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?

Today you will be with me in paradise

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Luke 23:39-43

Two thieves, suffering the same fate as Jesus — hanging on a cross, experiencing unimaginable pain.

Both men speak to him, but in very different ways.

To the second thief, Jesus speaks in return: offering a promise of hope.

We might have expected Jesus to speak to the first thief, as well; the one who “rails” at him and hurls insults. But there are no words for this first man — no words of hope, but no words of condemnation or judgement, either. Jesus only has silence to offer the first thief, and his own suffering alongside him.

It’s easy for us, I think, to pass our own judgement on this first man. In doing so, we tell ourselves that we’d never speak to Christ like that.

It’s easy to forget the pain this man was in was equal to that of Christ; that he suffered in the same way, that he also hung on a cross.

This man was speaking out of his pain.

Maybe you also know what that’s like. Have you ever railed at God out of a place of pain? Or perhaps not at God directly — perhaps it was at another person. But then, remember Christ says that “whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do to me”, so when we say hurtful things to one another, even if it’s because we’re in pain ourselves, we’re no different to that first thief on the cross.

And in the same way, when we do this, Jesus doesn’t speak to us harshly in response. He doesn’t give us any words of condemnation and judgement. Instead, He remains silent, and shares in our suffering, waiting for us to finish whatever it is we have to say.

Eventually, we’re done with our railing and our anger. We finally get to that point in our pain where there’s no more hurtful words left to say. We reach a place where the only thing left for us to cry out is, “Jesus — remember me!”

That’s the point when Christ finally speaks. That’s the point when He turns towards us, and He says, “Today — today, you’re with me.”

(Note: This article is adapted from a short message I delivered at my church on Good Friday, as part of a series on Jesus’ seven final sayings on the cross.)

Being right: how important is it to you?

One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”

Mark 2:23-24 (Read Mark 2:23-27)

There’s an oft-shared comic by popular webcomic author xkcd, in which someone ignores his partner’s pleas to come to bed, because “Someone is wrong on the internet!”

The popularity of this comic no doubt stems from its relatability. We all know that frustration of hearing someone misrepresent a topic we feel strongly about. We can relate to that driving impulse to correct and inform, when we’re confronted with something that’s wrong, so wrong!!

Sometimes the frustration arises because it’s us who is being misrepresented. Have you ever felt the fury and indignation that comes with being falsely accused of something? The burning desire to set the record straight and vindicate ourselves overpowers anything else.

But other times, we can get all riled up over something that’s got nothing to do with us personally at all. And yet, defending the “rightness” of our ideas can seem as close to the heart as defending our own reputations.

The idol of being right

It’s easy, I think, for our ideas and beliefs about the world to become intertwined with our identity. So when someone challenges what we believe, we take it personally. We see it as a false accusation, as slander, if someone disagrees with us, and we take it upon ourselves to correct them by any means possible, in order to clear our name and restore truth to the universe. Being right, and being seen to be right, becomes not just academic, but of personal importance.

I get the feeling the Pharisees in Jesus’ day were a bit like that. They were so infuriated by Jesus and his disciples doing things differently — ignoring the prescribed traditions by not observing Sabbath correctly. Following tradition in the ‘right’ way had become an entrenched part of their identities. But Jesus has a simple, yet brilliant response for them:

“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

The Pharisees had become so concerned with the principle of observing the Sabbath, that they’d forgotten the very people it was intended to serve and benefit. They were all hung up on being right.

People over principles

It’s easy for us, too, to forget that people are more important than principles. Let’s try to keep this in mind the next time someone disagrees with us. Is the argument worth your relationship with that person? Is it worth making them feel bad about themselves? Do we really know everything we think we do about the situation, and where the other person is coming from?

Sometimes we’re better off just going to bed and getting a good night’s sleep. What seemed like a life-and-death dispute the night before is often revealed for the petty spat that it really is, with the clarity that morning brings.

People are more important than principles. Click To Tweet

Have you ever participated in an argument that seemed more important than it really was?

Have you ever “lost” an argument, for the sake of keeping the peace? 

What does it mean to love as God loves us?

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

John 13:34-35

What is it to love as God loves? So many of our own experiences of love, whether giving or receiving, are flawed in some way. Flawed in their motivations, or flawed in the execution — both, usually.

So given that God’s love is without flaw, that leaves us to wonder: how, exactly, does God love us? Not in the same way that any other person has ever loved us. And not in the same way that we’ve ever managed to love anyone else.

Some people take this notion of perfect, godly love to mean a gritted-teeth kind of love. “You don’t have to enjoy it,” they say, “you just have to do it!” Love isn’t just about warm-fuzzy feelings, these people admonish us. It’s about doing what’s right, doing what’s best for the other person and putting our own needs last.

Well, there’s truth in the saying that love is a verb; that it only becomes meaningful through action. I’ll agree that it’s not just about feeling nice all the time. Sometimes love hurts, just like all the songwriters say.

But you know what? I don’t think God has to grit his teeth in order to love us. I think God rejoices in us, that He delights in the wonder of his own creation.

And this might be a bit controversial, but you know what else? I think God rejoices in who we are even when we stuff up. I don’t mean to say that he rejoices in our sin. But I do believe that God sees and loves the beauty, the potential, in who he’s created us to be. He sees this and rejoices in it, even through our mistakes and our falling short.

Perhaps, then, real love, loving as God loves us, means to see the beauty in someone’s humanity. Maybe this is how we’re called to love others: to recognise their beauty and potential, just as God does for us. To see and be awed by the image of God residing in them, just as it does in us. Instead of responding and reacting to their faults and shortcomings, to try instead to connect with and draw out the person that God has created them to be.

Lord, help me to love as You love. Help me to see the beauty and the uniqueness that you've placed in each person that I encounter today. Click To Tweet

Psalms: Poetry for the soul

Blessed is the one
    who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
    or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
    which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
    whatever they do prospers.

Psalm 1:1-3 (NIV)

The Psalms have always been a part of the Bible that I find I can to return to again and again. Even during those times when I struggle to focus on Scripture and to let it sink in, the gentle poetry of the Psalms still manages to penetrate whatever anxieties and walls I have in place, and quieten my spirit.

I love the honesty of the Psalms. There’s so much emotional range in this book: from praise and adoration right through to grief, lament, confusion. There are those verses that trumpet the surety of God’s goodness, that resonate with us when we’re full of joy about everything that’s happening in our lives. But there’s also the brutal candour of those Psalms that cry out: Why, God, why? Where are you? in those moments that are not so certain. There’s no shying away from any part of the full experience that is life here on earth.

So I’ve gone back to the beginning of this favourite book of mine, starting at Psalm 1. Blessed am I, it tells me, when I turn away from those who mock and do evil, and instead delight in the law of the Lord.

The Psalms call us back home

I’ll be honest, I haven’t been delighting in the law of the Lord much in recent months. I’ve been in one of those periods I mentioned above, where it’s hard to open the Bible, where the words of Scripture don’t seem to sink in, don’t seem to be alive like they’re supposed to.

But reading this Psalm doesn’t feel like a judgement on my bad habits. Instead, it feels like a welcoming home. This gentle but powerful poetry assures me that no matter where I might have walked, sat, or stood in the past, I am still invited to come and be blessed, and to delight in that which is good.

Reading Psalm 1 is like a welcoming home. It invites us to come and be blessed, and delight in that which is good. Click To Tweet