A Story of Cross Community Kindness and Compassion
Our passage today is most often referred to as the Parable of the Good Samaritan. It is normally upheld as a story encouraging us to be kind and compassionate towards others, and indeed that is true.
What we don’t always fully understand is how radical this parable of Jesus would have been in Jesus’ own day. It is more than just a story about a random act of kindness. It is a story of radical cross-community compassion. It is also a story of showing love and care, even to an enemy.
We know the passage well. A scribe is trying to discredit Jesus. He asks Jesus to summarise the essence of his teaching. Jesus obliges, telling him the essence of it is about Loving God and Loving One’s Neighbour as oneself.
The scribe wants to justify himself… who is my neighbour he asks Jesus?
Jesus tells the story of a fellow Jew who is set upon by a band of robbers, assaulted, robbed, and left to die.
As he lies dying on the side of the road, the man is ignored by his fellow Jews. Interestingly, he is not ignored by just any Jews. He is ignored by some of the most well respected religious Jews of the day. He is ignored firstly by a Priest. Secondly he is ignored by a Levite.
The priests held exclusive rights to serve at the sacrificial altar and in the outer and inner sanctum of the temple.
The Levites were a kind of second tier group of people who also worked in the Temple and took responsibilities of non-priestly tasks like singing, guarding the temple, and other secondary tasks and work (Num 3-4; 1Chr 23-26).
The priest and Levite in the story therefore represent the religious elite, or the religious establishment. They were in a sense the guardians of the faith. They were the mediators between God and the Jewish people.
In the story, these two very religious people, ignore the man who has been assaulted, robbed, stripped naked and left to die.
We are told that they cross over to the other side of the road. And as we read that we imagine perhaps one of the roads in Dromore or Banbridge. If you had to pass on by on the other side of the road there would be a good few meters between you and the person. And so the Priest and the Levite attempt to distance themselves from the dying man. It gives the impression that they perhaps tried to avoid seeing how serious the situation was. Perhaps he was just a drunk who didn’t deserve their help. Perhaps if they were looking the other way, they could create the impression that they hadn’t really seen the man at all and they could go on their way pretending to themselves that it really wasn’t as bad as it seemed or that he didn’t really need their help?
But Rob Bell reminds us that the parable is set on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem. According to Rob Bell the road between Jericho and Jerusalem was an extremely narrow and treacherous one that wound up through the mountains. At the most, this road was only a few feet wide. To avoid the man, the Priest and Levite would have almost have had to step over him, perhaps to push themselves up against the side of the mountain to squeeze past the dying man on the road. There is something far more deliberate about this kind of avoidance than walking past a few meters away on the other side of a wide and busy road.
Then a third character enters the story. He is described as a Samaritan.
We don’t understand the parable fully, until we know what the relationship was between Jews and Samaritans.
The Samaritan and Jews shared a common past. At one time in the distant past they were one people. The Samaritans were the descendants of the Israelites in the north. But after the north was conquered by the Assyrians over many generations, the Samaritans intermarried with their conquerors. They became half-breeds in the eyes of the Jews.
But they also shared many religious commonalities. Jews and Samaritans both shared some common Scriptures. Samaritans accepted the first five books of the Bible, Genesis, Exodus, Numbers Leviticus and Deuteronomy. But the Jews had added extra books including the history of their kings and the writings of the prophets and some wisdom writings and psalms.
They shared similar religious practices, making sacrifices in a temple. But the Samaritan Temple was on Mount Gerezim and the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. The Samaritans believed that the worship of the Jews had new innovations and was illegitimate. Likewise, the Jews believed that the Samaritans were no longer worshipping the true God or upholding the purity or the fullness of the faith.
Jews and Samaritans shared a lot in common. Both had ancestral claims to the land in some way or another. They lived in neighbouring towns and villages but as much as possible avoided one another. To an outside the differences probably seemed small, but to the Jews and Samaritans, their differences probably felt enormous.
And so they were rivals. They had rival claims. They had rival religions. They had rival traditions. They looked down upon one-another. At one time, the Samaritans had even supported the Seleucid army when they came in and attacked Jerusalem and desecrated the Jewish Temple. And so walls of bitterness and hatred were erected on both sides and did nothing but harden over a period of around 550 years and perhaps going back even further.
And yet, in the story of Jesus, it is the foreigner, the stranger, the rival, the hated Samaritan who reveals what it really means to be a neighbour to the Jew who was attacked and left for dead on the side of the road.
Not only does the Samaritan stop. He uses his own water and oil to wash, clean tend and bind up the man’s wounds. He puts him on his own donkey, he takes him to a place where he can receive the further care he needs, and then promises to pay for it himself. This is an act not just of compassion, but of generosity too.
