“Go and do likewise.”
Luke 10:37 NIV
It would be a mistake to reduce the parable of the Good Samaritan to a pithy challenge to be nice to the people we’d really rather ignore. The true challenge of this parable strikes at the heart of what it means to walk the way of Christ, it is a critique of God’s law and is surely the reason religious leaders of his day plotted to have Jesus killed.
Jesus’ parables were expertly crafted; no detail was wasted. In order to appreciate some of the finer details and forces at play here, we need first understand a feud that had raged for 400 years. Jews and Samaritans were originally part of the kingdom of Israel and shared God’s law. This law should not be confused with the Ten Commandments – that special set of opt-in rules for people who find themselves at church on a Sunday morning. The law, which included the Ten Commandments, was much more like those which govern our society, only at the top was God (a theocracy), rather than the Queen (a monarchy).
These laws were often referred to as ‘The Way’ and they existed to help people live together in accord with God’s will, or put another way, to have eternal life. They were concerned with the whole of life: the planting of food, business contracts and employment, the settling of debts and disagreements, even building instructions. But by the time the Jews returned from exile, they had grown apart and become bitter enemies. Each claimed to be adherents to, and the faithful holders of the true law. So great was the animosity, that were they not ruled by mighty empires, they would almost certainly be at war. It is no accident that when asked about the law, Jesus pits a Samaritan against the Jewish elite.
When the expert in the law asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He was asking Jesus for his summation of the law. ‘How do you understand it? Give it to me in a nutshell’. Jesus flips it round ‘You’re the expert, how do you see it?’ The expert does well, answering as we might, ‘Love God and your neighbour as yourself’. When the lawyer asked who his neighbour is, Jesus might have answered ‘Your neighbour is the least among you’, or ‘The one you love’, or ‘Who is not your neighbour?’ Instead he told a short story, now known as the Good Samaritan.
In the story both a Priest and Levite pass a man who has been left for dead. The lawyer would have known that they were both acting as the law required. They had special responsibilities; were the man dead, they would have remained unclean and unfit for duty for a week. God first, then man; they did the right thing. We occasionally do similar; our compassion prompts us to help but our theology tells us that God wouldn’t approve. I am thinking of friends in failed relationships, friends who would rather not get married or cannot afford to, and any who identify as LGBTQ or I.
When the Samaritan entered the fray, the crowd surely fell silent – save for a whispered ‘Did he say Samaritan?’. Our hero conceded the pious ground when he went to the man’s aid. He made caring for the man his first priority, put him on his donkey and wrote a blank cheque for the medical bill. Jesus asked, ‘Who was the man’s neighbour?’ Another silence, this one long and uncomfortable.
The lawyer could not bring himself to credit the Samaritan, to do so would be blasphemous. But in that moment, he finds the answer to his original question. The law is not something to be studied and piously protected, The Way is one of grace and mercy – against these things there is no law.
The Way does not offer a sanctimonious moral high ground – it meanders into slums and war-torn communities. It goes near extremists, refugees, outcasts of all kinds and it challenges us to extend a hand of friendship across all boundaries.
The Way never excludes people – it always draws them in. Until we do likewise, we cannot claim to be adherent of the true Way.
Dan Chalke runs People, a charity which works alongside local people to empower impoverished communities. Dan is married to Ruth and proud dad to Reuben and Ari. Instagram: @people.org.uk @dan.chalke