I suspect that if ask people what the message of the parable of the Good Samaritan is they will say something like, ‘Love your neighbour’ or ‘Go and do thou likewise’. There are hundreds of hospitals and charities in the world named after this parable. We all know about The Samaritans of course. The parable calls us to let go of all those fears and constraints that hold us back from loving our fellow human beings. And that’s a message that we need to hear, and that we will probably always need to hear. But, those of us who gathered on Tuesday, thought about this parable a bit earlier in the week – and we could see that it’s actually doing something a bit more complicated and a bit less obvious than telling us to ‘be good’. It’s telling us that people we expect to be good sometimes aren’t – and that people we expect to be bad are sometimes good. And perhaps it also challenges us to accept that sometimes we are not the do gooders, but the wounded. And that sometimes we’re not the ‘givers’ but the receivers – and that we can receive grace and goodness and kindness from people and in places we least expect… So the ‘be good neighbours’ message is a good one – but it’s not the whole story…
For centuries and centuries people in the Church have been talking about what this story means – and there are lots of different takes on it. I think it may be that the reading of this story that is most popular – if you take Christianity as whole and think about Christians all over the world and throughout history – might just be one we wouldn’t naturally think of.
From the early teachers of the Church right up to today in many places this story is actually read as a parable of the whole story of the Gospel, the story of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. It’s not read first of all as a kind of moral exhortation to us, but as a kind of celebration of what God does for us. So today I’d like to unfold this way of reading the parable and see whether God will speak to us through it. It has something to say – especially when you are feeling a bit worn down by all the usual messages about being a good neighbour – perhaps when you are feeling a bit battered by life yourself…
Have a look at the picture that’s printed inside the order of service – and you will see that the Good Samaritan is shown as Jesus. That’s how many have seen this parable. If you go to the great cathedral in Chartres and look at the stained glass windows – you’ll find a window depicting the fall of Adam and Eve, and their expulsion from Eden. And then right there below it, as a kind of answer to the story of Adam and Eve, is a window showing the parable of the Good Samaritan. This story is understood to give the answer to the woundedness not of one particular injured man on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, but of all humanity. The wounded man represents all of us, in this view. The priest and Levite who pass by represent all those people and systems and ways of thinking that just can’t help us or who will not, and the Samaritan represents Jesus Christ, who God sends to heal us and care for us and restore us from death to life. And I know that you might say that Jesus can’t really have meant the story to mean that, but lots of Christians have understood it this way. And it does at least lead us away from the trapof thinking of ourselves as the Good Samaritan, as the one called to acts of charity and healing. It helps us see ourselves in the place of the wounded man, and to know ourselves as those in need of healing and grace. We are so easily led to see ourselves as the hero of the story – when perhaps we might need to see ourselves first of all in that place of woundedness. We need to see ourselves as those who belong there I think, before we can truly know what it means to give to others. Do you see what I mean?
I find this way of looking at this text more moving and grace giving than all the many calls to be good Samaritans which I have heard and even spoken myself. Perhaps because I’m aware of my wounds and of the wounds of all of us, I cherish the story of the Gospel that tells me that God has sent his Son to find me, and pick me up and heal me and take care of me. And of course that Gospel story becomes all the more poignant and healing, when I see that Jesus was not only good, like the Samaritan, but also wounded himself like the poor traveller on the road. The story of Jesus’ death and resurrection are, I believe, the real oil and wine for the woundedness of human beings like you and me. This really is the Gospel of Christ.
You will know, perhaps, a little about the story of the hymn writer John Newton. He was a slave trader, but had a conversion experience and, eventually, abandoned his former trade and joined the abolitionists. He wrote the world’s favourite hymn, Amazing Grace. But he wrote other hymns too, among them one on the parable of the Good Samaritan – which we shall sing in a moment. It may not be the world’s greatest hymn – but I think it shows that this way of reading the parable really works… in a way. It moves me away from thinking of myself as the hero of the story and it helps me see what is true – that I am the wounded one and Jesus is the real hero of the story of God’s dealings with the world.
An exercise which Christians are sometimes invited to do with any Bible story is to ask ‘where are you in the story?’ –‘which character do you identity with?’. I think, throughout my life, there are many times when I’ve thought of myself as the religious ones – the priest and Levite – too hurried by holy tasks or obligations to stop to help one in need – and I’ve known myself accused and challenged. And sometimes I’ve thought of myself as the Good Samaritan, or hoped at least to be like that, the one who helps, and who needs to be encouraged to love my neighbour, whoever needs me. And do you know, there are days when I could easily be the robbers, when rage and anger fill me and when I feel the frustrations that many people feel. But maybe one place where I can often see myself in this story, and perhaps where you can too, is in the place of the wounded one. Life hurts. There are days when all of us know what it is be beaten – and if not literally, then in other ways. There are times when we feel utterly alone, our suffering unnoticed. This is not what some individuals endure, but is what it is to be a human being.
And often when we’ve thought about where we are in the story, someone might ask us, ‘Where is Jesus?’. Of course you might say, ‘He’s the narrator’. But I think you can also quite properly say that Jesus is the good Samaritan, the one who comes to rescue us on the difficult journey of life. Jesus is the one who reveals God’s response to human woundedness – and who lifts us up from our place in the depths. This is the Gospel.
If we were having communion today you could also see this story acted out in bread and wine. There is wine for the healing of our wounds. There is the hospitality which waits to welcome us home. And there is the story of the sacrifice which Christ made once for us.
You see ‘the Gospel’ is not first of all an imperative to ‘be good’ – though I know that lots of people think that’s what our message is. The Gospel is the story of what God has done for us, and for what God is still doing within us, through Christ. We are not here so that we can strive to be good – but so that we can hear the good news that God has come to us while we are unable to do anything much, come to us in our woundedness, and making us whole. We are all hurt, all flawed, all weak. But Christ, like the good Samaritan, can take us to a place where we find new life. And he is even ready to be wounded himself out of love for us. This is the Gospel of Christ – thanks be to God.