I imagine most of us would probably, hopefully do this for a family member or a close friend? Would we do it for a stranger? Someone from our own community? What about someone from a different community? A foreigner? Someone who is different from ourselves? Would we do it for a rival? Would we do it for an enemy?
At the end of the story, Jesus asks the Scribe?
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who showed mercy towards him.”
And Jesus replied, “Go and do likewise.” “Go, and do the same”.
Have you ever felt your heart burning within you… and I’m not talking about what is commonly known as heart-burn.
Today we explore the resurrection passage set for the third Sunday of Easter. It is the story of the walk to Emmaus.
The story is set on the day of Resurrection. Two disciples of Jesus are walking away from Jerusalem the place of Jesus’ recent crucifixion, to the village of Emmaus 7 miles away.
They are broken, dejected and filled with grief. As they walk, the Risen Christ draws up beside them, but they think he is a stranger. He notes that their faces are downcast and asks what they are talking about. They share with him the events of the past few days, the events leading up to Jesus death and also the claims from some women that Jesus was Risen and how all the hopes they had in Jesus had been dashed.
Then Jesus, the stranger begins to share with them words of Scriptures. As he speaks to them they find their hearts burning within them.
At the end of the journey, they invite Jesus to dine with them, as the bread is broken and blessed by him, their eyes are opened and they see it is Jesus. In that moment Jesus disappears.
What could this passage mean for us today?
In preparing for today, the phrase that I was chewing on was the phrase: Were not our hearts burning within us on the road? I asked Wendy if she can remember a time when her heart burned within her. After a brief moment of thought she replied: when she fell in love with me! Which warmed my heart!
The phrase is such an expressive one. It speaks of hearts that might be stirring with hope, expanding with a sense of love, a sense of positivity, a sense that everything is right with the world and that everything is going to be ok.
When I was chatting with Wendy about it, she reminded me of a few pages from a book written by the author, Rob Bell, who refers to a number of such experiences in his own life and the lives of close friends, some seemingly very ordinary experiences and other more serious or weighty moments.
He remembers of the first time he was truly in awe of God. He said he felt like he was being caught up in something massive, loving and transcendent and true. Something he was sure could be trusted and that in-spite of all the horrible, tragic things in the world, the universe was somehow safe. He remembers feeling that underneath it all, life is somehow good and true. This all happened at the age of 16 at a U2 music concert. He says that when they started to sing the song: “Where the streets have no names” he thought he was going to spontaneously combust with joy. He writes: This was real. This mattered. Whatever it was. And he wanted more. He had never felt that way before.
He then tells of an experience surfing. He paddled out on a gorgeous day and as he sat there on his board, a couple of hundred feet off shore, surrounded by blue and green and sunlight and quiet, a dolphin jumped in the water next to him. He writes that he thought his heart was never going to start beating again. It was not because it gave him a fright, but because he was overwhelmed by the crushing beauty of what he had just seen and experienced.
He speaks too of the day that his first son was born and he couldn’t speak. He writes that he will never forget standing there by the bed and hearing the doctor ask him what his son’s name was and simply being unable to answer. He just couldn’t get the words out.
He writes: What I find fascinating is how many of us have had moments like these when we were so overwhelmed with the presence of something or somebody, and the moment feels so good, so right, so true and so safe. Warmth, comfort and terror he says. But the good kind of terror. Maybe it is “awe”. Others might have their own way of describing such moments.
But it isn’t just the extraordinary experiences when this happens. It also happens sometimes in the day to day ordinary moments. For example, he describes being with his friends at one of their favourite restaurants. They had been there for at least 3 hours when he noticed they were the last ones left and the employees were starting to stack chairs and sweep the floors. In that moment he looked at his wife who he adores; Shauna who he describes as one of the best storytellers on the planet; Tom for whom he would be willing to take a bullet for and Cecilia who he describes as one of the most loving, authentic people he has ever met. And in that moment as he was soaking it all in, he was overwhelmed with the sacredness of the moment. The sense that in-spite of everything awful that he had ever seen they were going to make it, as though the moment was suddenly infused with something else, with meaning, significance and hope.
And then the experience of watching his boys one evening playing with his neighbours kids in September with their plastic sleds, trying to see who could sled down the hill in front of their yard. He says cars were slowing down as they drove by, filled with people wondering if these kids were actually sledding on grass. And he was standing in the front yard laughing and pushing the kids down the hill. The trees overhead were just starting to turn colour and the neighbour Tim was telling a bizarre story about what had happened to him that day, and the kids were laughing and in that moment he says, everything felt like it was in its right place.
