A New Look at a Familiar Story

We have been looking at the story of the Good Samaritan this week as part of our “Fruitfulness on the Frontline” sermon series from LICC.

It is a familiar story, one of those earliest stories that we learn in Sunday School or in school assemblies when we are first exposed to what “neighbourliness” in the name of Jesus means. It is a story that has sparked much art and music, and has been told countless times in countless media over the years. And because it is so familiar to us, we can perhaps be forgiven for falling into the trap of it being overfamiliar to us and therefore it fails to penetrate our hearts as it is meant to do.

But there’s more to it than simply reading it as a lesson in who to be nice to, or answering the question of who’s the bad guy in the piece.

I was re-reading it today in preparation for a Bible study tonight, and at one point my eyes kind of glazed over. It was exactly as I said above – the story was so familiar to me that I didn’t read it properly and I had started to gloss over it. But as I was in a semi-aware state of not quite reading it but not quite not reading, one of the words jumped out at me and it led me into thinking about this story in a completely different way. I realised that the man who was robbed is actually Jesus.

The word that changed my view on this story is OIL.

For some reason, I had never noticed that the Samaritan man used oil to help treat the man who had been beaten up. Maybe it is because I am about to be anointed in ordination myself and so it is close to the surface of my mind or something, but I was struck that the Samaritan man wasn’t just treating wounds, but he was actually anointing the beaten up man instead.

And that led me to think a bit more deeply about some of the other elements in this story. And if you will allow me to share with you, this is what I have read into the story tonight.

We are told that a man was walking from Jerusalem to Jericho. Both of these cities are significant in Jewish history, but the fact that the man was walking away from Jerusalem, the holiest of cities, towards Jericho which had previously been the most important city in Cana, tells us something about him. He was moving between important cities, one of which was relatively prosperous and the other which had been defeated and destroyed by Joshua. In other words, he was moving from riches towards poverty.

Next, he was beaten and stripped, and then left to die. For me, this has echoes of Jesus’ own story at the hands of the Romans who put him on trial. He was stripped to humiliate him, scourged to torture him, and he was led out to die on a cross.

Then we have the characters of the Priest and the Levite, both of whom simply ignored him and carried on with their own journeys. To me, they represent the Church and the State in our world today. The law of the religion and the law of the land may well have told them much about how to live a godly life, but those laws did not address what God himself had taught them through Moses; to love God and to love their neighbour. The beaten man’s ordeal did not figure in their thinking, and they ignored him, which raises questions for me as a Christian. I wonder, do I cleave to the laws of the church so much that I too fail to see the neighbour at my feet? Do I support those in government who uphold laws and practices that don’t help those who are beaten down and left to die without help from the state? What do I do, or fail to do, that makes it easy to walk on by when I see need in others? Jesus tells us that “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40, NIV), which makes me even more convinced that this story of the good Samaritan is actually a foretelling of what happens with Jesus later, and is a massive call on our lives as his followers.

So what of the Samaritan man then?

People from Samaria at that time were viewed as outsiders, enemies even. And so for the Samaritan man to stop at all meant that he was being so radical, so counter-cultural, that he actually risked his own life by stepping in to help where the “church” and the “state” did not.

Dinah Roe Kendall “The Good Samaritan” (1994)

He bandaged the man’s wounds – a foreshadow of Jesus’ grave clothes perhaps?

He poured oil and wine onto them – anointing him with oil as kings were anointed. The wine representing not only the blood that Jesus shed for us on the cross, and with which he made the new covenant with his disciples during that last meal together, but the first sign of Jesus’ authority was turning water into wine at the wedding…in Cana.

He placed him on a donkey – is this the triumphal entry of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on what we know as Palm Sunday? We know the man was walking from Jerusalem towards Jericho, but we don’t know where the Samaritan took him. Maybe he took him to the nearest town, which would have been Jerusalem. If he was closer to Jericho then Jesus would have said “A man was just outside the town of Jericho”, but he didn’t. He was at pains to draw that line between Jerusalem and Jericho, which leads me to think that the Samaritan took him on a donkey to Jerusalem.

He took him to an innkeeper – where have we heard about inns in the Bible before? We know that “Mary brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2: 4- 7). Here we have mention of swaddling cloths which were strips of cloth for babies which actually resembled bandages, and we have mention of an inn. This is the fulfilment of the Isaiah 53 prophecy that “he was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering”. But in the story of the Good Samaritan, he was not only given room in an inn with open arms, his fee was paid for in full too.

Which brings me onto the next element – the two denarii to pay the innkeeper to take care of the man in the Samaritan’s absence. A denarius is a unit of Roman currency, coins which were made of silver and worth the equivalent of ten asses at the time. So the Samaritan paid the innkeeper the equivalent of twenty asses in order to keep him looked after until he returned, with the promise of more if needed. This strikes me in direct contrast to the 30 pieces of silver that Judas was paid in order to betray Jesus by the temple authorities. Those pieces of silver coin were practically worthless, less than the value of a slave. What the Samaritan story shows us therefore, is that deeds of love and grace far outweigh the value of deeds done in order to hurt, betray, destroy and decimate another person.

And so bringing all these elements together, I can see that not only is Jesus telling this story in order to show a simple sketch of what it means to love your neighbour – stepping in and helping someone that you don’t know – it is also a foreshadowing of the events of Jesus’ betrayal, trial and death, and our part in it.

With this new insight today I wonder where you might put yourself into the story now?

  • Are you still the Samaritan who willingly crosses cultural divides to help people in need?
  • Are you still that person who risks it all for Jesus?
  • Or are you one of the ones that relies on the law of the state to help the destitute, the poverty stricken, the hungry, the beaten up and the beaten down, the lost, the betrayed and the lonely?
  • Do you still believe that the state really does these things anyway, or is it time for you to rethink that and to get stuck into helping others yourself?

We don’t all have cash to spend on housing others when the state can’t or won’t, and we don’t all have transport in order to give people lifts to the hospital or wherever they need to go, but we do have a voice to speak up for those who need help.

We don’t all have technical medical skills to help people who are at death’s door, but we do have a listening ear and a cup of tea to offer so that people can offload some of their hurts to us.

We don’t all have to walk on by, leaving it to others to sort out the mess. Jesus doesn’t leave us, he’s right there with us when it’s us who is lying beaten up by the side of the road, and it is Jesus who tends our wounds, anoints us as his own, spills his blood for us, and makes a place for us in his father’s house.

The story of the Good Samaritan is so much more than a simple Sunday School lesson in being nice to strangers. It is a wake-up call to everyone to recognise the radical, costly, counter-cultural nature of Jesus’ love for the world.

Grace and peace

Pam x

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