There is a tendency amongst some to complain that things are not as good as they were. It creeps up on us. I see changes since I was a child. People do not recognise Christian references as much as they once did. Hymns and parts of services could be used in plays and books and everyone got the point: now I am not so sure. In common speech the idea of a Samaritan was someone helping. Now it tends to be used as a word for someone who helps on that wonderful telephone helpline for people in distress. The Samaritans organisation is now 60 years old. It started when an Anglican clergyman saw a need for people who had no one to talk to being able to phone or come and see him. He also had volunteers, and the volunteers’ duties were to sit with the callers whilst they waited for their appointment, offering them someone to chat to. It soon became clear that their role was much more central to the service. Often, the callers would pour out their problems to the volunteers and many felt no need to speak to the clergyman afterwards. Now there is a nationwide coverage of such centres.
Another story. My wife (then my fiancée) and I were traveling in Holland when we nearly had a disaster. She got on board the Express which we were catching and the doors closed. I was left behind with the bags, all the Dutch money and both passports, as well as the tickets. I got the next train and looked out at all the stations, and when we got to the first stop for the Express about an hour later, there was Jackie, looking calm on the platform. Obviously I was told off, although I cannot see how it was my fault. I asked what had happened. She said the ticket inspector came round and she was trying to explain what had happened to the inspector, who was a man who spoke no English when what she described as “a good looking young Samaritan” bought her a ticket. She at least knew her Bible stories! We had no idea who the young man was but he saved Jackie from being arrested, stopped the trip being ruined and it remains one of those family stories you treasure.
So, what do the telephone volunteers and the young man have in common with the Samaritan in the Gospel parable for today? It is of course the act of helping a stranger. They all went out of their way to assist a fellow human being who was in trouble. It is more than an act of mercy; it is an act of love, to put someone else’s needs before your own. Christ was using the parable to illustrate the great commandment, to love your neighbour as yourself. It seems that the question ‘who is my neighbour?’ means anyone you come across. It means you ought to help anyone in need. It is without limit potentially. It also seems that it is without excuse.
The priest and the Levi may have had a problem with dealing with the man who had been robbed. He might have been dead and handling a corpse made a person ritually unclean under Jewish laws. I do not think that Christ saw that as a valid excuse for not helping. The problem is that there is no limit and no boundary to loving people.
Father Gregory talked last week about the way culture and traditions cause us problems. A moment’s thought shows us that there is a point where we are different from the world round us. Christ calls us to a greater depth of service and concern. The law takes a different view of course. In a famous case which is almost the definition of the law of negligence in England (Donaghue v Stevenson 1932), the main judgment in that case, in the top court in the land, there is a reference to the parable we heard today. The Judge Lord Atkin said “The rule that you are to love your neighbour becomes in law you must not injure your neighbour; and the lawyer’s question ‘Who is my neighbour?’ receives a restricted reply. You must take reasonable care to avoid acts or omissions which you can reasonably foresee would be likely to injure your neighbour. Who then in law is my neighbour? The answer seems to be persons who are so closely and directly affected by my act that I ought reasonably to have them in contemplation as being so affected when I am directing my mind to the acts or omissions which are called in question.” Put it another way, you can do what you like so long as you do not harm others. That is actually the standard of most of the people around us. It is not a bad social rule but not enough for the standards of Christ who of course, demands perfection. Our neighbour now is anyone who needs us. It is no accident that the Samaritan was the one who stopped and helped. There was a great deal of hostility towards Samaritans if you were Jewish. They were heretics. We should not only love and help the people we like or who are part of our particular tribe or who believe the things we believe.
I mentioned the Samaritans, who work mainly over the phone. The Reverend Chad Varah expected he would be doing most of the helping but he discovered that the volunteers did as much good as he did. Helping people is not just a job for clergy or for specialists. Sometimes people need help we cannot give, but we can help them get that help from elsewhere. The Samaritan could not give the man food and shelter himself, but he arranged for the innkeeper to do just that. Sometimes what is required is to call the police or an ambulance. Helping out doesn’t always have to involve the Church; it can be done through other organisations. Whatever we do it should be done quietly and not drawing attention to ourselves. Loving people, doing the best we can for them is simply what we do as Christians. It has no limits because we are called, simply, to be perfect. We may make excuses but we really need to deal with people lovingly without delay. We do not sit in judgement on people and fail to act because they are foolish, or perhaps brought misfortune on themselves. Perhaps the man in the parable was foolish travelling alone in country where there were robbers. But, we really cannot claim to be doing God’s will if we lapse into being judgemental and arguing ourselves out of doing something. If we see anyone in need, someone we can help but just walk by, then we are sinners.
So, let us truly love our neighbours as ourselves, anyone, anytime, anywhere