These are moments when one is caught up in something so much bigger than oneself that one can’t put it into words. He asks,: What is it about certain things that ignite something within! And he adds, And is that something actually a Someone?
He writes that whatever those things are that make you feel fully alive and like the universe is ultimately good and you are not alone, he needs a faith that is able to embrace these moments and that doesn’t deny them. He needs a spiritual understanding that celebrates these transcendent moments instead of avoiding them. He needs a faith and a spirituality that is able to affirm that these moments are expressions of what it means to be in God’s world.
And they don’t only have to happen in the best of times. Sometimes they can come to us even in the worst of times as well. Moments, when even in the midst of pain and sorrow one can feel as though one is walking on sacred ground, like there is something else, something more going on.
He describes going to a funeral, and walking into the entrance way thinking that he was the first one there. Then he realised he wasn’t. The husband of the woman who had died was already there, standing over the open casket. He walked over to him as he stood over her body, put his arm around him and didn’t say anything. Just the two of them in that big open room looking down at his wife’s body. And the husband just kept saying over and over: “She was such a good woman; she was such a good woman” And as they stood there together with his arm around his shoulder he had the sense that the ground they were standing on was holy.
He concludes by saying that it isn’t just the concerts and the surfing and the high points, and it isn’t just those beautiful moments in the midst of the everyday and mundane; it is also the tragic and the gut-wrenching moments when we cannot escape the simple fact that there is something far more going on around us than we realise. Moments when it feels like our hearts are burning within us.
And that brings us back to the story of those two disciples walking dejected and broken on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Is it possible that the story that we have in Luke’s Gospel is an attempt to put into words and experience that is difficult to describe?
Was it Jesus in physical form who walked up beside them? Or was it perhaps and experience beyond words or description, that as they walked and talked and reflected together that they became aware of a sense of living Presence with them, the Presence of an overwhelming goodness and love that was speaking to them in their hearts? The presence of the Living Christ that they felt like a burning within their hearts, a sense of hope rising out of seemingly nowhere?
And when they sat down to eat together at the end of their journey, as they gave thanks, blessing and breaking the bread, was it the physical Jesus that they suddenly became aware of in their midst, or was there an opening of the eyes of their hearts becoming aware of the sacred presence of the one who is always with us and who will never leave us and forsake us. Maybe for them it was literally the physical Jesus? For most of us maybe it is more likely to be a growing sense of presence, like we are standing on holy ground. Like our hearts expanding with a sense of love and wonder at the goodness of life with the feeling deep inside that life is ultimately good, that everything is going to be okay and the inescapable feeling that there is something far bigger going on around us than we realise.
May God bless you, and in those moments when it feels like your heart is expanding with love and hope and there is a burning within at the sheer beauty or sacredness of life, may your own faith allow you to embrace those moments as experiences of the Divine, when it has felt like the Risen Christ has visited you and been with you. Amen.
Our passage for today is often referred to as the story of doubting Thomas. According to John’s narrative on the evening of the day of resurrection, the Risen Christ meets with the disciples in the upper room where they are behind closed doors. All the disciples except Thomas are present.
They tell Thomas but Thomas refuses to believe…. Not until he is able to place his fingers into the wounds of Christ.
In our passage today from John 20, a week later Thomas encounters the Risen Christ, who tells him: “Put your finger here; look here are my hands. Give me your hand; put it into my side. Doubt no longer, but believe”.
In preparing for today I thought that I might explore briefly the theme of doubt, and so I looked up some quotes on doubt. It was really interesting to see the diversity of opinions on the theme of doubt.
Some quotes spoke of doubt in a negative way:
Brian Tracy writes that “Fear and self-doubt have always been the greatest enemies of human potential.”
There is a lot of truth in this quote. I see it being played out in my own life. If I am honest, I have grown up often with a chronic sense of self-doubt and a lack of self-confidence. It can be a very disabling feeling. Having an idea to do something, but not having the confidence to go ahead and do it. Backing out before one had even embarked on the first step.
One of my life challenges has been and continues to be wrestling with a sense of self doubt.
Another quote on doubt seems to support the view of Brian Tracy. Honore De Balzac states the following “When you doubt your power, you give power to your doubt.”
Or how about this anonymous quotation: “Doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will”
And this one by Bill Plotkin “Remember that self-doubt is as self-centred as self-inflation. Your obligation is to reach as deeply as you can and offer your unique and authentic gifts as bravely and beautifully as you can.”
I will read it again…
That’s quite an insight. Is it possible that self-doubt is another form of self-centredness? I had never thought about it from that perspective before?
