There is one small but significant word which is often overlooked when reading – and preaching – on the story of the Good Samaritan: ‘down’. In Luke 10:30 Jesus makes it perfectly clear which way the traveller was going: down. ‘Down’ is repeated in verse 31 – the priest was going down the road too.
This does not immediately come to the attention of English speakers since we customarily use the expression ‘down the road’ to mean ‘along’. But in this instance it is topographically specific: ‘down from Jerusalem to Jericho’. And that road is indeed a downward route, which drops over a kilometre from 754 metres above sea level to 258 feet below.
Yet it is not the topography which is the point being made in the specific use of the word ‘down’, it is the spiritual implications. Why were the priest, and by inference the Levite too, going down? At that time, it was common for many of the priests to live in Jericho, with its abundant water supply, warmer climate and good supply of fresh fruit and vegetables, than in Jerusalem. They would go up and stay in Jerusalem while it was their turn to serve in the temple, and then return home. So these two had just finished whatever their ministry called for them to do, and were returning to their ‘normal’ life. They were off duty.
The unspoken criticism of them is that their religious activity had not had any impact on their relationship with their fellow human beings. They should have had compassion, but it took an outsider who wouldn’t even have gone to the temple to show them how to live with compassion on those less fortunate. And ‘compassion’, in Biblical usage, does not mean the bland sense of “oh, what a shame” that it conveys in contemporary English, but means “to be gutwrenched”, so eaten up with feeling that we get a physical response to what we see and hear.
This speaks to those of us who find beggars coming to our church premises, or trip over the homeless sleeping under the lych-gate. If our relationship with God counts for anything, it should be working itself out in our compassion for the needy.
And so it does, in many cases. Churches are largely the impetus behind food banks in this country. Many people working for overseas development agencies are Christians. Many of those agencies have Christian roots. And many of us give sacrificially to these agencies, making up the lion’s share of emergency donations in the UK.
But we can easily become weary of doing good. Particularly when it hits closer to home. How compassionate am I when a homeless person starts sleeping in the lobby of my block of flats? How much do we care about the plight of Syrian refugees if compassion means Britain letting into our country hundreds of thousands of them like Germany has done, and having to build more homes, schools and hospitals (at taxpayer expense)? When push comes to shove, our compassion hardens.
Next week, we’ll be looking at some Christian responses to the current refugee crisis, but in the meantime let us remind ourselves of the words of St Paul:
Let us not grow weary of doing good.
(2 Thessalonians 3:13)