“The command that I am giving you today is not too difficult or beyond your reach…No, it is here with you. You know it and you can quote it, so now obey it.” Deuteronomy 30, 10-14
“But a Samaritan traveller who came upon him was moved with compassion when he saw him.” Luke 10, 25-37
Today we are confronted with two fascinating but challenging readings. They are both related to living our lives with moral integrity. If we really think about it, we don’t really need anybody else to tell us the difference between right and wrong. The writer of Deuteronomy reminds us that the code for living as authentic human beings is written into our hearts. None of us needs to be told how to relate to other people, whoever they are. The person who sticks his chewing gum under his seat in the bus or drops his cigarette buts on the footpath already knows he is a thoughtless slob. The driver who runs down a pedestrian and speeds away knows the wrong she has done. The smooth-talking man who seduces young women and walks away does not have to be told how self-centred he is. Moral debates about issues such as these are mostly about efforts to justify what we know is wrong, or putting up smokescreens to hide our own immorality. I’m sure few of us have ever come across people who admit to having problems with being moral.
Before we look at today’s gospel reading, I suggest that it is worth pausing to explore why it is that many of us are slow to admit to our own sinfulness or moral lapses. In our youth, we were often given the message that God was someone who was on the lookout for all the mistakes we made, counted them up and recorded them in preparation for when we would have to account for our lives. If we have transformed our image of God into that of a judge, it is very uncomfortable to try living our lives with the image of God as friend. We know we are sinners, but we are reluctant to admit that to the one we fear will judge us harshly. So we choose to keep an uneasy silence on the topic. Alternatively, we enter into half-hearted arguments about what sin is or isn’t, and end up ill at ease, even if we think we have won the argument.
The gospel parable of the Good Samaritan is so familiar to us that we can very easily slip into stereotyping the characters into “bad guys” and one “good guy”. Note, too, that It comes as a bit of a surprise that Luke has Jesus presenting a Samaritan as the hero in the story told by Jesus, soon after being turned away from a hostile Samaritan village (Luke 9, 51-56).
Strictly speaking, the story of the good Samaritan is not really a parable. It is not based on allegory, metaphor and symbol that require interpretation. Rather it is an example of how to live our humanity in its fullness. But let’s begin by looking at the lawyer. He does not set out to trap Jesus. He simply engages in what professional and educated people did in those times. Our modern equivalent would be a seminar or discussion group in which participants explore a topic or a contemporary issue. Jesus was an itinerant rabbi, and this was an opportunity for the lawyer to engage him in exploring a moral and ethical issue, the answer to which was not entirely obvious. Like any good teacher, Jesus made a comment, and then threw back a question in the form of a story to the lawyer and all who had gathered to watch and listen to the proceedings.
Both the priest and Levite were decent people who had responsibilities that were associated with their respective roles in Jewish society. They both came across the man who, to all intents and purposes, looked as though he were lying dead in a ditch, after being assaulted, stripped and robbed. Had they touched his body, even with their shoe, they would have made themselves ritually unclean, thereby excluding themselves from carrying out their responsibilities in the temple and in assisting the people whom they were appointed to serve. They made sure to observe the requirements of the purification laws of Judaism. Through his story, Jesus suggested that, while they had made good decisions, they could have made better ones. Here were two respected figures who were following the law, yet not allowing love and compassion to be factors in influencing their decision-making.
This, then, is a story that has application to some of the moral dilemmas that confront decision makers in our contemporary world. Is it ethical in the pursuit of political goals for some governments to impose economic sanctions on Iran, thereby depriving innocent civilians of needed food and medication? Are humanitarian aid agencies to refrain from air-dropping vitally needed medicines and supplies to besieged Syrians lest the lives of those collecting such aid be put at risk? Expressing care and compassion doesn’t always make political or economic sense. But love’s only way is sometimes to take the risk. Love and compassion do not always make sense.
The Levite had an additional problem. He had considerably less authority than the priest who was higher up the chain of command. Aware that he was behind the priest who had refused to get involved in helping the victim on the roadside, the Levite would have been breaking ranks if he had stopped to help: “I’m only a Levite, who am I to embarrass a Priest?” And that’s the kind of dilemma faced by every modern-day whistle-blower, who recognises injustice in the workplace, but knows that speaking out would put his or her employment at risk.
Last of all, there is the Samaritan. He is already an outcast because he is an object of contempt in a society where segregation and religious prejudice were rife. Seemingly, he had nothing to lose by choosing to reach out to a an unknown victim, whom he wasn’t sure was alive or dead. Whether he helped or not would neither elevate nor lower his status as far as the average Jew was concerned. But the Samaritan religious law had very similar restrictions to the Jewish law about touching dead bodies. Yet they did not stop him from acting with genuine humanity and compassion.
Notice, however, the way in which Jesus twisted the question to which the lawyer sought an answer, and to which Jesus’ story was an initial response: “And who is my neighbour?” Jesus changed the focus of the story by asking which of the three (Priest, Levite or Samaritan) acted as a true neighbour: “Which of these three, do you think, proved himself a neighbour to the man who fell into the brigands’ hands?” Like the man in the ditch, the Samaritan was an untouchable. Yet he realised that neighbourliness is not created by physical or, indeed, racial, religious or emotional nearness, but only by genuine love. Love does not decide who its objects are. Love does not discriminate, because it is boundless. Luke uses this story to demonstrate that the Samaritan is at the pinnacle of Christian living. In Luke’s estimation, it is the Samaritan and anyone who imitates him who have found the way to eternal life.