Wadi Qelt – a certain man (Luke 10:30)

I confess that this week Saturday has crept up on me so that with or without Internet, I have not thought of this reflective piece. The dig at Bethsaida was so all-consuming and tiring that time has simply sped past. It has been amazing to be by the Sea of Galilee for two weeks and to try to get some sense of the history, to wonder about what it was all like some two thousand years ago. The Lake has many moods changing with the light and the breeze. A particular treat was to see a boat from the first century which had been hidden in the mud and which has now been restored.

Today we have driven to Jerusalem through the Negev – a barren, uninviting desert. Along the way we stopped at Wadi Qelt, the ancient route from Jerusalem to Jericho. You can see from the photo how inhospitable it is and you can imagine that Jesus got the attention of his listeners as soon as he mentioned that a man was taking that route and doing so alone. Not only was the area full of brigands, but the very nature of the land is forbidding. To take the journey without the protection of a caravan would have been to be taking his life into his hands.

Jesus is a consummate story-teller. First he grabs the attention of his audience, in this case by choosing a character who is doing something outrageous, then he uses the classic technique of using three characters. (This is well known to many of us in the way that jokes are told – there were three priests, a Catholic, an Anglican and a Lutheran and so on.) Once he has established the scene Jesus doesn’t need to explain why the other travelers are on the road. The audience know that it is a story.

Of course we know the story so well that we are no longer surprised that the man takes the route alone, nor are we surprised that the Samaritan stops to help. In fact the expression “the Good Samaritan” has passed inot common usage and many people today would not know the origin of the expression. What is lost on many of today’s readers is how shocking it would have been for a Samariton to stop and offer assistance to a Jew and that the Jew may not have been particularly grateful for that help. Such was the enmity between the two groups that Jews would walk the long way to Jerusalem so as to avoid going through the region of Samaria. Both groups claimed to be the true faith and Jews considered Samaritans to be ritualy unclean, presumably because they did not observe the same purity laws.

As I said, Jesus crafts a great story. By using the same language for both the priest and the Levite, he creates a certain expectation in the minds of the listeners. The priest/Levite is “going down”, “he saw him”, “he passed by on the other side”. Jesus’ audience are expecting the pattern to continue, but they have gone ahead believing that they know how the story will end. They imagine that Jesus will continue: “a Jew (ie someone like themselves), was going down, he saw him and he stopped to help.” In their imagination, it is they who will be the hero of the story. After all the priest and Levite have simply behaved in a way that could have been expected of them, but they, the people would surely show compassion.

Jesus takes the ground from under their feet. The hero is not one of their own, but a despised Samaritan. Now they are really listening. There is, in their mind, no such thing as a “good” Samaritan. But this of course, is exactly Jesus’ point. By categorizing and judging others, by expecting them to behave in a particular way we are limiting ourselves and determining who is and who is not our neighbour.

The question of the lawyer is not really answered. What Jesus does though is to expose the prejudices that most of us hold. So long as we fail to see and recognise the good in those whom we fear or distrust, we are unable to love our neighbour as ourself. It is not a problem to care for those in need, but that is not the meaning of the parable. The shocking reality that Jesus exposes here is that a Samaritan can be good and that our values no preconceptions mean that we fail to see the goodness in others.

Whom do we despise or fear. Can we allow this parable to challenge our preconceptions and open us to the challenging idea that those who cause us anxiety may in fact be those who are most willing to show us love and compassion?

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