The Good Samaritan: how do we love?

This is one of the few stories which many people still know from the bible. The phrase ‘Good Samaritan’, although never used in the passage, has entered the English language. And we have the ‘Samaritans’.

It is a passage which Christians have interpreted in different ways.

Earlier interpretations focussed on the story as an illustration of salvation.
We are the man on the road; Old Testament religion (legalistic religion) embodied in the priest and the Levite, did nothing for us. Jesus comes, and has compassion on us. He saves us at great cost to himself.
That of course, is true. But I don’t think that it is what this passage is about.

This passage really is about how we live. It is about ethics and virtue.
Notice how the little word ‘do’ appears several times (v25, 28, 37)

‘Teacher what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ [I notice that the lawyer says ‘inherit’. That is significant. At least in his language, he realises that whatever he does, eternal life remains a gift]

And Jesus answers his question. He does not say – on this occasion -  ‘Believe in me and you will receive eternal life’. Instead he points the lawyer to the Old Testament law. He asks him how he understands it.

Now there was in Judaism at the time a debate between one leggers and two leggers. The debate was whether the law could be summarised or not. Could you say the law while standing on one leg? The two leggers said ‘no’. The one leggers said ‘yes’.

The story is told of the Gentile who first approached Rabbi Shammai, asking that the teacher provide him with a summary of the Torah while standing on one foot. Known in later years as a fierce opponent of commerce with Gentiles, Shammai took offense at the request and drove the man away with a measuring rod. When the man went Rabbi Hillel, however, the sage saw his request not as an offense but as an opportunity. Standing on one leg, Hillel said: "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Law; the rest is the explanation; go and learn." (Shab. 31a)

It is interesting that Jesus, preaching about 10 years after Hillel, in Matthew 7:12 says, "Do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets." Although he expands that a bit later on (Matthew 22:37-40) when he says, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Some summarised the law with the 10 commandments
Some summarised the law in the words of Psalm 34:11-14
But the most common summary were with words which would be said by devout Jews twice every day: words which come from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18

“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 neighbour as yourself.”

And Jesus says to the lawyer: “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will inherit eternal life’.
No. He says, ‘Do this and you will live’.

In other words Jesus turns a question about, ‘How do I inherit eternal life?’ into a question about ‘How do I live?’ It is about ethics. It is about virtue. It is about the good life.

True living: this side of death and that side of death is about loving God and loving our neighbour as ourselves.

1. It is about loving God:
It is about desiring God more than we desire anything else.

You can tell a great deal about a person by looking at what or who they love: self, money, status, entertainment, new experiences, art, music, creation, people. One of the puritans said, ‘Show me what a person most loves, and I will show you their true heart and their true value’.

It is good and right to love that which is beautiful and glorious and loving. The more glorious the thing that we worship, we love, the more glorious we are. So the more we worship and love the one who is the source of beauty and glory and love, the more glorious we become.

To live, to really live, is to love the Source, the Giver, of all beauty and glory, the source of art and music, the source of experience and all that is and the one who is the giver and sustainer of life. When we get that right, everything else slots into place.

We discover the one who will never let us down. The other things will all be taken from us (‘The Lord gives and the Lord takes away’). But the Lord is the beginning and the end. He is the one who will never let us down

The more a person focuses their being on the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the more like the Son of God they become. They begin to see as Jesus sees, think as Jesus thinks, speak as Jesus speaks, do as Jesus does.

To live, to truly live, is to put God first. Jean King was telling me that her mother had a green sign on her wall that read, ‘God first’.

Of course, it is OK to love our wives and our husbands, our children, our parents, to love this building and matins, to love quiet and space, to love Rostropovich or Rihanna, to love travel, football or good food and wine. BUT BUT BUT they must never take first place, because that place belongs to God. And if they do take first place, then our lives become seriously scewed and stunted.

I was chatting with a man about this. He said, ‘How can I love God more than I love my wife and children?’ We think that if we love God more, we have to love other things less. But, as I said to him, ‘Who gave you your wife and children? Who gave you the gift of love? To whom do you belong, and to whom do your wife and children ultimately belong?’ To love God more than your wife and children does not mean that you need to give them up. It means rather that you see them in a new light: not as your reason for living, not as your possession, not as existing to make you happy. They are a gift, to be cherished and nurtured for God.

How does one put God first?
It is very simple.
The heart is involved. I begin to open my eyes and to see what God has given to us. I look at his gift of his Son Jesus, at his love for me. And I begin to desire the one who is the source of life, love, beauty.
The soul is involved. I take the soul as being our innermost will. It is a conscious (and sub-conscious) decision. I choose to put God first.
·        I’m on holiday, and I choose to go to church on Sunday.
·        I get up in the morning, and I choose to stop, read some verses from the bible, and pray. I pray for Glory to come to his name, for his Kingdom to come, and his will to be done. I seek his strength and his guidance so that I might serve him.
·        I have a decision to make: one way is clearly wrong by God, the other way is clearly right. I choose to do what is right by God. Or maybe I do not know which is right. In which case I ask that he will guide me, and help me as I walk the path that I choose to take.
The mind is involved. I read and study the bible. I read and talk and discuss and think about the Christian life.
My body is involved. I dedicate myself afresh to use the strength that God has given me to live first for him. 

To love God is to put God first. To love God is also, as Jesus says to really live.

2. It is about loving your neighbour as yourself

This is not the time or place to do a full study on what Jesus means by this, or why the two commandments are connected. However, a couple of thoughts

1. To love my neighbour as I love myself means that I need to recognise that my neighbour is as important to God as I am to myself. It means that, for the sake of God, I cannot walk by on the other side.

