When I type out my sermons I am usually sitting at my workstation on the landing at home but, on this occasion, I was sitting on our Narrowboat Second Chance whilst moored just above Earls Barton lock on the River Nene on a very wet day last month. We were coming to the end of a very enjoyable six-week cruise which had taken us on eight rivers in six counties. We began on the Grand Union Canal near Market Harborough in Leicestershire and headed north-west through Leicester and onto the River Soar. Once on the river, the number of fishermen increased presumably reflecting the improvement in the quality of water as we left the canal behind us. We always give a cheery wave to fishermen when we pass. Most respond with a wave back but a few diligently study the grass around them and refuse to catch our eye.
North of Leicester the Soar runs into the Trent where we turned north-east to take us through Nottingham and Newark and, leaving the Trent at Torksey, along the Fossdyke Navigation to Lincoln. Part of the Fossdyke follows the course of an original canal built by the Romans and is consequently very straight like their roads. Just beyond Lincoln we turned south-east towards Boston on the River Witham taking us deep into the Fens where it is said that the locals all have webbed feet! From Boston we crossed the Wash in a convoy of five Narrowboats with a professional Pilot entering the River Nene at Wisbech. We very much enjoyed our brief trip out to sea which brought back pleasant memories of the seven years we spent as liveaboard yachties when we first retired.
From Wisbech we made a side trip to Ely on the Great Ouse and then completed our trip up the Nene to Northampton from where a flight of 17 locks returned us to the Grand Union Canal at Gayton, just a few days from our home base.
Before setting off on our cruise I printed off the readings for today and took with me a few of my favourite commentaries. When I first realised that the Gospel reading was the Good Samaritan I breathed a sigh of relief thinking to myself – well at least I know what it is about. It is arguably the best known parable in the Bible and through it the word ‘Samaritan’ has come into everyday use, The term ‘Good Samaritan’ is often used to describe someone who has been particularly helpful and the name ‘Samaritans’ has been adopted by the world-wide charity dedicated to helping people in the depths of despair.
What a contrast to the reason Jesus chose to make a Samaritan the hero of his story. At the time he told it there had been friction between the Jews and the Samaritans for hundreds of years. There are several disputed stories about their origins but the Biblical evidence comes from the Second Book of Kings, Chapter 17. From this text we learn that, in about 722 BC, the King of Assyria captured Samaria, deported most of the Israelites and brought in many settlers from foreign lands. Other versions of the story suggest that some of the Jews who escaped deportation to Assyria remained and inter-married with the tribes who were brought in. Whether this is true or not, aided by a priest appointed by the King, the Samaritans developed a religion based on the first five books of the Old Testament and they claimed that they were the true successors of the Law of Moses, not the Jews.
Needless to say, this did not make them popular with the Jews, a situation made even worse by an incident when Jesus was a young child when some Samaritans crept into the Jerusalem Temple and scattered human bones in it, an act of desecration. By making a Samaritan the hero Jesus increased the challenge of his story to the maximum.
So what is the challenge of this, the best known of all the parables? There are several. First and foremost it is a restatement of the commandment to love our neighbours as ourselves, a difficult enough challenge at the best of times, but it is much more than just that. Through this story Jesus confronts two of the most common excuses we use not to offer help even when we can see that it clearly needed.
The first of these is to find some very good, compelling reason why we can’t help on this particular occasion: we would love to, of course, but it just isn’t possible. The Priest and the Levite were both Temple workers governed by strict rules of cleanliness. The man who had been beaten up might be dead, and to touch a dead body would make them unclean demanding a long ritual to cleanse themselves again. Their slavish adherence to complex laws led them to disobey God’s fundamental law of love.
Many of the excuses we use today for not helping a neighbour come into this category. We would love to help, but we are just too busy; it wouldn’t be appropriate for us to get involved, whatever that might mean; things like this are better left to the authorities; it would be against Health and Safety rules or our Insurance Policy. Occasionally such reasons might be valid in a specific case, but more often than not they are just excuses.
The second excuse strikes at the heart of the central problem that has caused most of the wars in our history: our basic instinct of tribalism. The Samaritans were a detested tribe who, in the eyes of the Jews of the time, could do no good. Like all such tribal typecasting, the reality that there is good and bad in us all had been replaced by the self-supporting lie that the Jews were all good and the Samaritans were all bad. By making the hero of the story a Samaritan, Jesus confronted this prejudice head on.
So, have we learnt to control this basic tribal instinct in the 2000 years since Jesus told this story? Hardly. The instinct to categorise people into tribal groups is as strong as ever – we do it all the time. Fishermen who will not wave to boaters, the stereotype of Romans building everything straight, the folk-story of Fenlanders having webbed feet and terms such as ‘liveaboard yachties’ all involve categorising people into groups and associating a fixed set of attributes with each group.
The examples from our recent cruise may be relatively trivial, but others are not. In the Holy Land, Jews still prefer to travel from Galilee to Jerusalem via the Jordan Valley but now it is to avoid the Palestinians rather than the Samaritans. Extremist Muslims and Christians each denounce the other as enemies of God. Sensation-seeking newspapers run stories about ‘Immigrants’ or ‘Eastern Europeans’ condemning whole groups with a single stroke of the pen. The need to confront such tribalism remains as strong today as when Jesus confronted the lawyer who was trying to entrap him. There are 7 billion of God’s children living on the earth today and they are all our neighbours. Let us pray for God’s help to treat them as such.