A few weeks ago at Mass we heard in the Gospel that Jesus was resolutely going to Jerusalem. But before he went there, he was passing by and wished to enter a Samaritan town, but they wouldn’t let him in. For that the apostles wanted to curse the town, bring fire down from heaven and burn it up. It’s a curious incident and easy to pass over that passage and to take not much notice of it. But the background is important and it helps us to understand the Gospel of today’s mass.
In Israel, at the time that Jesus lived, there was a division that had run through their religion for many centuries. The division was between orthodox Jews and Samaritans. The disagreement went right to the heart of what they believed they should be about. On the one hand the orthodox Jews thought that everything centred round the temple and the city of Jerusalem. This was what God had given them, a temple, a holy city, a place to dwell and live and king to rule over them. It is referred to over and over again, as an anticipation of the heavenly city, the new Jerusalem. The Samaritans by contrast thought that it was not `Jerusalem that was the important place but a mountain next to the place that the Israelites had crossed into when the first entered the promised land, that was the place they should worship. The tribes would for the first centuries worship in these high places, these mountain shrines, reminders that God spoke to them on the mountains and a reminder that the had been with them when they were a people in search of a promised land. They were still a people on the move, a pilgrim people, a people who had not arrived but who were constantly travelling to that heavenly destination -their home was no earthly city.
The division then was between people who thought they had arrived (in a certain sense) with the city, the temple, the king and people who though they were always on the move, always travelling, always a pilgrim people. The division became set – between people that accepted Jerusalem and people who didn’t. It was a serious division that is sometimes referred to and hinted at in the Gospel passages.
We wonder why Jesus is not accepted in the Samaritan town on his way to Jerusalem. This is why they don’t want this prophet, this teacher, this miracle worker in their town. He is going to Jerusalem. It’s as if he has put his cards in the table. Its as if he chooses one over the other. But of course it is not – it is here the prophets go to be tested. It is here he will fail, he will be rejected, he will be taken outside this great city and put to death on the city dump.
The apostles want to curse the town, bring down fire on it. Jesus who doesn’t condemn, doesn’t judge, doesn’t rebuke, refuses them their request.
All the more astonishing, breathtaking and jaw-dropping that Jesus should then make the hero of his story in the Gospel today. Samaritans, that just a few verses ago had rejected him. Samaritans who were regarded to be outcasts. Samaritans who were regarded to be heretics. Samaritans who should be shunned. Remember that the woman at the well in John’s Gospel is a Samaritan, remember her surprise that he speaks to her, remember her surprise that she asks him for a drink – recall also that she reminds him that they are different - he worships in Jerusalem and her forefathers worshipped on the mountain. Remember that John puts in that telling phrases – Jews do not associate with Samaritans, These are the same Samaritans that had refused to receive him, just a few lines before, one of them is now the hero of the story, not the conventional person, the priest or the levite. But the outsider, the enemy, the outcast, the stranger. How strange to the ears of the listener this must have seemed.
The parable of the Good Samaritan is set against a question that is asked of Jesus by a lawyer. The questions is this – what must I do to gain eternal life? Luke tells us that the question is a trap, to catch him out, to trip him up. The question posed is by a lawyer, not of civil law, but an expert in the law of the bible. To our ears we can hear in the question this way: what is the most important thing in life? Where should our treasure lie? What should we put all our energies into to securing the real prize of eternal life?
It’s interesting that Jesus doesn’t answer the man’s question, at least directly. What is written in the law, what do you read there, he says. He invites him to go back to Scripture and then to tell him what he understands by it. In this simple statement there is something so profound – there is the text and what is to be read and understood there. The text is living and not stagnant, the text is not moribund and dry but living and alive. It is not just what is written – it is also what do you read there, what does your mind and heart find there? The Scriptures are living and alive not lines to be trotted out, but life to be found there.
The unnamed lawyer quotes 2 passages from the Old Tesament: Deuteronomy 6 & Leviticus 19. After this, Jesus reply is to finish, draw a line, put a full stop. Your question is about life, well if you live by these things you will have life now and have eternal life in the future – he seems to say.
However, the discussion which had seemed to be at an end continues, it suddenly catches fire again. The man’s first question was a trap to see if Jesus will give a wrong answer. The second question is the man justifying himself, we can imagine it said dismissively. However, it was a hot topic of the day, who was your neighbor? who did you have a duty to treat well? Who did the law refer to? It seemed that often it was not so much about doing good to people rather than those you could be expected to do good to – limiting it rather than extending it.
