When I was christened, my Godmother Margaret gave me this gift. You might recognise it as a popular painting from about a hundred years ago by Margaret Tarrant, called The Lesser Brethren. It depicts Jesus out walking in an English countryside covered in our beloved animals, including red squirrels, foxes, badgers, deer and of course some cuddly lambs. For the first 18 years of life, this was my defining image of what Jesus was like: a pretty naïve image of someone meek, mild, kind and inoffensive. I wonder what your own image of Jesus is like and how it might have changed over the years? Later in this sermon I’ll show you the image which means the most now to me.
Many of us can face a similar problem with today’s story of the Good Samaritan. You might have heard it read dozens of times and have a fixed understanding of what it means, possibly based on many childhood Sunday school sessions. In fact, this parable is sometimes called the ‘preacher’s nightmare’ – not because it’s obscure and difficult to understand, but because it’s so well known. It’s so well-known even in today’s culture, that when I googled the phrase Good Samaritan it came back with 25 million results in less than a second!
When I was a child, this parable was used to give a pretty blunt moral message about considering who is my neighbour and why we should give charitably. That’s a good message, but I don’t think that’s what this parable is about at all. Today I’d like to look at two different approaches to the parable that help us reflect on who we are and who God is. There is something at the heart of this parable that remain mysterious, radical and fresh as ever, something you can glimpse in the music we’re singing in today’s service and in the slides shown during this sermon.
First of all, to quickly remind you of what is happening in this parable. An expert of the law, who knew his scriptures well, has come to visit Jesus. He’s here to ‘test’ him and asks him one of life’s big questions: What should I do to inherit eternal life? This is kind of surprising. It’s as if Gary or Christine were to come to you at the end of the service and ask you that same question – ‘So… what should I do to inherit eternal life?’ Is there some kind of catch here? Shouldn’t they know a little bit about that subject? Jesus, like all good Rabbis, throws a question back to this expert of the scriptures. ‘So what is written in the law? How do you read it?’
And the expert in the law responds by saying: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind: and Love your neighbour as yourself.’ That’s right, says Jesus, so go and do that… But it’s not enough for the expert, so he wants to dig a bit deeper and asks a killer follow-up question: ‘And who is my neighbour?’ Which leads Jesus to telling this parable.
You might have noticed that this parable is beautifully constructed, like Psalm 23, in seven parts. First of all, Jesus introduces the three main characters – the priest, the Levite and the Samaritan and it’s followed up by the three actions that the Samaritan takes to help – bandaging the man in need, putting the man on his donkey and ensuring he is cared for at the inn. And in the middle of this story is its beating heart and purpose:
‘The Samaritan came where the man was; and when he saw him, he had compassion on him.’ The Parable of the Good Samaritan begins a shift in Jesus’ teaching. Up to now the parables have had a focus on the kingdom of God. As Jesus sets his face towards the pain and suffering that is to come in Jerusalem, his parables have a different focus summed up in just one word: GRACE. Many of the next series of parables such as the parables of the lost sheep or the prodigal son, focus on this Grace in action.
But what is this grace? I’ve heard many definitions of what grace is like: such as being ‘God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense’. But the most beautiful definition I’ve heard is one from the preacher John Stott: “Grace is love that cares and stoops and rescues.” This is the image of Jesus that means so much to me now. It’s not a single painting, but this act portrayed by artists across different cultures from the Good Samaritan: God in love, reaching down to us. ‘Grace is love that cares and stoops and rescues.’
When Sue and I were planning the music for today’s services, we found it very difficult to think of many well-known worship songs which have a focus on parables. There are some children’s songs, but not many others, which is surprising as almost a third of Jesus’s recorded words were parables and stories. Our problem is that we have moved away from seeing the parables as being about theology – about God and our relationship with him – and more about ethics and how we should live.
