Notes from the sermon by Toby Parsons 14 July 2019
Luke 10, 25-37
In November 1953 Chad Varah, a vicar, writer and cartoonist, answered the first call to a brand new helpline for people contemplating suicide. A month later the Daily Mirror coined the phrase ‘Telephone Good Samaritan’. The name stuck and Samaritans today are probably one of the best known organisations for those needing compassionate, non-judgemental support.
In many legal codes, the concept of a Good Samaritan law exists to give protection to people who help those who are injured or at risk. It aims to remove any reluctance to help a stranger in need for fear of legal consequences.
So the concept of the Good Samaritan is really embedded in our society, well beyond the normal reach of most other parables we read in the Bible. And, even within a Christian setting, it’s a story we probably know very well. We may have heard many sermons about it, and we see in it both a call to show love in action, and a summary, if you like, of the whole gospel story…
We might think of ourselves as the traveller – someone making a difficult journey who, whether through misfortune or recklessness, ends up in desperate need of help. We might thing of the Priest and the Levite as the law, or religious traditions, which confirm our need of a saviour, but which in themselves do nothing to help. And of course we’re likely to see Jesus as the Good Samaritan who sees our need, who rescues us in the moment, who makes a promise to pay for our future care, and who does all of this even though we’ve done nothing to earn that favour.
And we might continue and compare the inn where the victim is taken with the church, for example.
There are so many things in this story that we could think more about. And if we were so minded, we could debate the subtleties and the application even of those comparisons that we’ve just heard.
But I’d like to pick out just a couple of ways in which, for me at least, this passage is affirming and encouraging. And then to think about one of the many challenges it presents.
Three people walked down that road from Jerusalem to Jericho after the man had been attacked. Only one helped. You could picture the modern newspaper headlines – “two thirds of people ignore desperate victim!”. You could imagine the social media comments about how selfish and uncaring most of society is today. And numerically that might be right – two out of three, the majority, didn’t help. But Jesus didn’t focus on the Levite and the priest. He talked in much more detail and at more length about what the Samaritan did do, rather than what the others didn’t.
That’s not to say that it doesn’t matter when need is ignored, when compassion isn’t shown. It definitely does, and there are times and places for challenging such actions, or rather lack of action. But the fact that Jesus doesn’t spend his energy and words condemning the priest and the Levite suggests that perhaps we shouldn’t either. And it reminds us that we have a choice about how we see things, what we comment on, what we’re inspired or frustrated by.
The first of the pictures on the piece of paper under your seat [at the end of the document] is from the cricket world cup. You might well have seen it in the papers or on TV. It’s just after India have beaten Bangladesh to qualify for the semi-finals, but rather than media interviews or celebrating with his team-mates, the Indian captain Virat Kohli has gone to greet 87-year old fan, Charulata Patel. We’re used to hearing about poor behaviour by sports stars, aloof actions by celebrities. And there may well be far more reports about those sorts of things than there are pictures of an old lady beaming as her cricketing hero crouches next to her. And of course this wasn’t rescuing a beaten up traveller on the verge of death. But it was a moment when joy was shared in humility – a form of love, surely.
It can be wearying to read of all that’s wrong in this world – the amount of usable items discarded and wasted each year; the number of people experiencing loneliness; the increasing levels of reported hate crime. Those statistics can, and should, challenge us.
But we can also chose to look at the ways in which love is shown, at the actions which do take place. That’s not to trivialise the hurt and the wrong, but it’s to actively notice the ways in which, through us, God is working in the world. And perhaps that awareness, that openness to seeing the good, can help us to take the opportunities to be the Good Samaritan which are placed in front of us.
One of the affirmations, one of the encouragements, that we can take from the Good Samaritan is that love and compassion can be found, and that Jesus notices and choses to focus on them. The ultimate answer to the lawyer’s question wasn’t about what not to do, who not to be like – it was a positive story about love in an unlikely setting.
So we do need to think about what we do. But one of the other affirmations we get from the parable of the Good Samaritan is that we don’t have to do everything ourselves.
We read of the Samaritan that “On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, gave them to the host, and said to him, ‘Take care of him. Whatever you spend beyond that, I will repay you when I return’.” Now, we don’t know where the Samaritan went that next day – Luke turns to the story of Mary and Martha for the rest of chapter 10. Maybe he was off to a meeting of the Make Jericho Road Safe campaign group. Maybe he was volunteering at a social action project to rehabilitate roadside bandits. But probably he was off on his own business, or visiting friends and family. So he tasked the innkeeper with looking after the traveller. Yes, he promised to meet the costs incurred, so he certainly wasn’t abandoning the man, but he didn’t feel that he had to do everything himself.