And so from one perspective, doubts are something which need to be conquered and overcome. Helen Keller wrote “Doubts and mistrust are the mere panic of a timid imagination, which the steadfast heart will conquer, and the large mind transcend.”
From a religious perspective, doubt has most often been frowned upon and even used as a stick to keep church members in line. If you doubt certain aspects of the faith, then you are no longer a true believer. And for many Christian religious traditions, this means that your salvation is at stake.
But scrolling through all the internet quotes online, there were surprisingly many quotes that also spoke of doubt in a positive light.
According to Voltaire, the 18th Century French philosopher, Doubt is uncomfortable, but certainty is ridiculous.
I have often admired people who seem to live with a confidence and certainty that makes them look like they cannot be swayed from their goals in life. I would call them the Buzz Lightyears of this world. I have admired them because I know the discomfort that comes from doubt. And yet, even while admiring people who have a seemingly unshakable self-confidence, there is also often a question within me wondering how solid the foundation of their confidence really is. Sometimes, as much as I think I would love to live in a world where issues are more clearly black and white, thus giving ground for greater confidence, I am reminded from my own experience that life is in fact far more nuanced. Is it possible that certainty, as Voltaire suggests is actually ridiculous?
Is it also possible that on some occasions too much certainty might actually be dangerous?
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was predicated on an unshakable sense of being right. That this was the right thing to do. Is it possible that if Putin had exercised a healthy sense of self-doubt, the invasion of Ukraine would never have happened? Is self-doubt possibly sometimes a good thing?
And so there are a number of people who suggest that doubt is not always a bad thing. Under some circumstances doubt can clearly be a positive thing.
Rene Descarte is quoted as saying that “Doubt is the origin of Wisdom”. There is a real truth in this statement for as Richard Feynman says: “There is no learning without have to pose a question. And a question requires doubt.” Doubt is therefore essential to learning and growing. If the Reformer Martin Luther had never doubted some of the teachings he had received from the Roman Catholic Church, there would never have been a Reformation.
Doubt is also an essential element in all scientific enquiry. No progress would ever have been made in any scientific field without doubt raising questions that then required investigation. And so without a certain amount of healthy doubt the world would be living under the shadow of a lot more superstition than it currently does.
Perhaps doubt can sometimes be beneficial?
Which brings us to religious doubt. Most religious organisations actively discourage doubt. Doubt is seen as the enemy of faith. I have heard many stories over the years of adults who have given up on religious faith because as children they were frowned upon for raising sincere questions and doubts in sunday school or their confirmation classes (or even sitting in the pews).
The problem is that when religious doubts are not given space to be expressed then people end up being encouraged (or forced) to adopt a blind faith. Bind unquestioning faith however will never lead to a mature and personal first hand faith. At most it will be a second hand faith that is held onto either out of obligation and often out of fear.
Any organisation that has to keep people faithful by discouraging doubt and discouraging sincere questions is behaving very much as a cult would do. And the truth is that there are very many large and well-respected denominations who operate on this basis.
For me, this is one of the gifts of the NSPCI. The Non-subscribing Presbyterians of Ireland, have for around 300 years given space for their members and ministers to have doubts without excluding them from the family of Christ. If the NSPCI had patron saints, I think Thomas might have made a very good patron saint for the NSPCI. The character of Thomas in the gospel story today represents the doubters in all of us. He represents us. He represents our desire to have a faith that is meaningful, a faith that we hold not because we have been told to do so blindly, but rather a faith that allows us to question and come to our own conclusions. And thereby, to have a faith that is not just a second hand hand-me-down, but a faith that each of us can own for ourselves and that makes sense according to our own understandings.
There can indeed be downsides to doubting everything all the time. But doubt is not always a bad thing. Sometimes our doubts can even be a gift.
I would like to end with two quotes from Peter Enns , a Biblical scholar, from his book entitled: The Sin of Certainty. Firstly Peter Enns believes that Doubt needs to be embraced.
“Doubt is God’s instrument, will arrive in God’s time, and will come from unexpected places—places out of your control. And when it does, resist the fight-or-flight impulse. Pass through it—patiently, honestly, and courageously for however long it takes. True transformation takes time.”
― Peter Enns, The Sin of Certainty:
Secondly he writes…
“The life of Christian faith is more than agreeing with a set of beliefs about Christ, morality, or how to read the Bible. It means being so intimately connected to Christ that his crucifixion is ours, his death is our death, and his life is our life—which is hardly something we can grasp with our minds. It has to be experienced. It is an experience.” Peter Enns And I would add… this is ultimately to experience Christ’s love, which is stronger than death, living in us and flowing through us.
I wonder if that is what it might really mean to put one’s fingers in the wounds of Christ’s hands and to put our hand in his side?
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