2. To love my neighbour as I love myself is to recognise that in some way we are connected. My ultimate well-being is in some way dependent on their well-being. In loving my neighbour I am loving myself; and if they are suffering and I walk by on the other side, then in some way I become smaller.

But there are a number of challenges that come from this particular story

  1. A challenge to the question of the lawyer: ‘Who is my neighbour’. At the end of the story Jesus turns the question round: ‘Who was neighbour to the man who was beaten up?’ In other words, do not ask, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ – in other words, where do I draw the boundaries – but ask instead, ‘To whom can I be a neighbour?’

  1. A challenge to inclusion. The rescuer was a Samaritan (Jews hated Samaritans). The Samaritan rescues a Jew. Interestingly, if the story was simply about inclusion, Jesus would have made the victim a Samaritan, not the rescuer. However it is a challenge to us. Compassion for Jesus’ sake is blind to a person’s racial background, skin colour, ability or disability, sex or sexuality or even sexual practice, education, age, attractiveness or whatever.

  1. Challenge to us to put ourselves in the place of the victim: Jesus does that by making the beaten up man the subject of his question, ‘Who was neighbour to the beaten up man?’ 
    And that is what love is. To love our neighbour as we love ourselves is about putting ourselves in the place of the other. It is what Jesus did for us. He identified himself with us, and at great cost to himself, he met our need.

  1. Challenge to put love into action. 

    At the end of the story, Jesus says, ‘Go and do likewise’. As I said earlier, this passage is about ethics, virtue. It is about living the good life, the God life. 

    This is the challenge to put love into action where we are, and with the people who are where we are. Love does not end at the door of the home, but love certainly begins at home. Of course it is good to be involved in national or global movements of compassion, but if we are blind to the needs of those with whom we live, and work, it is worthless. The priest and the Levite may have been on the board of several charities. They may have drawn up policies about how those on the front line were to show better care to their clients. But when they walk past the victim on the road to Jericho, all that was worthless. 

    This, of course, is where it gets really hard.

    I am, by nature, self-centred, and desire the easy, comfortable life. I may do good to those who are closest to me. It is in my interest to do so. Jesus said, in a very cutting comment, ‘If you then, who are evil, give good gifts to your children ..’. I may – occasionally – show real, genuinely self-sacrificial love to those who I like. But why should I go out of my way for a stranger, especially if there is risk to me.

    We have many excuses. The priest and the Levite no doubt had many reasons not to get involved. ‘I’m too busy – what I am involved in is more important than this man’. ‘It’s not my job to get involved’. ‘People will accuse me of being a busy body’. ‘It might be a set up job. I go over to help, and they get me’. If I get in trouble then someone has got to sort out a bigger mess’.

    So what should we do

  1. We need to be wise. The first thing that we need to do when we see someone in need is not to rush in, but to think. But not think, ‘how can I get out of doing anything’. The first golden rule of the first aid course is the rule to think.

  1. We must not despise small things
    Jesus talks about people receiving a reward when they give a glass of water, in his name, to someone in need.

  1. We need to look at our life style and make space for doing good
    We are too busy, and often with things that we should not be busy with. Chris Knowles talked of the African who said of Westerners: ‘You have the watches; we have the time’. 
    Maybe we need to look again at our priorities; to make ourselves less busy, so that we are more open to the unexpected, so that we have space to love.

  1. We need to keep our eyes open
    The problem is that because we are so used to walking past someone who is in need, we become experts in closing our eyes to need. 
    It is significant that in Matthew 5:42, ‘Jesus says, ‘Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you’. I’m not sure Jesus is saying that we should always give money to people who ask us. But have you noticed that if you have a personal policy of never giving money, and we use that as an excuse for not doing anything, how easy it is to grow incredibly hard.

  1. But above all things, we need to pray that God will give us compassion. 

    This is the key. 

    At the diocesan clergy conference, which we had a couple of weeks ago, Mona Siddiqui, the professor of Islamic law at Glasgow university, spoke to us about the difference between Christianity and Islam. She talked about the Christian idea of the God of love, and the command to love. She said (and I summarise), ‘But it is too hard. Most of the time we find it almost impossible to love even those close to us; Most of the time we simply ignore the people who live even next door to us. How are we to love them, let alone those further away?’

    So how do we love? How do we love our neighbour, when we struggle to love those we live with, and usually ignore the person who lives next door or two doors away? How do I begin to love, when I am so blind to the needs of others – even to the others who I meet – and even if I see their needs, am so self-centred that I don’t really go out of my way for them.

    The answer is that we cannot. We cannot legislate love. 

    But we need to go back to the first of the two commands here, ‘To love the Lord your God’. 

    We need to put God first. We need to seek to desire him, to be obedient to him, to seek him and his strength and his love. God the Father is a God of love. He gives his Son. Jesus, the Son of God, is a God of love. He gives himself. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of love. And as a person opens themselves to God, as they seek him, so they will begin to be filled with his love and his compassion. The Old Testament talks about how when the Spirit comes, our old hearts which are like stone, will become hearts of flesh, living loving hearts. 

    So do pray. Pray that God will open our blind eyes and soften our hard hearts. Pray and ask him to change your priorities. Pray that he will show you opportunities to love. Because it is when we love that we are obedient, and it is when we love that we really do live. 


  1. Thanks Malcolm - it was worth a visit to the website!

    Be interesting to see if you do the creed on one leg next Sunday!



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