The Good Samaritan

Colossians 1:1-14, Luke 10:25-37

What’s this story actually about?

I would guess that many of us would instinctively say that this is a story about kindness on the one hand, and prejudice on the other We know that Samaritans were hated enemies of the Jews, which makes this a story about not making assumptions, about how God loves everyone equally, whatever their nationality, and therefore about how we have a responsibility for all people in need.

And of course that’s true - that is what the story tells us. That the unlikely outsider is the one who turns out to be most neighbourly and that we should be ready to help anyone who needs us.

But I wonder if it’s about more than that too.

Jesus tells this story in answer to two questions. The second is ‘who is my neighbour?’ But the first is ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ What must I do to inherit eternal life? 

So what does that mean?

Whatever the lawyer’s intentions - and the fact that he’s ‘testing’ Jesus suggests that they’re mixed at best - he is definitely onto something with this question. To inherit, is to receive something of value because you are part of the family. And eternal life is to know what is eternal - unending, unlimited, heavenly - within life, here and now. The lawyer, who knows he is part of the family, one of God’s chosen people, is asking ‘how can I live like God lives?’ or, perhaps better, ‘how can I most fully know God right here, in the midst of life, and live accordingly?’ or even, ‘how can I live in God, in the world?’

And that is a truly great question - it’s the ultimate question, isn’t it? How can I, a limited, foolish human being, most fully live the way God wants me to live, right here in the middle of the mess and muddle of everyday life. How can I live in God, in the world?

It’s the question we explored together last year when we talked a lot about ‘going deeper’ - as we acknowledged how easy it is to live at the surface of life, and how many of us long to live in the deep places, the places of call and challenge, the places where God meets us, shapes us, shakes us; the places where we know eternal life, where we know God in the midst of this glorious, messed up thing that is our life. 

So let’s have a look at the story - let’s have a look at what Jesus tells us about how to inherit eternal life. You might like to pick up a bible if there’s one near you. We’re in Luke 10 (on page 844), or take your weekly sheet. 

I’m going to pull out three things from the story - but before that, something really important that has happened just before we get to this point. Flick back to chapter 9, verse 52. Jesus has sent his disciples out to share the good news, and they come to a Samaritan village - ‘who did not receive them’. 

It is no coincidence that the story of the ‘Good Samaritan’ comes straight after a story about some bad Samaritans - the ones who turn Jesus away. Jesus is not talking about Samaritans as ‘nice people who have been misunderstood’. They are the ones who have just kicked his disciples out of their village. 

So as we read the story, which is going to challenge us profoundly about what life with God looks like, let’s not get romantic about how the people we are meant to be helping are really lovely people, if we just get to know them. The Samaritans were just as bad as the rest of them. Just as bad as the rest of us. We’re all a mess. We’re all capable of terrible things, as well as great kindness - all of us. It was true then, and it’s true now. ‘Eternal life’ - life with God in the deep places, is not going to be about discovering that everyone’s really lovely, if we just give them a chance.  Life is messy, and that’s mainly because people are messy. Because we are messy.

On then to the story Jesus tells, and to the priest, chapter 10, verse 31. He, Jesus says, was going down the road ‘by chance’. The irony is that nothing in Luke’s gospel is there ‘by chance’ nor does Jesus ever say anything ‘by chance’, so when he says the priest was there ‘by chance’ - that’s no throw away line.

Perhaps it means the priest was just there. That’s where life was, for him, in the moment. That’s where a life with God was available to him, right then. On a walk, on a road, one day. Nothing special, nothing planned. It was just ‘by chance’.

Perhaps Jesus is reminding us that eternal life, life lived fully and wholeheartedly for God happens in the ‘by chance’ moments, not when we have stuff all planned out - like when we pass someone on the road, and have to make a choice whether to stop, or not. Eternal life isn’t in church, it isn’t when we’re trying to be holy or when we’re all prayed up and ready for the challenge - it happens in the ‘by chance’ moments, when we have to choose.

