Trinity 4: The Parable of the Compassionate Samaritan

Rev Canon Patrick Curran challenges us with a reading of the story of the Compassionate Samaritan (Luke 10.25-37) from the perspective of contemporary Europe.

My consideration of the gospel reading set for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity, the Parable of the Good Samaritan, begins by pointing out that nowhere in the Gospel is the Samaritan called good, rather the Samaritan is moved with pity. He shows mercy. He shows compassion. The reception of this parable into the German speaking world mirrors the central theme of the parable. In German the Samaritan is called der Barmherzige Samariter – the compassionate or the merciful Samaritan. When you break down the word Barmherzigkeit into its components it means mercy from the heart (to have a merciful heart).

Jesus tells the parable to answer the question ‘Who is my neighbour?’, whereas the prelude to the parable begins with the lawyer standing up and asking, ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ These two questions are related to each other, but I am fascinated by how quickly we set aside the question about eternal life, as we proceed to expound the parable.

What I am interested in exploring is the ebb and flow of this gospel reading keeping in mind the initial question and answer. Note that the lawyer asks the question. He is encouraged by Jesus to provide an answer to his own question based on the Torah that they both know. The episode begins with a question about doing. What must I do to inherit eternal life? It moves onto a question about who is my neighbour. Who should be the recipient of my doing? Jesus responds by telling the Parable of the Compassionate Samaritan and concludes with a question ‘Which of these was neighbour to the man who fell into the hand of robbers?’ To which the lawyer replies, ‘The one who showed mercy.’ Actually he showed abundant and extravagant mercy beyond the call of the letter of the Law. And Jesus concludes, ‘Go and do likewise.’ To love your neighbour is to show mercy to your neighbour through concrete actions. Compassionate is something we are called to be and to live daily.

What needs to be affirmed in this exchange is that the Law is upheld. It is not set aside. Both Jesus and the lawyer draw on it. Having a common foundation in the Law they can also have a meaningful exchange, even if the lawyer is testing him. And why should the lawyer not test him? The Law is a gift. The Law is a blessing. It was given to further human flourishing lived in relationship with God and in community. The Law is not too difficult. You can do it. You can love your neighbour as yourself. Can you do it perfectly? No, of course not! Compassion has a vertical and a horizontal dimension. What must I do to inherit eternal life? Who is my neighbour?

The Law is not being contested, rather it is a question about hermeneutics (Luke 10.26). How do you read and interpret the Law? Jesus actually asks, ‘How do you read?’ How do you read what is written in the Law? How do you interpret the law? Does it turn us towards our neighbour in a way that enables us to be present to them setting fear aside or does it turn us away so that we can keep our distance and avoid risking anything (see the priest and the Levite, possibly worried about ritual impurity according to the demands of the Law)?

The lawyer’s question would seem to go in the direction of drawing boundaries and of drawing the circle smaller. It has been said that whenever you draw a line between those who are in and those who are out, you will find God on the other side…

good samaritan 2.jpg

This contemporary Orthodox icon of the Parable offers a challenging interpretation of the story.

Ten days ago Carola Rackete, the German captain of Sea Watch 3, rescued refugees at sea in the Mediterranean finally docking in Italy to the displeasure of the Prime Minster Matteo Salvini. We may have mixed feelings about her actions, because ultimately her actions and the actions of many others (the small gestures) do not address the underlying and ongoing crisis. We can recognise however that Captain Carola Rackete has shown mercy at some personal cost, as the EU and the nation states that make up the EU (the ones that hold ultimate power in the EU) seek to develop or neglect to develop policies reflecting the vision and the challenge of a flourishing world.

Migration will continue. Some of it we can hope to regulate. Some will never be regulated. This much realism ought to exist. Can we remain compassionate towards our neighbour? In this situation Christians must be asking themselves against the background of today’s gospel reading of the Compassionate Samaritan, what must I be doing to show mercy and compassion towards my neighbour, which is a question about eternal life, in the streets of Vienna, in the Mediterranean Sea and wherever people are made in the image of God. ‘Go and do likewise.’

Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other. (Psalm 85.10, KJV)

Patrick Curran is the Chaplain of Christ Church, Vienna. He is an ordinand of the Diocese in Europe (1980). Prior to coming to Vienna he served as Chaplain of St Boniface, Bonn and All Saints, Cologne. He was the Archdeacon of the East from 2003-2016.

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