This section takes us once again to the very centre of Jesus’ ministry and teachings, and once again to the critical problem the Jews were facing in that day. Their lack of relations with those who were different, their lack of care for the hurting, their separation from others, was tearing the society apart. It was a fundamentalist, extremist society, based largely on religious pretext, that entirely missed the heart and purpose of God. This is brought out directly in this part of Jesus’ teaching.
The Jews of that day were largely seeking political resolutions to what they perceived as the problem they had with their religious and cultural enemies. This was the type of Messiah they were looking for. John points this out, when he said that many Jews believed on Jesus, but Jesus didn’t commit himself to them because he knew what was in them. They believed he was the political Messiah come to destroy their enemies. In the next chapter, John 3, John points to a different Jesus. This was the one who would be lifted up on a pole, crucified, and if anyone believed on him they would have eternal life. This Jesus wasn’t the Messiah they were looking for. “Believing” doesn’t just mean to appropriate the blessings of the cross through faith, but to follow the cross in giving ourselves for others. John was calling the Jews to believe in this type of Messiah, rather than the one who gives us victory over others; to believe in the one who suffers before he rises, who serves those who hate him. To believe in this Messiah means to do what he does. This is what the Jews largely did not want to accept.
This issue is at the heart of the parable about the Good Samaritan. The lawyer asked Jesus which was the greatest commandment, and Jesus answered to love God with all our heart, and our neighbour as our self. Then the lawyer asked what he thought was a trick question: “Who is my neighbour?” As Jesus taught in other passages, our neighbour includes those different to ourselves, and even our enemies. Our neighbour is simply anyone we come in contact with, or anyone we know who has a need. Our neighbour is our wider diverse community. Our neighbour is all flesh and blood, of whatever background.
The issue about the law here, about which is the greatest commandment, isn’t relevant only to a bygone era, to the Old Testament times. It is the issue with true religion today. The purpose of Jesus’ coming wasn’t that we might discard these teachings as old garments, but that they may be fulfilled, or lived out, in our lives. Jesus came so that our new redeemed communities might be ones which have this purpose and heart of God about our neighbour at the centre of our faith and experience. This answer of Jesus about the law and our neighbour is central to our very identity as Jesus’ people. This is what it all boils down to.
An immediate issue the parable raises is which God do we worship. This would have been passionately discussed between the Jews and the Samaritans. We see this in the question of the woman at the well, John 4. The Jews worship the true God, while the Samaritans do not. We could say the same about Christians and Muslims today. In fact, to make the parable relevant, it is better to update it. Instead of the man walking down the road to Jericho, let’s have him walking in our neighbourhood today. And instead of Jews walking past the injured man and not helping him, let’s have Christians doing it. And instead of a Samaritan stopping to show the man care, let’s have a Muslim doing it. Now the parable is relevant to our time.
So the issue with Jesus wasn’t whether we worshipped God in the correct form or correct church, but how we responded to our neighbour in need. That is, it was the Samaritan (or let’s say the Muslim) who was worshipping the true God. And the Jews, in this case, of even Christians today who respond this way, were not worshipping the true God. This means our creeds, that in the past 29 we often killed for, or disfellowshipped people for, aren’t the centre of our faith. The creeds are good, but only if they are lived out on the road to Jericho.
What the Samaritan showed is loving kindness. What is important about this is that loving kindness is the central trait of God’s person and character. In the Old Testament this characteristic is used so often in the Psalms to portray who God is. The Hebrew word is hesed , or chesed , and it is difficult to get an English equivalent for. Sometimes it is translated mercy, or loving kindness, or faithfulness, or covenant faithfulness. This is the predominate characteristic of God’s nature. The whole Bible testifies to it. God is faithful to his covenant with Israel, despite all their unfaithfulness to him. The whole Bible story is about how God plans a way of being faithful to his promises, and devises a way to show kindness to those in captivity, through his incarnation, death and resurrection. God has shown hesed to us while we were his enemies. This is God. This is what he is like.
So on the road to Jericho, it was the Samaritan who demonstrated the creedal knowledge of this God within his heart. He was faithful to his covenantal responsibilities to his neighbour. This covenant wasn’t an elaborate religious one the Samaritan had signed up to. It was simply the knowledge he had within himself of what was right. He simply, as the text says, had compassion on the man. He showed loving kindness to the man. He fulfilled the covenant. He did what Good did for us on the cross, in rescuing us. The Jewish people who passed by, on the other hand, didn’t. They thought religion was in the ritual. They were rushing to the temple to be made clean by their acts of ritual worship. Jesus nullified this as having any value in God’s heart. He banished superstition for service.
This was very offensive to his hearers. This is clearly one of the things that led to Jesus’ death. It is throughout his teachings: that others unexpected shall enter the kingdom, when those who were among the right worshippers would not. To say the Samaritan man was a true worshipper was unacceptable. To claim their enemy, who was banished and denied and kept poor, by religious justification of separation, was the one who was in the kingdom, was an unbearable offence. Surely Jesus was himself a sinner for teaching this. “Isn’t he on our side, the side of God’s people?”
This says so much to us today, primarily that we are not to go along with the usual political divisions of our time. These may be Protestant or Catholic, Jew or Gentile, Christian or Muslim, West or East. We are to treat the suffering one as our brother in need, as our neighbour to whom we have a covenantal duty of care. It doesn’t mater who this suffering one is, we are to identify with them the same way we identify with Jesus’s cross and sufferings. “They esteemed him not, but considered him stricken, smitten by God.” Isn’t this the way we treat our enemies today? When they languish on the seas or as refugees, we say it is their comeuppance, God has forsaken them. We can’t take them in because of their faith. What does this say about our faith? If we forsake the one who suffers today, then we forsake the one who suffered on the cross for us. Isn’t that what they said about Jesus? They turned their backs on him saying he was suffering for being a sinner.
The issue with the man on the road to Jericho was that he was left naked and left for dead. He was unconscious. The Samaritan couldn’t tell who he was, by his accent or his dress. He didn’t know if the man was a Samaritan or a Jew, or something else. He just helped him because of compassion, 30 not because of his camp. Jesus is telling us to treat all of humanity this way, not to check their doctrine before we give help to the individual, or to their community in need.
If we would do this, rather than build walls and go to war against others, then all our roads to Jericho today would become roads to peace. This is what Jesus was telling that generation: “If only you knew the ways that lead to peace, but you do not. Therefore, your house (city) will become desolate, will go to sectarian destruction.”