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The Good Samaritan

An address by Fr John Slater on

14 September 2003 11:00 | Fr John Slater

I mentioned to you recently my sabbatical in the Holy Land in 1991. The staff of St George’s College in Jerusalem where I was studying used to speak about the fifth Gospel, by which they meant the geography and the archaeology of Israel and Palestine. Our understanding of the Bible can be enormously enriched by knowledge of the land, its history and its culture.

Most people approach Jerusalem from the west, having arrived at the airport in Tel Aviv. The road leads up from the coast into the hills through lush groves of olives and orange trees and vineyards, but Jerusalem itself is set high up amid rather barren hills. If you travel east beyond Jerusalem you descend into the Kidron valley with the Garden of Gethsemane and then up the Mount of Olives on the other side of the valley to the villages of Bethany and Bethphage. Beyond that is the road from Jerusalem down to Jericho, which is set in a warm and beautiful oasis, well below sea level. This road is the setting for Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. It is a terribly arid environment, burning hot in summer and freezing in winter, and a road inevitably targeted by bandits. In any season, a wounded man abandoned by the roadside would inevitably die - unless, of course, a Good Samaritan comes by in time.

Passing by on the other side, priest and scribe do not check to see if the man is still alive because, if he were dead, they would be ritually impure and unable to take part in the worship of the temple. We can see where their priorities lie. The Samaritan is a man beyond the pale so far as the Jews are concerned and so is not part of that temple culture, and he is prepared to go to trouble and expense to care for the wounded man. Here is an important issue of priorities in which ritual is set against compassion, rules and regulations against the demands of our common humanity.

The phrase Good Samaritan has passed into the English language, meaning someone who acts with compassion and self-sacrifice. But we need to remember the context in which Jesus tells the story. He has summed up the Jewish Law in the two commandments to love God and our neighbour, and he is asked, And who is my neighbour? The man who asks such a question clearly wants to limit the term so that it does not include absolutely everybody. He is looking for a point at which he can say that he has done all that the Law requires of him. Having told his story, Jesus asks who proved himself a neighbour to the man who had fallen among thieves. The answer, of course, is the Samaritan, the very last person a Jew of that time would have regarded as a neighbour and not someone he wanted to be commanded to love.

Now, of course, every society has those that it may consider beyond the pale - groups to which we do not wish to extend the commandment to love our neighbour. In the Middle Ages the Jews were treated very badly in England and eventually expelled for four hundred years. In our own times we have again seen the evils of racism, and even as we battle to overcome prejudice, the new phenomenon of asylum seekers raises new fears and new hostility. But the Gospel is quite unequivocal. If the Samaritan was neighbour to the Jew in the time of Jesus, it is clear that the asylum seeker is my neighbour today, included in the great commandments that sum up the Law - we are to love God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength and our neighbour as ourselves.

And there is a further dimension to this. At the time of Jesus, most Jews would have lived in a small and limited world, though they would be familiar not only with Samaritans but also with other gentiles such as Syrian and Greek traders and, of course, Roman administrators and soldiers. Were all these to be regarded as neighbours? Jesus says yes. Today we live in what we call a global village where men and women all over the world are united in a single network of international trade. So for us the term neighbour and all that it implies must include poorly paid workers in Africa and Asia and South America who provide us with so much of our food. And what does it mean to love our neighbour when it is someone we will never meet or even see? It must mean being politically aware of the consequences of our own and our government’s actions and policies.

Rather than trying to limit the demands of the great commandments - looking for ways to say we have done enough and others have no claim on us - perhaps we can be enthusiastic in sharing the nature of divine love. For if God loves all his children and we are made in his image, then surely love for all humankind is a defining characteristic of Christian faith and life.
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