The way that the story of the Good Samaritan challenges us is with the implication is that it is easier to follow rules than to love people.
The legal expert who is quizzing Jesus asks him for a definition of neighbour (it would be convenient for him if that definition excluded the kinds of people he didn’t like or want to have anything to do with). When we read to the end of the story, including the question that Jesus eventually asks the man, we notice that Jesus actually turns the man’s question on its head.
“Who is my neighbour?” asks the lawyer.
“Which of these three proved to be a neighbour…?” is Jesus’ reply.
Instead of defining neighbour in a way that would have made obedience to the second great commandment a matter of convenience, Jesus leaves the issue open-ended. The point is not to identify who your neighbour is (and is not); it is whether or not you are prepared to be a neighbour to anyone in need who crosses your path. If Jesus had given a convenient definition of neighbour he would have given the lawyer a convenient way of restricting the command to love. By choosing a Samaritan as the hero of the story, Jesus leaves us in no doubt that nationalistic (and other) boundary restrictions do not apply.
Someone once suggested to me that a good definition of my neighbour is anyone who is not me! That is a very open-ended definition. Legalists do not tend to like open-ended definitions. They are much happier (if legalists can be truly happy) whenever there is a clear set of rules and regulations. It’s much easier to have a scheme of 613 detailed commands than to have an open-ended mandate to love.
When we get into the details of the actual story we notice that there are several people whose paths cross that of the man on his journey from Jerusalem to Jericho.
There are the robbers. We don’t know how many of them there were. We assume that they lived somewhere along the route, perhaps in a nearby village.
There is the priest. Perhaps he had been in Jerusalem as part of his duties: it had been his turn to serve at the worship in the temple and he was now on his way home to Jericho.
So for the Levite.
And, of course, the Samaritan.
Allow yourself what might seem an odd question about these people: which of them broke one of the Ten Commandments?
The robbers clearly did. They steal from the man as he travels. Commandment eight forbids stealing: the robbers were guilty of that. Commandment six forbids murder: it looks as though they were unconcerned about that. They don’t rob in the alleged style of the old highwaymen – “Your money or your life!” – because they beat their victim, leaving him close to death. If no one had come to help him, he may very well have died as he seems to be in no shape to help himself. In addition, to steal from this man (and who knows how many others had fallen victim to the same gang) they had to want what he had: they were guilty of breaking the tenth commandment that forbids coveting what belongs to another person.
That much is clear. The robbers were lawbreakers.
But what about the priest? He doesn’t steal. He doesn’t kill. There was nothing left for him to covet. The same story for the Levite. There is no sign of any lawbreaking on the part of these two religious professionals. Clean slate and clear conscience. There is nothing to reproach or condemn them for.
Or is there?
Instinctively we know that only the coldest legalist could see nothing wrong in the way these men behaved. They kept the rules; but could they not have attempted to do something to help this man? Had they no compassion?
Clearly my question – which of these people were lawbreakers – misses the point.
The significant question about each of these people’s behaviour is not whether they broke one of the Ten Commandments: it is whether they loved the man who was lying, half-dead, at the side of the road. Or, in Jesus’ words, which of them was a neighbour to the man who needed help?
We can leave the robbers out of the question at this point. They neither loved nor kept the commandments. But while the priest and the Levite may seem to be off the hook because they never killed, stole or coveted, they failed to love. They failed to be neighbours to the man who needed them. If they felt any shred of compassion towards him – and perhaps they did – they did nothing to translate it into action. They just left him to die.
It is easier to follow rules than to love people. It is easier to steer clear of what is forbidden than it is to love people.
“Do not steal.” We tick the box.
“Do not kill.” We tick the box.
“Do not covet.” Harder, but we take a deep breath, switch off the TV when the ads come on, and tick that box too.
But have we loved?
The priest and Levite ticked the boxes. They kept the rules. No doubt much of their lives had to do with rule-keeping, given the nature of their work as religious professionals in the service of the Temple. It is very possible that they were on their way home after taking their turn at rule keeping in Jerusalem. But the sad thing is that no matter how scrupulous they were in following the ceremonial law in the Temple, and no matter how clear they considered their consciences to be with regard to the Ten Commandments, they failed to love. One of their brothers was left to die at the side of a road.
It is easier to keep rules than to love people.
Religious people can get very keen on the idea of rule keeping. It’s what religion is. Depending on your cultural background, you are likely to find various injunctions and prohibitions that have subtly been added to the teaching of Scripture. There is a list of things that a good Christian will always do and a list of things that a good Christian would never do. Places she would never go.
It is not for me to say whether or not religious rule-keepers fail to love: some of them are clearly wonderful, helpful neighbours. But the point is that we can lose sight of what is really important. Because it is easier to follow rules than it is to love people.
Take a moment to assess yourself. Not in terms of how well you measure up to the rules; measure yourself in terms of how well you love. How far does your compassion reach? Do you love your neighbour? Are you a neighbour to people in need?
The shock in the story is that it was the Samaritan who loved his neighbour. That part of the story would have been very hard for the lawyer and other Jewish listeners. It would be like Jesus telling a group of Ulster loyalists the story of the good Republican. In any society that defines itself not only by who it is but by who it is not, it is difficult to think that the “other” can be any kind of hero.
But what the Jewish priest and the Jewish Levite failed to do, the Samaritan did.
Next: It is easier to avoid people than to love them.