Proper 10: Deuteronomy 30.9-14; Psalm 25.1-10; Colossians 1.1-14; Luke 10.25-37
Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: graft in our hearts the love of your name, increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and of your great mercy keep us in the same; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
THERE is an element of showing off in asking questions to which you already know the answer, but Jesus bears with the lawyer who sets out to test him, and even affirms the man’s knowledge of the law (Luke 10.25-28).
The next question, however, is a step too far (Luke 10.29). Jesus recognises the attempt to make him lay down strict qualifying conditions for the status of neighbour, and sets out to turn the lawyer’s comfortable certainties upside down.
This happens in two stages. First, the interrogator must imagine, in thinking about the man who was robbed and beaten on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, what it is like to need the presence of a neighbour rather than to be the one who fulfils the duties of a neighbour.
Second, he must make a greater leap still, and imagine that a member of a despised population, who does not subscribe to the law that he so scrupulously keeps, could be the author of generous neighbourly concern.
The use of a story gets under the lawyer’s skin in a way that a reproof or a lecture could not have done. The Samaritan is not the only challenge. The lawyer must also reckon with the two other characters in the narrative, the priest and the Levite, who pass by on the other side (Luke 10.30-32).
They are an essential part of the illustration, and not just because they seem callous. As G. B. Caird shows, they, too, are prisoners of the law, which forbids them to risk defilement by approaching what might, as far as they can see, be a corpse. The lawyer must confront a scene in which “a semi-pagan foreigner might know more about the love of God than a devout Jew blinded by preoccupations with pettifogging rules” (Saint Luke, Penguin, 1963).
What the lawyer will learn, if he allows himself to progress from affront to insight, is something about reaching out rather than stepping back. The Samaritan responds to another human being’s predicament, making no preliminary judgement about race or faith. Part of the subtlety of Jesus’s narrative is that he does not say whether the victim was a Jew. He is injured, and in urgent need. That is all that matters.
The lesson is not just about doing enough, however — cleaning, anointing, and dressing the wounds would have been sufficient in that case (Luke 10.34). It is what happens next, in the move from addressing the immediate situation to continuing care for the man’s care and safety, which is so striking. Caird reads this as Jesus’s refusing to set limits around love, and insisting instead that religion is not “a set of restrictive regulations”, but “a boundless series of opportunities”.
The lesson has not finished yet. The Samaritan, we assume, walks to the nearest inn so that the man can ride, and, having left some money with the innkeeper, promises to return to meet any further expenses. He does not name an upper limit (Luke 10.35).
Jesus wants the lawyer to understand that being a neighbour outside the sheltering framework of the law involves personal cost. It demands one’s own resources, and it demands the overcoming of prejudices.
It is unlikely that the lawyer welcomed the disruption of everything that seemed most secure in his conduct of life and faith. And yet the law itself might have offered him clues to something profound at its core. When the covenant between God and his people is faithfully kept, it is a matter of delight rather than obligation (Deuteronomy 30.9).
It is not a difficult law, if it is understood as the constant awareness of the presence of the God who speaks to his people, staying “very near” to them in the steady promise that is not just to be passed on verbally, but nurtured in their hearts (Deuteronomy 30.14).
A much later picture of a community that has understood and embodied the promises of God emerges from the letter to the Colossians. Their response to the gospel, brought to them by one of their own compatriots, has been one of consistent growth in love, modelled on the pattern of Christ himself (Colossians 1.5-8).
Christians in every generation have found their own models in the riches of the gospel, and a glimpse from a North African psalter collect of the fifth or sixth century seems particularly arresting this week. It honours Christ as “the Samaritan physician of the whole world” (Common Worship collect attached to Psalm 36).