The Gospel for today from the 10th chapter of the Gospel of St Luke about the Good Samaritan tells one of the most famous stories in the New Testament—a story about someone who helps out a person who is in serious trouble. There are five people in this story—a man who has been beaten up and left half-dead by the roadside, two people who help him out—a Samaritan and an innkeeper—and two religious Jews who ignore or avoid the seriously injured man, because they do not want to be contaminated by touching a possibly dead body. Let’s see what three fourth century Church leaders and preachers thought about this story of the Good Samaritan.
One of the most holy places in Orthodoxy is Mount Athos in northern Greece. There are 20 monasteries and more than a thousand monks who spend a great deal of time in worshiping God, both in personal prayer and in community worship, especially the Divine Liturgy. One of those monks said to a recent visitor, “Here it is still the fourth century.” In one sense, that’s silly. It’s not the fourth century at Mount Athos or anywhere else today, 1,700 years after the fourth century ended in 399. However, in another sense that monk has a point—we can approach life as if we are living and praying in the fourth century. But we don’t have to go to Mount Athos to be in the fourth century. We can be in the fourth century here today in this church, St Aidan’s in Manchester.
In the fourth century, the Samaritans of first century Palestine were still well known. They were seen by the Jews as outcasts, as outsiders, because they rejected Rabbinic Judaism and claimed to be descendants of Jews from before the Babylonian exile of the Jews from Palestine. Samaritans believed that Mount Gerizim, not Jerusalem, was the original Holy Place of the Jews, because it was from Mount Gerizim that Joshua renewed the Mosaic Covenant with God. In first century Palestine, Jews, including the apostles and early followers of Jesus Christ did not have anything to do with Samaritans, because Samaritans were viewed as foreigners, as persona non grata, that is, as “persons who were not appreciated.” Therefore, everyone who heard this story in the first four centuries knew that Jesus Christ was being highly critical of His fellow Jews. Christ was saying, “These foreigners whom you dislike actually do good deeds and love people more than you Rabbinic Jews.”
St Augustine challenged his fourth-century congregation with this sermon on the Good Samaritan: “Robbers left you half-dead on the road, but you have been found lying there by the passing and kindly Samaritan. Wine and oil have been poured on you. You have received the sacrament of the only-begotten Son [Jesus Christ]. You have been lifted onto His mule. You have believed that Christ became flesh. You have been brought to the inn, and you are being cured in the Church. That is where and why I am speaking,” continued St Augustine. “This is what I too and what all of you are doing. We are performing the duties of the innkeeper” [end of quote]. So St Augustine is urging his congregation and us to be respectful of those who are not Christians, to recognise that anyone can love his neighbour, just as the Samaritan and the innkeeper helped the injured man left by robbers on the roadside.
The mentor and close friend of St Augustine, St Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, suggested that the two coins which the Samaritan left with the innkeeper should be seen as “the two testaments [Old and New] that contain revealed within them the image of the eternal King [Jesus Christ].” Certainly, Christ is agreeing with the lawyer that the verses from the Old Testament in the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 6, verse 5, and in the book of Leviticus, chapter 19, verse 18, remain guidelines for Christians: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength; and your neighbour as yourself.” But when the lawyer asks “And who is my neighbour?” Christ tells this story about the Samaritan. Clearly, Christ is saying that anyone in need is our neighbour and we should apply our love of God and our love of humanity to that person in need.
Reflecting on this passage, another great fourth century preacher, teacher, poet and hymn writer, St Ephrem the Syrian, suggested that the teaching of Christ has “two wings, that is … the love of God and the love of humanity.” St Ephrem’s words offer a powerful possibility of how we can each experience Christ in our lives—as a person who is fully divine and fully human, inspiring each of us to love God and to love humanity. Throughout Lent, in the Prayer of St Ephrem, we ask the Lord for “the spirit of patience and neighbourly love.” That prayer continues with a request to the Lord to “give me strength in my weakness,” as well as the recognition that “it is your grace that has taught me wisdom.” Ephrem was not a member of a monastic group, but lived as a single person seeking to serve others. Often, St Ephrem wrote hymns specifically for women and urged: “O daughters of the nations, approach and learn a new form of praise through your sister [Holy] Mary. Your voice has been opened to give praise to Him who, by being born, caused you to acquire freedom of speech” [end of quote]. St Ephrem is right—through the obedience of Holy Mary to the words of the Archangel Gabriel we have all—men and women—acquired “freedom of speech”—freedom to decide how to live a life that is filled with love of Christ.
To conclude, whatever our situation in life—priest or layperson, married or single, man or woman, child, teenager or adult, we can each learn from this Gospel today. In the fourth century they understood this gospel; and we can still understand it—love God and love your neighbour. Christ is saying to us precisely what He said to the lawyer, “Go and do the same” as the Samaritan. Search out those who have been hurt by the trials and dangers of life and help them. When we serve those in need, we serve God.