Today’s Good Samaritan: who is your neighbor?

In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him.

Luke 10:30-34 (NIV) (read verses 25-37)

We all know the parable of the Good Samaritan. Perhaps we even know it so well that it’s lost its punch a little bit. I’m sure you could recite it roughly, if asked! Some guy gets hurt, two people pass by and ignore him, the third stops to help. Person number three was the one who acted like a “neighbor” – and, so the moral goes, so should we.

The title of this famous parable has become part of our lexicon. “What a Good Samaritan!” we say. Shortened even to, “oh, she’s such a Samaritan!” The word has ceased to refer to a people group, as it once did. Now it often just means “a good guy”, someone charitable and helpful.

But who were these Samaritans, really?

Who were the Samaritans?

The Samaritans were ancestrally closely related to the Jews. They followed a religion that was similar to Judaism in many respects, but still different enough for Jews to see them as heathens. Their main disagreement was about location – the location of the Holy Place of Israel. Samaritans had built their own temple at Mount Gerizim, roughly 25 miles north of Jerusalem, and they believed this was the true Holy Place, not the temple in Jerusalem.1

About a century before the birth of Jesus, the Jews supposedly destroyed the Samaritan temple and the surrounding territory. Years later, closer to the time of Jesus’ birth, a group of Samaritans took their own revenge for this destruction. They desecrated the Jerusalem Temple by scattering the bones of dead people around the sanctuary.2

To put it simply, the Jews and Samaritans had very little respect for each other. There was ongoing violence and enmity between the two groups. The low opinion that the Jewish people had for the Samaritans during this time was the background of this parable.

“Holy” and “righteous” – but not necessarily loving

When we go back and read the story with fresh eyes, now we can see some surprising implications for these first-century listeners. In describing what it means to do the work of God, surely we would expect Jesus to choose one of the first two passers-by as the neighborly character in this story – the priest, or the Levite. These first two men, after all, were the “holy people” of Jewish culture. They were righteous and well-respected; the kind of people you expected to do the right thing. People that you counted on to do the right thing.

But in fact, by virtue of who they were, showing kindness in this situation actually put them at greater risk of doing wrong in the eyes of the Law. You see, priests and Levites weren’t meant to come into contact with dead bodies. This made them ritually unclean, something they had to avoid at all costs. If the injured man were to die while they were helping him, they would have to go through a strict ritual of purification before resuming their duties.

Being holy made it all too difficult – it got in the way of them actually being loving.

Who might these two respected, “righteous” people be, do you think, if the story were rewritten for today’s audiences?

Can you think of situations today where religion gets in the way of loving? Or can you think of situations when you might have turned away from someone who was in need of help, because you were concerned with the appearance of righteousness?

Meeting Christ in the outsider

It’s after the priest and Levite have passed by that we get the real shock of the story.

Jesus tells his listeners that it’s someone outside of their religion – someone who believes all the wrong things about God! – who is actually the one doing God’s will.

What? Scandal! Outrage!

The Samaritan – the one classed by this first-century Jewish audience as outsider, heathen, impure, barbaric. This is the person is doing good, demonstrating love, acting like a neighbor. Against all expectations, and in spite of their background and beliefs, this is the person that Jesus holds up and praises as an example.

This would have been a hard message to swallow for these people who had been taught to hate the Samaritans, to believe they had no redeeming qualities whatsoever, and to see themselves as unquestionably superior.

Who is the Samaritan today – and who are you?

Think again about how this story might sound if Jesus were telling it today. Who would this third character be, do you think? Who are today’s ‘Samaritans’ to those who count themselves as insiders to the Christian church?

Let’s bring it even closer to home. Let’s do the tough work of examining our own hearts, here. What kind of people are ‘Samaritans’ to you, personally?

Are there people whose good deeds you have ignored, or rejected, or belittled, or simply felt uncomfortable acknowledging – because they didn’t come from the ‘right’ sort of person?

How often do we say things like, “it doesn’t matter so much what people do, it’s their heart that matters” – when what we really judge as “heart” is whether they look right, or dress right, or worship in the right way?

But actions are what really reveal someone’s heart, aren’t they? Jesus knew that. So do we, deep down, but sometimes maybe we don’t want to admit it. Sometimes we’d rather believe the easy, comfortable lie that the state of our heart is justified by the tribe we’ve aligned ourselves with.

The truth is tougher to swallow. But it’s the truth that will set us free.

