A lawyer stood up and asked a pertinent question “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
The mutually agreed answer is the Golden rule “You shall 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”
But the lawyer wasn’t interested in intellectual theories, he wanted to know “What must I do?” He was interested in the practical application of his religious tradition and the “Golden rule” for his own life and how to live it.
And so twice in the course of Jesus’ answer he says “Do this and you will live” (v28) and “Go and do likewise” (v37)
In the now famous parable of the Good Samaritan, it becomes clear that in practical terms, love involves risk, trouble and expense. Moreover the action of the Samaritan wasn’t simply a good neighbourly act, it involves pushing through his own barriers of prejudice and inherited taboos and surpassing all basic obligations.
For both Jews and Samaritans “loving your neighbour “meant loving a fellow Jew or a fellow Samaritan – your own group - because there was a great hostility between the two groups. Although basically Jews, the Samaritans were the result of Assyrian invasion and through assimilation and inter-marriage with the Assyrians, both they and their traditions and their interpretation of their religion was deemed to be adulterated and inferior to what was deemed the purer Judaism in Judea.
We know from just a cursory note taken of the situation in the Middle East today to see how virulent the hatreds and taboos can become between different cultural and religious groups. The most intense hatreds are usually reserved for our closest neighbours. The greatest hatreds in the Middle East today are not Muslim versus Christian or even Muslim versus Jews but between Sunni and Shia Muslims, two branches of the same Islamic family. Underpinning all the carnage that is happening in Syria today is that basic and simple hatred.
In fact the similarity between Jew and Samaritan in 1st century Palestine and Sunni and Alawite in modern Syria is striking. Just as the Jews looked down on the impure and adulterated form of Judaism practiced by the Samaritans so the Purist Sunni Muslim majority detest what they see as the adulterated form of Islam practiced by the Alawite minority government, a synchretised form of Shia Islam that has incorporated other forms into it – apparently even celebrating the birth of Jesus and Good Friday (so I read), interpreted in their own way of course.
In this religious and cultural war, this is why battle hardened Shia fighters from Hezbollah in Lebanon are now fighting with the Government of Syria against their common Sunni enemies.
A direct application of this parable today in more or less the same area where Jesus preached it would be if a wounded opposition fighter from the Free Syrian army were to be tended and helped and found shelter and this was paid for by a fighter from Hezbollah. The application is the same for any protagonists, Jew and Arab, Taleban and American, Sunni and Shia, Catholic and Protestant, Black and White. Put into that perspective we see more clearly the risk, trouble and expense that the Samaritan was taking in a volatile social situation, willingly to help someone in trouble.
Ethically this throws down the gauntlet to all of us. It is a challenge to see the humanity and the need when it arises outside our own group.
There is another little twist in Luke’s story. In verse 29, the neighbour is the one that is helped but in verse 36 he is the one who helps. Perhaps Luke si teaching us another lesson here.
To love one’s neighbour is not about establishing any superiority. Carer and cared for, need each other. Just as I said last week, for someone to give, someone has to be willing to receive. The Doctor needs the patient as much as the patient needs the Doctor. Each does good to the other.
So if you want eternal life, which is a quality of life here in this world, Jesus invites us to go and do likewise,