The Good Samaritan , Provenance Unknown.
Jesus replied, “A man fell victim to robbers as he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho….” Luke 10:30.
We have today possibly the most famous parable of all, the Good Samaritan. It is one of those stories that homilists love to get their teeth into. You have one in me! But behind the most famous elements in the story, there is a wealth of hidden symbolic language just below the surface. For starters, the man is going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. Literally true. Jerusalem is 2472 feet (754m) above sea level. Jericho on the other hand is 846 feet (258m) below sea level. It is on the River Jordan, which flows into the Dead Sea, the lowest level on the earth’s surface. Then there is the symbolism of each city. Jerusalem is a city holy to the three great monotheistic faiths. For Jews, it is the site of the Temple built by Solomon and the holiest place on earth. For Christians there is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, traditionally the location of Jesus’ crucifixion, death and resurrection. For Muslims, it is the location from which the Prophet Mohammed rose into heaven. So for millions of people it is the holiest place on earth, (for Muslims the third holiest). Jericho, on the other hand, is thought to be the oldest human settlement on earth, going back perhaps 11,000 years. So if there ever was a City of God, it has to be Jerusalem; and if there is a City of Mankind, without divinity, Jericho has a good claim. So, symbolically, the man was going in the wrong direction – away from God and descending to the level of mere humanity, a path leading to death, symbolized in the Dead Sea. And all this before the story has begun!
The Desert and the Dead Sea South-East of Jerusalem, Musement.
The road from Jerusalem to Jericho is mostly desert and completely barren (as you can see above), hence mostly unihabited, a typical place for villains to hang out. So you can expect the people hearing this story would not have been surprised at the fate of the man. He was beaten up, robbed and left to die. Two Jewish travelers passed by, ignoring him, a priest and a Levite, an officer of the Temple in Jerusalem. Naturally the listeners to the story would have been surprised at such indifference, and then bewildered that a Samaritan came to the man’s rescue instead. But Jesus is making a point: the Samaritan belonged to a people utterly despised by the Jews. There was a hatred between the two communities dating back centuries. I made this point two weeks ago where we had Jesus passing through Samaria itself, with a link explaining the antagonism between the two closely-related peoples. So the bewilderment among Jesus’ listeners would have changed to astonishment and possibly even anger at this turn of events. A Samaritan helping a Jew?? But remember what started this story: A man asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus answered this with a question at the end of the story: “Who was neighbor to the man left for dead? Note that the questioner could not even speak the word Samaritan: “The one who helped him.” When we are desperate, we will gratefully accept any help offered; any help from anyone. So you can be sure the questioner remembered ever after the Lord’s final question. The lesson is that every person we ever meet in our life is our neighbor; no exceptions, whether they are in need or not. Jesus pushed this even later in his ministry by insisting all people are our brothers and sisters throughout the whole world! We should be enemies to no-one.
Today’s first reading is a kind of exhortation which can be linked to the parable. Catholics believe that we are hard-wired to the good; it is in our nature to be good people, but we have the freedom to ignore that and mess it up, and we do. Hence it can be said that we all have inside us the drive, no matter how weak, to help each other. So many negative forces, such as prejudice (as we see here in today’s gospel) can get in the way of that. But hearing today’s words of life, of support, of good neighborliness, we can begin to correct any negative forces which work against that ideal. And we are not – ever – alone in that. Standing with us is the most powerful force of good that exists, as stated in today’s second reading. We can trust in the person of the Lord, trust that he will stand by us, help us and, like the good Samaritan, pick up up when we fall or get beaten by the forces of evil around us. In doing that, in restoring us to our good nature, we too are then able to be the good Samaritan, and love and respect and, if necessary, help our neighbor, whoever or wherever he or she may be. We have the same strength because we take that same Lord into ourselves at Communion, becoming one with God. Nothing can beat such strength and with that strength we are Good Samaritans.