(The Good Samaritan, depicted on arrival at the inn, by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1630 (Wallace Collection, London))
I wonder how many people asked Jesus, or have asked his followers since, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
On the face of it, this is a perfectly simple question. We may even wonder why this man, a lawyer, a learned man, needs to put it to Jesus. Lawyers in the Gospels are skilled and trained in the Law of Moses, the Jewish Law. Surely he must have known the answer to the question above all people, and yet there is just a hint that he is not happy with the customary answers even though the question might have been often debated. However, Jesus gives him the opportunity to state his opinion – his understanding of the Law.
The man quotes what have become known as the two Great Commandments because they embrace all of the others, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all you mind: and your neighbour as yourself.” Quite simple really, deceptively simple because who is there among us who loves God to such an heroic degree. Is it even humanly possible? And what about the neighbour? Love the next person as much as I love myself? Do I love anyone that much? Is that even possible?
The Lawyer, recognising the problem, asks for clarification. “Who is my neighbour?” In reply, Jesus tells the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
Many of Jesus’s parables are thought to have been inspired by what he had observed whilst walking through the countryside – a farmer sowing his seed, workers in a vineyard, wheat growing is a field choked by weeds, and many other examples.
The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was familiar to those who travelled between those two cities. It passed from the high ground on which Jerusalem stood, down through part of the Wilderness, or Desert of Judaea, and along the rocky road to Jericho and the Jordan valley. The wilder parts of this were the haunt of robbers and brigands, always waiting to attack solitary individuals, or even small groups, so it was best to travel with a larger group where there might be safety in numbers.
The story has the feeling to me of events with which people were familiar – if not personally, at least at second or third hand, an ever present possibility for travellers in those parts.
The injured man was, by implication, a Jew. So were the first two people who passed along the road after the attack – religious people, a priest, and a Levite. Neither made any effort to help the victim. They were too afraid of suffering the same fate even, perhaps, by touching blood, becoming themselves unclean and unable to serve in the Temple Then, along came a third man, a Samaritan.
The Samaritans, who are mentioned from time to time in the Gospels, were a bastard race who followed a form of Judaism based on their temple in Samaria near present day Nablus, as they still do today. It is not that they were hated by the Jews, but that they were thoroughly despised, and the two groups had as little to do with each other as possible. A Jew would not normally even speak to a Samaritan, and vice-versa, yet upon seeing the injured man basic humanity kicked in. The Samaritan, ignoring the dangers in the situation went across to him, did what he was able on the spot, set him on his donkey, and took him to an inn – possibly that still known as the “Inn of the Good Samaritan”. He left money for his care until his return.
So that was Jesus’s reply to the Lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbour. Jesus had turned the answer back onto him and there could only be one answer although this man could not bring himself to use the despised term Samaritan. He skirted around it with the words, “He who showed mercy on him”.