Are there individuals or people groups that you’ve dismissed in your life, that Jesus is calling you either to be a neighbor to, or to acknowledge that they have been a neighbor to you?

Good News: what does it mean to share the Gospel?

And then he told them, “Go into all the world and preach the Good News to everyone.

Mark 16:15 (NLT)

How often have you heard pastors preach on the Great Commission? Or heard other people in church speak about the importance of effective evangelism? Of not being ashamed of the gospel, and being ready to share your testimony?

Go out and make disciples of all nations, they cry! Tell everyone you meet about this Good News, about what Christ has done for them and for you! Take every opportunity to tell the world, tell someone, tell anyone, how good it is to be a Christian!

But what does it really mean to “share the Good News”? What was Christ really asking of his disciples, and what is he really asking of us?

The “Three Minute Sales Pitch Testimony”

Have you come across this idea in evangelical circles of having a prepared, practised, “three minute testimony”? Something you can spout out and recite on command whenever required, whenever an opening presents itself?

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that preparing such an account is without merit. It’s a great exercise for our own spiritual growth to think about and write down an honest, concise description of why you’re a Christian. It’s helpful to clarify what your spirituality actually means to you, and what experiences have led you to hold your current set of beliefs.

The problem arises not with giving an authentic account of our faith, but with transforming it into some kind of marketing spiel. Such speeches tend to fall on deaf ears. Worse, they do harm, because it becomes apparent in the delivery that the speaker doesn’t actually care about their audience. They only see them as a potential sale for this “gospel” they’re advertising.

A better testimony: Listen and love

By all means, share honestly and vulnerably what Christ has done for you. But be careful your testimony doesn’t come across as a weapon, designed to manipulate or to shame. That was never the intention of the Great Commission.

In our last post, we saw how instead of jumping into trying to “fix things”, the example set by Christ is to love first. And just as Jesus grieved with Mary and Martha before raising Lazarus, so too we should sit with a person and love them before trying to “sell” them our idea of salvation.

How can we know what “salvation” is for a person, if we haven’t taken the time to find out what they need saving from? How can we preach the “good news” to someone, if we haven’t listened to them enough to know their needs? Reducing the Gospel to a one-size-fits-all marketing message is dehumanising. It dehumanises those we deliver it to, who are individuals with their own unique hurts and desires, worthy of being known and heard. It dehumanises us, too! You’re worth more to Jesus than the slickness of your three minute testimony and your ability to market it well. And it cheapens the actual good news of Christ, which says that each one of us is loved and valued for who we are.

Remember that good news looks different to each person. So let’s not be blind to someone’s unique situation in the rush to tell our practised story. If you really want to bring someone good news, first love them enough to know what “good news” means to them.

“Jesus wept” – God prioritises loving over fixing things

When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
Jesus wept.
Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

John 11:32-37 (NIV)

It’s famously the shortest verse in the Bible – the verse that lazy Sunday School kids trot out when tasked with memorising Scripture.

Jesus wept.

It may be brief, but boy, do those two words pack a punch.

The setting: One of Jesus’ close friends in Bethany, Lazarus, has tragically fallen ill and died. And worse, Jesus wasn’t even there for him during his final days. Visiting a neighbouring town, Jesus received word of Lazarus’ illness, but chose not to return to Bethany sooner.

When he does arrive back, Lazarus’ sisters Martha and Mary, also dear friends of Jesus, cry out to him in anguish. Why weren’t you there? Why couldn’t you save him? They are desperately grieving for the loss of their brother, and wanting to understand how it all went wrong. They can’t understand why their friend – and the one they called Savior – seemed to leave them all alone in their darkest hour.

Now, we know how this story ends. We know that only a few verses later, Jesus gives the triumphal cry of “Lazarus, come out!” – and miraculously, Lazarus rises from the dead.

But before we get to that extraordinary finale, we have this curious moment, where Jesus…

weeps.

Jesus grieves alongside Mary and Martha, even knowing what will happen next.

Jesus doesn’t diminish Mary and Martha for their grief. He doesn’t tell them that their sadness comes from a lack of faith. He reminds Martha of her faith, yes, and asks her to reassert her belief in him (see earlier verses 21–27), but there is no reprimand there, just comfort and reassurance; a gentle but powerful declaration of hope in the midst of her despair.

