make such a profession of being good, they’re just hypocrites! Go on Jesus – give them a kick! Now we will see who comes along the road next, it will be a good Jewish boy, an ordinary person, like us, not like these high and mighty religious people who think they are so good, who think they know God so well, the hero of the story will be someone like us’
But no it’s not the good Jewish boy, who rescues the man from the side of the road, it is a hated Samaritan…..
There’s no need to go into why the Jews hated the Samaritans and the Samaritans hated the Jews. But if we say that an Irish Catholic was lying beside the road and an Orangeman came to rescue him; or an Israeli was beside the road and a Palestinian rescued him; a Zulu was beside the road and a Boer rescued him; or perhaps a member of the BNP was beside the road, and an Imam came to rescue him – you get an idea of the shock and surprise
that the crowd will have felt by the fact that Jesus chooses a Samaritan to be the rescuer.
Now, of course, it’s difficult for us to understand how hard this will have been to take for his listeners, because most of us are not from a country historically torn by hatred`; if we are not from Northern Ireland, Israel, South Africa, or a community where the BNP rules the roost. We kind western liberals love everyone don’t we?
But perhaps it would help to do a little thought exercise about a group that we don’t like much or which makes us feel uncomfortable; a group about which we have an opinion.
Lets now just pray that God will reveal to each of us which group we don’t like, we feel uncomfortable about.
‘There’s no-one I don’t like, Alex’, you may be thinking; well then think about a group of people who have problems which embarrass, if they don’t enrage us, people we would not readily have to dinner, perhaps people who have been sent to jail, convicts; those who scrounge benefits; economic migrants; those with physical or mental disabilities; the homeless; alcoholics or drug addicts.
Whatever the group is, in our imaginations, we put them into the story: instead of the ‘Good Samaritan’: the ‘good convict’, the ‘good benefit scrounger’, the ‘good economic migrant’, the ‘good person with a disability’, the ‘good homeless person, the ‘good alcoholic’, the ‘good drug addict’…
And it is they who are the rescuer, not the bishop, the curate, or the local politician or the person like us who walks on by….
And it is you or me who is being rescued
So Jesus brilliantly turns round the lawyer’s question ‘who is my neighbour’ to become
‘which of these three, acts as neighbour to the injured man’
In other words, would you prefer to die in a ditch than be rescued by a convict, a benefit scrounger, an economic migrant, someone with a disability, a homeless person, an alcoholic or a drug addict?
Obviously, when we are in such distress, that we cannot help ourselves, we will accept help from anyone…
So, Jesus says, go and do likewise….treat them, as you would have them treat you, if you needed help.
‘But but…’ the lawyer might say ‘if I have to love, even those I hate, even those who have little value in my eyes, those I avoid socially, then where is the limit? Where does it stop?’
‘Precisely. Jesus replies…. ‘It doesn’t’.
As the children’s worship song reads: ‘Neighbours are not the friends you choose, neighbours are everybody’
‘But that’s impossible’ the lawyer might have replied
‘Exactly’, Jesus might have replied ‘you cannot DO your way to Eternal Life’
Either so far as loving God is concerned, or loving neighbour – the two most important commandments; we cannot reach the standard which God requires by what we DO.
And if we think we have or we can, we totally misunderstand what God requires of us.
So where does it leave us? ‘We’re all doomed….?
The lawyer was right in one thing that he said ‘what can we do to inherit eternal life….’
This one word opens up a whole wonderful vista for us!
Someone who inherits something does so, not because they deserve it but because of who they are. They are sons and daughters of the person from whom they inherit.
And we too can become sons and daughters of God!
That is what Jesus did for us on the Cross.
It does require a rebirth: it requires a change of heart
Now I know that many of you know this and have taken this step before, but I also know that those of us who have taken this step will not mind me running through this again, just on the off chance that there is SOMEONE who has not; who does not yet know God’s grace.
Jesus’ wonderful good news works like this:
1. we recognise our sinfulness; no transformation comes to any society or an individual, without a sincere recognition of their own sinfulness a beating of the chest….
2. we repent of our sinfulness, we turn away from it, for ever
3. we realise what Jesus has done for us on the Cross, because he took away the consequences of that life of sin, he took the pain instead of us and we ask him into our lives….
Then our attitude to God changes, the whole idea of loving God starts to make sense our hearts change, we become new people, we find that we are loving Him for what He has done for us.
Indeed we love him in proportion to what he has forgiven us, what he has done for us.
That is why Jesus says Matthew 21:31 ‘the tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of God ahead of you’: they KNOW that they have something to be thankful for
a reason to love God for what he has done for them!
And so as we recognise what we have been forgiven, our hearts change so that we do love our neighbour, even those people that previously we found less than human, who embarrassed us, or we would avoid at all costs
And it may even occur to us, that actually God is calling us to help the very people that He drew to our attention: those in this thought experiment we conducted earlier on; the very people who make us feel uncomfortable; the very people that we would before have avoided at all costs.
And then gradually we find that we want to help them
And in doing so, we discover that we are sons and daughters of God: we have the family likeness, and to answer the lawyer’s question we find that we have inherited eternal life!