At this time of year when many of us make journeys, Jesus too is travelling, continuing His journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. As Jesus travels He teaches, using parables, stories we know and love, because they are so vivid. Everyone likes to hear a good yarn, but the parables are much more than that. Jesus uses parables to explain the Kingdom and His Mission — who He is, and what He is doing — so that His disciples can understand and share that knowledge with others.
In today’s Gospel, Our Lord meets with a legal expert, who wants to put Jesus to the test, to see if what He says is acceptable under Jewish religious law. The lawyer asks Him,
“Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Lk 10:26)
Jesus asks the lawyer what is written in the Law, and how does he interpret it? The man replies,
“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 neighbour as yourself.” (Lk 10:27)
The first part of his answer is a quotation from Deuteronomy (6:5), part of the Shema, a Jewish declaration of faith in God, which begins ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one’. The second part is a quotation from the book of Leviticus (19:18). This summary of the Law represents humanity’s duty towards God and our neighbour. The lawyer understands how he should behave, and how he should live his life. So far, so good. The lawyer then asks Our Lord a question:
‘But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?”’ (Lk 10:29)
The lawyer wants to legitimise himself, and so he asks Jesus to define his terms. Our Lord is happy to oblige, and does so with a parable, The Parable of the Good Samaritan. This well-known parable is set on road from Jerusalem to Jericho. This is a major route, but it is steep and windy (a bit like some of the roads around here!), dropping 3,300ft in 17 miles. The road passes through mostly empty desert land, where bandits made a living robbing travellers. The sight of someone who has been attacked and robbed was probably not an unusual one. In the parable, a priest and a Levite pass by one such victim, crossing to the other side as they do not wish to become ritually impure. If they touched a dead body, they would become unclean, and unable to offer sacrifice and worship in the Temple before they had been cleansed. Rather than risk this, they assume that the man is dead and simply pass on by.
‘But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him.’ (Lk 10:33-34)
Samaritans and Jews generally kept separate from each other, as we saw two weeks ago when a Samaritan town refused to welcome Jesus. The Jews worshipped on Mt Zion, while the Samaritans worshipped on Mt Gerizim. When the Jews went into exile in Babylon, the Samaritans had stayed put. Although they all worshipped the same God, they were completely estranged from each other. Despite this, the Samaritan has compassion, he is deeply moved to help someone in need. We are told that he pours oil and wine on the injured man. This was current medical practice. It was also what one would do at a sacrifice. It is possible that Jesus’ image relates to some words of the prophet Hosea:
‘For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.’ (Hosea 6:6)
The priest and the Levite are concerned with sacrifice and purity, but the Samaritan shows the mercy that God wants. He binds up the wounds, treats them, and brings the man to an inn, and takes care of his needs. The parable shows true love and mercy in action.
Traditionally the Church has also seen a deeper meaning at work here. It has understood the Parable of the Good Samaritan in a symbolic way, which explains both the human condition, and Christ’s saving work. In this reading, the traveller represents Adam, and stands for all humanity. His wounds are those of sin and disobedience. The Samaritan is Jesus, the one who has compassion on us. The inn stands for the Church, the place where sinners are healed. The oil and wine are the sacraments of the Church, which heal us.
Such an interpretation shows us how rich this parable is. Jesus is travelling up to Jerusalem, where He will suffer and die. He is teaching His disciples that they need to put mercy and love into action, because they are a sign of the Kingdom. The Kingdom of God is where Christ reigns from the Cross, where He overcomes sin and Death, to offer eternal life to all humanity. This is why St Paul can write,
‘For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.’ (Col 1:19-20)
Our Lord’s Passion is a work of reconciliation. The Church’s job is to carry on that work. In the Parable, Jews and Samaritans are not yet reconciled, but they can be — through Christ. As Christians we gather together to read and study scripture, to pray together, and to be healed and nourished by God, through the Sacraments. These are outward signs of spiritual grace, the power of God to heal, reconcile, and transform, and extend God’s compassion through space and time. We are gathered in the ‘inn’, so that God can heal us, and strengthen us to go out and do likewise.
Following the example of the Good Samaritan, may we be agents of God’s love and grace in the world. May we transform our communities, and all the world. May we be filled with God’s love, compassion, and healing, and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.