View from the Rectory - October 2019

   THE RECTOR

 

As a preacher, the parable of the Good Samaritan is something of a mixed blessing. It is both familiar and simple and therefore comfortable terrain on which to operate.  It’s message is clear; help doesn’t always come from those from whom we might expect it, and, it’s a mistake to judge a book by its cover. It encourages us to be open-minded, generous in our judgements and, above all, merciful. The focus on behaviour made it popular with those who in the first decades of the 20th C jettisoned religious belief whilst still adhering to Christian moral values and perhaps its enduring place in our culture  reflects something of that attitude.  People are happy to listen to it but for the preacher it presents a  real problem.  Is there anything new to say?  Part of the preacher’s art is to liberate familiar texts from the the zone of the comfortable and enable them to speak with fresh vigour in the circumstances of our own time.  Looking back at my own efforts, the Samaritan has been  the Protestant/Catholic in Northern Ireland, the Bosnian Muslim/Serbian Orthodox in the Balkans and the illegal migrant crossing the channel. The message has lost its edge and so I’m indebted to Dr. Sam Wells, the Vicar of St. Martin in the Fields for an interpretation I have never previously encountered. I only hope I do justice to it in my summary below.   

 

Jesus’ parables are seldom, if ever, just moral entreaties. There were plenty of philosophers and sages in the ancient world who taught the precepts of the good life and how to live in relation to others. Jesus was not one of them. He did say many things that will bear such an interpretation and The Good Samaritan may be foremost amongst them, yet his ultimate concern was the immediacy of the love of God and the imminence of his Kingdom.  As such, most of the characters in the parables signify something or someone else. In this case, the man who fell among thieves is Israel itself, God’s own people, beaten by their enemies and lost in a spiritual wilderness. The priest and the Levite who both pass by on the other side are those  entrusted historically with the leadership of Israel. They represent a class who have long forsaken their righteous calling in pursuit of status and self-interest. As such they inhabit an unreal world and cannot bring themselves to gaze upon the broken body  of the Israel they are called to serve. But the one who does come to the rescue, the Samaritan, is none other than Jesus himself.  God’s people are broken and he has come to bind up their wounds. This he does but the story doesn’t end there for the Samaritan entrusts the care of the wounded man to the innkeeper telling him that he will pay any expenses incurred when he returns.  It is this comment that I find most intriguing, a reference perhaps to Jesus’  ascension and the promise that he will come again in glory.

But why did Jesus identify himself as a Samaritan?  Jews and Samaritans had lived in mutual antagonism for centuries. It was a north/south divide, but one exacerbated by racial antipathy and religious difference.  A modern parallel might be Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles or South Africa during  Apartheid. Feelings were raw and the fact that for centuries we have been content to treat this parable merely as a moral tale calling it THE Good Samaritan indicates that, even in this limited reading, its  message is still too hot to handle. THE Good Samaritan suggests that the principal actor was an exception to the rule and that the judgement of Samaritans as a whole was sound.  This may be why the impact of the parable is limited in places like Northern Ireland even amongst Christians. It  allows the response,  yeah, I’m sure one or two of them are OK. But imagine saying to an ardent Presbyterian in East Belfast, your saviour will come to you as a Roman Catholic.  That was the kind of challenge that Jesus was laying down to his hearers.  If they got it they may have been scandalised. Crucifixion is too good for the likes of you!  It would have been more comfortable not to get it and just receive the story as a rather edgy moral tale. Comfortable then and comfortable now, for this parable insists that to enter into the fullness of God’s Kingdom we must  come naked and vulnerable, humbly acknowledging that God is not made in our image but we in his.  God is God and not what we might wish God to be.  Yes, we all have far to travel in our spiritual journey  and if we close our hearts to the great wonder and challenge of God we might well end up like the man who fell among thieves.  But in our moment of vulnerability and need will we recognise the Saviour who offers to bind up our wounds and carry us with him on his way?

Charles Booth


 


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