I wonder if we sometimes get weighed down by a sense that we have to sort it all out; that we have to finish, individually, everything that we start. Are we reluctant to ask others to help? Do we worry that we’re not committed enough, not good enough, if we say that we just can’t fit everything in?
The person who Jesus holds up in this parable isn’t someone who personally nurses a stranger back to health, either sacrificing their own needs and plans or else showing an impossible capacity for juggling different tasks. The Samaritan shows compassion, and then asks others to help, making use of the resources – in this case, money – with which he’s been blessed.
The middle set of the pictures centres on Greta Thunberg, the Swedish activist who began a recurring but initially solitary “School strike for the climate” outside the Swedish parliament in August 2018. That campaign and her call to action drew worldwide attention, and the number of people involved increased hugely – the climate strikes in March this year involved almost 1.5m students from over 100 countries. And, as the other images suggest, different actions may well have been inspired or at least encouraged by Greta’s first solitary protest. The pictures of the famous pink boat from the Extinction Rebellion protests in London, as well as the fossil fuel divestment pledge made in this very space, both show many, many more people taking action.
Of course there are many differences between the two settings and between the outcomes – as far as we know, the
Good Samaritan of Jesus’s story doesn’t end up as the face of a mass movement (although had Facebook existed 2,000 years ago, who knows?!). But the principle is that whilst we do need to do something, we don’t have to do everything ourselves. And sometimes the relatively small, personal “somethings” will lead to more than we can possibly imagine. As Christians, I guess that’s part of the reason why prayer alongside action is so important – to ask the Spirit to work with what we do, and to make so much more of it.
So, in addition to encouraging us to see the good that does happen, this parable reminds us that we don’t have to do everything by ourselves. For me, those are really positive things I can take from the story. But there are also challenges aplenty. And the one that I want to think about briefly is the one that’s obvious, but which perhaps gets diluted because we don’t truly feel the context of the characters in the same way that Jesus’s audience would have done.
The Samaritans and Jews were sworn enemies. Different commentators have likened the tensions to those between protestant and catholics at the height of the troubles in Northern Ireland, or between street gangs in some American cities. The roots of this hatred stem from the days of King Rehoboam and the division of Israel – we’d need to go right back to the books of Deuteronomy and 1 & 2 Kings to read about it all. But even if we just think of centuries of mutual suspicion, and acts of conflict probably within living memory, we start to get an idea of how hard it would have been for Jesus’ audience to think of “the Good Samaritan”.
The third picture is of Donald Trump shaking hands with Kim Jong-un in the demilitarised zone in North Korea at the end of June. Many people will have a strong reaction against one or both of these leaders. And yes, there are compelling reasons for those concerns. And of course a simple handshake isn’t an act of the same compassion or selflessness that we see in the Good Samaritan. But shortly after this meeting, Pope Francis said in his weekly address in St Peter’s Square “In the last few hours we saw in Korea a good example of the culture of encounter. I salute the protagonists, with a prayer that such a significant gesture will be a further step on the road to peace”. I wonder how easy we’d find it to say the same – not the prayer for peace, which is easy to echo, but the saluting, the affirmation of the individual human beings involved?
In his Lent study book “In God’s hands”, Desmond Tutu writes about seeing each and every person as being a God carrier. It’s a point he’s preached about multiple times, and it’s incredibly simple… and challenging. We all have God in us. We are all God’s stand-ins, whether we acknowledge it or not. And that means not just that we should show love and respect to each other, as if we were speaking with God – but also that that other person has the capacity to do the same, that they can show God to us and to the world.
I suspect we’re all happy to learn about God’s love from the incredible enthusiastic Heston; to acknowledge it in action amongst the committed volunteers who do amazing work in the Rainbow Junktion café; and to be challenged by wise and respected figures such as Desmond Tutu and Pope Francis. But if we do really want to respond to that challenge, and to that of this parable, then do we need to be more open to God being present in everyone, even those we find disagreeable and distasteful? So that we don’t just pray for them in a “please help them to do better” kind of way, but that we accept that they may sometimes be the Good Samaritan?
In a moment, we’ll have a short period of silence. Perhaps we can reflect on the Good Samaritan acts that we do already see around us? Perhaps we can be reassured that we don’t have to do everything ourselves? And perhaps we think of someone, whether in our local community or on the worldwide stage, who we might struggle to see as a as a God-Carrier, as someone with the potential to be a Good Samaritan?