This week, can you pause more often, to notice God’s ‘by chance’ moments and to be aware that you are in the midst of ‘eternal life’. Life in God, in the world. 

Verse 33. What’s the difference between the priest and Levite on one hand, and the Samaritan on the other? Jesus tells us that the Samaritan is ‘moved with pity’. The Greek word literally means, to have your stomach twisted - we might say, ‘to be deeply moved’. It’s a powerful response to suffering. Luke uses it in two other places in the gospel - to describe Jesus’ feelings when he meets a widow who has just buried her son and to describe the feelings of the Father who sees his wayward Son coming home after he has wasted his inheritance. The Samaritan then is the one who reacts like the Father and the Son. He is behaving like God behaves. He sees the man lying in the ditch and he has compassion, he suffers with him. 

But it doesn’t end there. Studies in neurology show that we are hard wired for empathy - for feeling what others are feeling. In fact some scientists believe that things called ‘mirror neurons’ somehow match in us, the emotions that others are feeling - it’s why laughter and crying are so ‘infectious’. But empathy alone - feeling what someone else is feeling - isn’t what happens here, nor in either of the other bible passages when that word for ‘compassion’ is used. Here, in this story, and in both the others, the people who feel ‘compassion’ then do something practical to help. Jesus heals the widow’s child. The Father opens his arms and welcomes his wayward son home. The Samaritan binds the wounds of the man he finds in the ditch.

Empathy alone - feeling what someone else feels - isn’t the point. Empathy plus practical help equals compassion. And that’s what Jesus points towards. 

How do we know eternal life? How can we live fully with God in the day to day? We have eyes that look out for the needs of others - including, especially perhaps, those that we meet ‘by chance’ - and then we do what we can to offer practical support.

Pause for a moment and ask, What might that mean for you?

Verse 35. The Samaritan looks after the guy, takes him to an inn and tends to his needs overnight and then, when he leaves, tells the inn keeper to spend whatever needs to be spent for the man to get better. Now I don’t know about you, but that seems to me to be a very risky offer.  After all, he doesn’t know either the beaten up bloke or the Inn keeper. What if he’s taken for a ride? What if he’s asked for more than he can give? What if he can never get rid of these people?

But that doesn’t seem to bother the Samaritan. He just gets on with helping and offering what he’s got. He is a man who trusts that what he has, is enough.

How can we know eternal life? How can we live in God, in the world? By not letting our fear of commitment, of being ripped off, of not having enough to give, rule our lives. By trusting that, like the lilies of the fields and the birds of the air, we have everything we need and more. And because we have everything we need, we can share it without fear. 

This week, perhaps just in one situation, try being more generous, with your time, your money or your possessions, than feels sensible. And as you do so, trust that you have everything you need. 

Put that all together, and it leaves us with something extremely challenging and extremely beautiful. 

Because this, it turns out, is not just a nice story about being kind. This is a story that tells us what life is like ‘within God’, that paints a picture of someone who is living ‘eternal life’ right here, today, in the middle of life.

Eternal life looks like being open to God’s possibilities and calls within everyday ordinary life; the ‘by chance’ moments. 

Eternal life is open to the real needs of the people around us and is ready to get practical for them. It is a compassionate life. 

Eternal life is lived without fear of running out - of love, time or money. It is a life that is built entirely on trust.

And then the final twist.

Jesus has answered the question - ‘who is my neighbour?’. The person who, in the ‘by chance’ moments needs your compassion and open ended generosity.

And then he asks a question in turn. ‘Which of these was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ 

And the answer has to be - the Samaritan. Our neighbour is not only the one who needs us, our neighbour is also the one who shows us compassion. Our neighbour is the one who is generous to us. Our neighbour is the one who puts no limits on their kindness.

Maybe eternal life - a life in God, in the world - is discovered in the giving and receiving of compassion. Maybe eternal life - life in God, in the world - looks like messy people giving and receiving love and discovering God is there. 


Hugh Nelson