Summary: This is an adaptation of a sermon by Eric Carey-holt posted on Feb. 2003. I have updated this sermon in light of the tragic racial incidents of the week of July 4-9, 2016, addressing the problem of growing racial tension and religious intolerance today.
One researcher found in a survey that 49% of the people interviewed said they would be able to tell the story of the Good Samaritan if asked to do so, 45% said they would not be able to, and 6% were unsure whether they could tell it or not. Among those who attended religious services every week, the proportion that thought they could tell the story rose to 69% percent
But whether or not one could accurately retell this parable, the concept of the "Good Samaritan" is familiar enough to everyone. We name hospitals, churches, and institutions in his honor. Most people know a ‘Good Samaritan’ when they see one...Mother Teresa, Albert Schweitzer, the fire brigade and even that anonymous person that simply stops to change a flat tire for you or helps a blind person cross the street. We have all met one or have heard of one even if we can’t relate the full details of the story.
In the story of the Good Samaritan, which we read as our Gospel lesson for this morning, we are first introduced to a lawyer who poses a question to Jesus as a "test". "Teacher”, he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus answers this question with one of His own. "What is written in the law?"
The answer comes back, "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 neighbor as yourself." Good answer. And Jesus agrees. But the lawyer not satisfied with that. He still wishes to be noticed, maybe make a name for himself, so he asks another question "And who is my neighbor?" In other words, "OK, Jesus, I understand I am supposed to CARE, but what are the limits of my caring? When can I quit?"
And here Jesus tells His famous story. The first person to whom we are introduced in the story of the Good Samaritan is the poor traveler. He had taken the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, which was notoriously dangerous. It descended nearly 3,300 feet in 17 miles, running through narrow passes at several points. The terrain offered easy hiding for the bandits who terrorized travelers. This unfortunate man had been stripped, beaten, and left for dead. Jesus’ audience that day knew how easily it could happen and I would suspect that we ourselves might understand how easily something like this might happen in a slightly different context today. Just glance through the newspapers or watch the news on television. There are many innocent persons victimized by others today. This isn’t unique to Jesus’ time.
Suddenly who should come along but a clergyman? If anyone could be expected to stop and help it would be this man of God. But wait. The priest does not come over to help; he is passes by on the other side. No reason is given. Perhaps it was fear. Those who beat the man in the ditch might be lying in wait to beat him as well. Or perhaps he simply didn’t want to get involved. In those days if a priest found a body while traveling he was expected to bury it.
Next there came a Levite. The Levite might be compared to an "assistant" priest. As the text has it, "he came to the place and saw him, and saw the poor wounded man passed by on the other side." He too is not exactly a hero!
Enter character number three - a Samaritan. The GOOD Samaritan! Nowhere in the Bible will we find the words "Good" and "Samaritan" next to each other. For those folk who first heard this story, the phrase "Good Samaritan" would have been a contradiction. In their minds in those days the only GOOD Samaritan would have been a DEAD Samaritan.
Why such depth of feeling? The hostility between Jews and Samaritans dated back hundreds of years old. It went back to the time of the division of the nation into the Northern and Southern kingdoms - Samaria came to be identified with the North and Judea with the South. Following the Northern Kingdom’s fall to Assyria in 721 BC, exiles from many nations settled in Samaria, creating something of a melting pot. No longer was it purely Jewish--something like Europe and North America today. The many immigrants to this land have created a melting pot.
Move forward a hundred years or so. Now it is the turn of the Southern Kingdom to fall - this time the conqueror was Babylon, and, as was the custom of the day, the people were carried off into exile to prevent any uprisings in the occupied territory. The few Jews left in Samaria were considered no threat in that regard, so they were allowed to stay. Seventy years passed, and the Judean exiles were allowed to return. The Samaritans were ready to welcome them back, but the returnees would have none of it - Samaritans had intermarried with gentiles making them "half-breeds." They had perverted the race.