Nor is he aloof from or unaffected by their emotion. No, he shares in their sadness, and this is perhaps the most confounding thing, because we see from earlier verses that he knows Lazarus will be raised. It seems reasonable to expect that Jesus would stride in, say, don’t worry! I’ve got it all under control! and simply cut straight to the resurrection part. Isn’t that what we would do, given the ability? If we’ve got the power to fix things, then surely we should just get on with the fixing! Why waste time crying, grieving, over something that’s going to get better soon?

Jesus shows us by example here what it is to be fully present in each moment. In this particular moment, there was pain and grief that needed acknowledgment. In the moment that followed, there would be miraculous healing and joy – but they weren’t there yet. And so Jesus demonstrates his love for Lazarus, Mary, and Martha by sitting in this present moment of grief for Lazarus’ death – even though doing so means experiencing the same pain and heartbreak that his friends are suffering.

Christ doesn’t consider himself above grieving alongside his friends. Christ does not separate himself from this painful emotion; no, he walks through it with Mary and Martha, feeling every bit of distress that they are at the loss of Lazarus. When Jesus sees Mary weeping, he is “deeply moved and troubled”, writes John. God is with us in our pain and grief.

We’re told that many saw the raising of Lazarus, and believed in Jesus as a result. No doubt they were amazed and in awe of such a miracle.

But those who witnessed the moment just beforehand, when Jesus wept, said this: “See how he loved him!”

And that, right there, reveals to us so much about the character of God. Christ responds to us in each moment by choosing love, even if it’s painful. God doesn’t rush to smooth things over, diminishing us in the process. God sits and weeps with us first, letting us know that we truly are not alone. That demonstration of love takes precedence over any miracles, any demonstration of power.

Blessed are we when our impulse is to love first, before trying to fix things, even if we are derided as weak and ineffective for doing so. Blessed are we when we understand that this is as much a part of any healing as the ‘fixing’ itself.

New Year decluttering… for the soul

It’s January, less than a week into a new year – a new decade, in fact. A time of year traditionally filled with dieting and exercising, wardrobe clear-outs, trips to the op-shop… decluttering and downsizing in every way imaginable.

We all relate to this urge to “start afresh” with each new year, to embark on a decluttering frenzy that lets us shed ourselves of everything unnecessary in our lives. To rid ourselves of all those things we accumulated over the past twelve months, things that we thought would bring us happiness, but which only ended up taking up space and weighing us down (sometimes quite literally, hence the dieting and exercising). So we sign up to programs that promise a better way – a lighter, less encumbered way. We try and Marie Kondo our way into “sparking joy” in our heart, in a way that all those possessions and all that decadent living never quite seemed to achieve.

The man who couldn’t declutter

In the Gospel of Mark, we hear a similar kind of story about a man who had it all, but was searching for something deeper. He came to Jesus and asked him what he could do. He already did all the right things, he said, he’d followed the Ten Commandments ever since he was a boy! But even though this man insists he’s done all that’s required of him, his questioning of Jesus seems to indicate that there’s still some burden weighing him down; some feeling that he’s not quite getting it.

Jesus’ response to him confirms his suspicion – but not in the way he’d hoped:

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

Mark 10:21-22 (NIV)

Sell everything you have. Wow.

I hate to say it, but I think I would have “gone away sad”, too.

It’s hard to let go of our attachment to the things of this world. Whether it’s too much food or drink, or buying possessions we don’t really need – we’ve become addicts to consumerism, to being able to have what we want, when we want it.

And when the voice of Christ whispers in our ears gently saying – give this away! Come, follow me! – we become sad, and afraid, because letting go of our creature comforts can honestly be very, very scary. Even when we know they are weighing us down; even when we know they are simply taking up space in our lives, or sometimes even harming us.

Letting go of our attachment

Better one handful with tranquillity
    than two handfuls with toil
    and chasing after the wind.

Ecclesiastes 4:6

Let’s use this opportunity of the New Year for a decluttering of our cupboards, firstly, but also a decluttering that goes right down into our souls.

Let’s give away those belongings we don’t need, yes, but let’s also let go of our attachment to such things.

Instead of making space in our homes only to spend the next twelve months filling it up again with more of the same, let’s make an effort to turn to Christ for that sense of comfort, of fulfilment, of peace and purpose that we’re all searching for so desperately.

Whatever it is that you’ve filled your cupboards and your heart with that’s weighing you down and keeping you from following Jesus, give yourself permission to set it aside. It’s scary, I know… but it will be worth it.