While I was on the 7 hour flight from Ireland back to Virginia, I had plenty of time to watch movies, including some Irish made movies. One of the movies I watched was called Belfast. It was the story of one family’s struggle to stay neutral and compassionate to their neighbors, both Protestant and Catholic during the religious conflict during the 1960’s. As I was reading in preparation for todays Parable of the Good Samaritan, I kept recalling scenes from the movie Belfast and I realized how relevant and contemporary this ancient story told by Jesus still is.
Understanding the setting of this story is significant to understanding the story. First, the territory between Jerusalem and Jericho were deep into Jewish territory. Politics of the time within the Jewish community were volatile. Those who were attached to the temple, such as the priests and Levites were anxious not to offend the Romans. They enjoyed a large amount of freedom of religion as long as things remained peaceful. Another group, the Zealots, were revolutionaries, insurrectionist, terrorist. They believed in taking Israel away from Rome by brut force and were not above intimidation and acts of violence against their own people to encourage less enthusiastic Jews to join in supporting their actions. There were also the Pharisees, who were focused on individual adherence to the traditions of their ancestors and the laws described in the Torah as a means of restoring God’s kingdom. The Essenes washed their hands of the whole lot and fled into the desert near Jericho declaring only they had the truth and everyone else was destined for destruction.
Just north of this region, between Judah and Galilee lay Samaria. Samaria had originally been part of the northern tribes of Israel which were conquered by the Assyrians. Most of the descendants of Abraham, except perhaps those deemed not worth the effort, were killed or carried off into exile and replaced with foreigners. There is a story in the book of Kings that says these foreigners were being killed by wild beasts. In an effort to appease the God of that land, the king of Assyria sent back a priest from those who had been deported to teach these foreigners how to worship the God of Abraham. What this priest taught them looked like the faith as it had been known during the time of Moses –Mt Sinai was where God resided and the 5 books of the Torah were the whole of the holy scriptures. He left out the temple worship known under the Davidic kingdoms and the later wisdom writings and the writings of the prophets, probably because that was what the northern tribes believed, but it put the Samaritans outside the cultural norm of the rest of the area.
Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and he is stopped by a lawyer who is trying to figure out who Jesus is and begins questioning him. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus turns the question back on him “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” and the lawyer responds appropriately, “You shall 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 your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus affirms his answer.
The lawyer asks another question to clarify and I think we are wrong to jump to the conclusion that he was trying to get out of being a good neighbour. Much of scripture, including the New Testament talks about how to behave within a community, the Jewish community, the Christian community. He could have seriously believed that the scriptures were talking about behavior within his faith community and seeking Jesus’ understanding of what constituted that community.
Rather than give a direct answer, Jesus tells a story. Jesus tells us that a man was on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho and he was set upon by men who beat him and left him for dead. My friend and mentor, the Rev. Dr. William Brosend, states in his book The Parables, that we can assume that all the characters in this story are Jewish, save the last. The traveler, the attackers, the passersby, and the inn keeper. Jesus’ audience is hearing a story from inside their community. The word used to describe the attackers is the same word used to describe the men crucified on either side of Jesus. Romans did not crucify common criminals, they crucified enemies of the state. Here is where the scenes from the movie Belfast began to inform my image of this scene. This is a story of conflict within a community as it first unfolds. Dr Brosend indicates that the beating was probably intended to send a message to the community. It was a message not lost on those that were traveling on the same road.
Jesus tells us a temple priest is the first to pass by. Jesus’ audience would have thought of the priest as one of the good guys. It is only through 2000 years of preaching we have forgotten that. We are not told the priest’s motivation for crossing to the other side of the street only that he avoided the situation. Same with the Levite. Whatever their reasons, and they may have had some good ones, they were focused on their own agenda rather than taking in what was happening around them and responding to the situation. We never do that, do we? Sociologist have done field studies on people’s reactions to similar situations on our city streets with depressing results.
Jesus’ audience would probably have expected the next person he named to be a Pharisee. Again, we have put negative connotations on the word Pharisee for so long we forget that for the majority of Jesus’ audience, the Pharisee’s were good guys. Perhaps that is why Jesus was so tough on them, they had the greatest potential, but didn’t use it wisely. But Jesus makes a shocking statement. The next person to pass by is a Samaritan. Wrong race, wrong religion, wrong place. Why is he even on this road?
The Samaritan stops. That is the first and most important thing he does. He gets out of his own head and heart and stops to see what is going on in front of him. When he does so, he realizes, first that the man is still alive and second he feels deep compassion for this man lying there.
We quickly jump to put ourselves in the place of the “Good” Samaritan, but what if we are the person left battered and broken by life. Does it matter more who comes to our aid or that someone is willing to do so. I have seen people reject help because they were rejecting the person offering help. Perhaps we should be more attuned to what is in people’s hearts and accept offers of friendship from those who have a gentle and caring heart even if they don’t fit into our favorite categories.
The Samaritan is the perfect example of a good steward. He gives first of his time. He sees a need that is greater than his own and he freely offers his assistance. He didn’t check his watch or his calendar to see if it was convenient. Second he gives of his talent. He uses the resources he has to take care of the most immediate need, dressing the man’s wounds and transporting him to a place where he can receive further care. Third, he gives of his treasure. He does not drop the man off at the inn and tell the owner he is your problem now. He pays for the services of the innkeeper and promises to do more if necessary to see that the man is taken care of properly.
When Jesus’ asks, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man…?” The answer is pretty obvious to everyone present. The man responds, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus tells him, “Go and do likewise.”
The Parable of the Good Samaritan calls us to a time of self-reflection. Where do you fit into this story? Are you the lawyer, seeking clarification concerning the path you are on? Are you open to new insights? Are you the first traveler, beat up by life’s circumstances and praying for a neighbor to have compassion on you? Are you willing to accept the help that is offered or do you push them away due to pride or prejudice? Are you among the insurrectionists, hurting other people to prove you are in the right? What impact does your behavior have on other people? Are you the priest or the Levite – by stepping the messy parts of life, leaving that part for someone else to deal with? Are you so caught up in your own agenda that you miss opportunities to reflect Christ to your neighbor? Are you the Samaritan, do you see the world as your neighborhood looking beyond our categories to see individuals? Do you take time to stop and see what is happening around you, using the gifts God has given you to help others out of compassion? Are you the innkeeper, a shelter from the storms of life and a place of healing and nurturing for others? Are the doors of your heart open to the pain of others? I suspect we are all each of these from time to time. When Jesus say go and do likewise he is responding to the comment that the neighbor is the one who shows mercy. How can we be good neighbors in our own context?