Jesus then tells him and his listeners the famous parable. The Greek words that Jesus uses is – ofyten translated as he answers but more like he takes him on. He takes up his challenge. It the only time this word is used in the New Testament. It was used in the Old Testament when Job took on the people who came to comfort him, he took them on, received the challenge that they put before him. It’s an answer beyond an answer. It’s an answer that is making a point.
Beginning the parable Jesus tell his listeners that the man is set upon and stripped. This stripping doesn’t only mean all his clothes were taken away but it means he was stripped of everything, his clothes, his money and his senses – he is robbed completely. And as if to say more about that state, it tells us that he is half dead – how evocative those words are, half dead, hanging between being alive and dead, holding onto life, barely.
The parable continues, it tells us that by chance a levite and a priest pass by. Those words “by chance’ seem to make it random, perhaps they always travelled this road, but perhaps they never travelled it -the question remains open. But they, the priest and levite, each had the same re-action, they saw what they saw, everything, and went in the opposite direction, we would say that they turned on their heels. By contrast the text tell us that like the priest and levite the Samaritan sees, but unlike them he is moved with compassion. He saw him and was moved with compassion. Over the last few weeks we have heard this same expression: in the parable of the prodigal son, the father is moved with compassion and when Jesus saw the widow of Nain, he is moved with compassion.
The lack of response of the others is contrasted with the reaction of the Samaritan: he binds the man’s wounds, he pours oil on them, lifts him onto his horse, takes him to an inn, cares for him. And the following morning, having stayed with him all the day long, he gives money to the inn keeper to look after him and is returning and will make good any extra expense. Their lack of response, they do nothing he does 8 different things for him, he who is a complete stranger to him.
We then return to the man who had asked the question. Which person showed himself to be the neighbor? Its almost as if Jesus is saying again what is written what do you read there? The situation of the traveller struck down on the road and the people who didn’t help him is the text and he is invited to read the situation - what do you read there? The answer of the Good Samaritan is the one who was the neighbor was the one who showed mercy and proved himself to be a neighbor.
Earlier he has been wondering who was his neighbor, who he had to treat well, who he was obliged to be nice to. Much more than this, it was important that he do this and get it right because eternal life depended on it.
Jesus turns the table on him. He might expect him to mention his family, his tribe, the people he lives with, the man he works with, the friends he gets on well with. Instead he tells him a tale that would have shocked him. He tells him of a tale of a stranger and a foreigner who could not be expected, at least in his understanding, to do the right thing. The Samaritan knew how to be a neighbor without walls and divisions, who did the right thing and more than would be expected of him. That instead of fulfilling just an expectation or a law or an obligation, something came from within the man, from the very depths of his being, from his heart rather than a cold sense of duty or obligation. He doesn’t wait around to decide who is his kith and kin, or whether he is from his tribe, or whether he lives in the same street, or whether he should do this or it is too risky. Mercy and compassion tells him who is his neighbor.
The question that the doctor of the law poses is this what must I do to gain eternal life? Here is Jesus answer his question, to acquire this life that you wish, the treasure you want to , then you must do works of mercy especially to the wounded, the stranger, the person in need, you must make that person your neighbour. Don’t pass by on the opposite side, don’t find reasons not to do it.
How powerful a message that is to people in the land of America., especially at this time of great national danger in which communities could be divided and anger could take hold, in this time in which there could be a sizzling summer of discontent and violence. In which fire could take hold and spread, could race through the land.
How important it is to recognize each as our neighbour. How important it is to have mercy, bind wounds and care for the broken. How important it is to make a person our neighbor rather than our enemy. How important it is not to pass by on the other side when something is wrong and clearly wrong. How important it is to see and to be moved with compassion, not to be cold and heartless.
How important it is to make someone your neighbor, not to build walls that divide, not to be selective to those you view as your neighbor or friend, the stranger to be feared. In the present time how important a message that is to seek to make the person our neighbor rather than our enemy.
A lot depends on it and Jesus reminds us not only for the present time but also for eternal life as well. From this Church goes forth a message, from these walls a call goes out a call to love our neighbour. Isn’t that what these troubled times needs to hear? Isn’t the parable alive and fresh in our hearing.