Earlier in the service we sang a song called ‘How kind the Good Samaritan’. It’s a long-forgotten hymn that reminds us that we are like that injured man, in desperate need of God’s grace, with Jesus in the role of the Good Samaritan. It was written by a man called John Newton. This former slave trader came to realise how wrong his life had been when he met with Jesus. He wrote the beautiful hymn we sing later in the service, Amazing grace. This amazing grace is what compelled me to come to God in need of his forgiveness and compels me every day to do the same. Each day as Christians we live in this grace of God – a love and forgiveness that we don’t deserve, yet is freely given at great cost. It’s an undeserved, overwhelming love and compassion and care for us. Whatever we face in life – among all the hard choices, the wrong turns we take, the addictions, the messiness of life, this grace remains unchanging. In Jesus we see the heart of God and the overwhelming desire to love us.
A second approach to this parable is about how we should live in the presence of this amazing grace. You might have spotted that in this parable the question ‘Who is my neighbour?’ is never answered. For Jesus, the question is completely irrelevant. In Jesus’ eyes, the concept of ‘neighbour. is wrong because it suggests there are some people closer and more important than others, more special, more deserving of our care. Jesus blows this out of the water by turning this thinking on its head in the parable. The person who has been injured is faceless – he could be a Jew, a Gentile, or anything else. And it’s not the upright members of society who stop to help him, but one of those despised Samaritans. In this story, it’s the hated and despised outsider that is the role model, acting as a ‘good neighbour’ and bringing care for those in need. And so this parable becomes less about who is our neighbour and more about how we should act in a world where these barriers are broken down.
The parable doesn’t try to hide how difficult and costly it is to live in a world without barriers. Martin Luther King gave one of his finest sermons, known as the ‘I’ve been to the mountaintop’ speech, the night before he was assassinated. What’s often forgotten is that he was also preaching about this parable, the story of the Good Samaritan. For him, the parable is about the fear that leads us to inaction. Here is what he said about the actions of the priest and the Levite.
“It’s possible that those men were afraid. You see, the Jericho road is a dangerous road. I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. It’s a winding, meandering road. It’s really conducive for ambushing. In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the “Bloody Pass.” And you know, it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking in order to seize them… And so the first question that the priest asked — the first question that the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”
The Samaritan helps the stranger at great risk to himself. Not only was the Bloody Pass a dangerous place to linger. It was also risky for the Samaritan to get involved. Those who first heard this parable would have been astonished at the thought of a Samaritan bringing an injured person, possibly a Jew, into the Jewish settlement of Jericho. If people thought the Samaritan had caused these injuries, he would have faced a possible stoning to death. And have you wondered why the Samaritan was so generous in leaving some money with the innkeeper and promising to cover all other debts? Why so generous? Any lodger in a commercial inn who could not pay his bill risked being sold as a slave by the innkeepers. The victim here had nothing, not even any clothes. The Good Samaritan gave enough to help the man not only recover from his wounds but escape a life of slavery.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed about the huge needs of a world where there are no barriers, where everyone becomes our neighbour. But it’s truer than ever that how we live has a direct impact on people all around the world. Caring for our neighbour becomes an imperative on how we treat our world, who we vote into power, what we eat, on all aspects of our lives. And we try to care, not only from a simple sense of human decency, but because we have been shown by Jesus the ultimate example of God’s grace in action.
I want to finish off by mentioning one other famous song about grace that’s become very popular in our society recently. If you were watching highlights from Glastonbury festival, you might have seen the rapper Stormzy’s incredible performance in front of over 100,000 people. Near the end of his set, he says to the crowd ‘We’re going to take it to church. Let’s give God all the glory right now’. And these are the words he sang:
Lord, I’ve been broken
Although I’m not worthy
You fixed me,
I’m blinded by your grace
You came and saved me.
I said a prayer this morning
I prayed I would find the way
To another day, I was so afraid
‘Til you came and saved
You came and saved me
And the rain was pouring
‘Cause the sun faded away
Now I’m in a better place
No longer afraid
Blinded by your grace
Hamish Bruce 14/07/19
IMage – Stormzy, Glastonbury 2019, @kreptplaydirty