The parable of the Good Samaritan

Loving your neighbour

One of the best known of all 'Bible stories' is the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Found only in Luke's gospel (10:25-37), it is told in response to the question, 'But who is my neighbour?' The question is asked by someone who has been told that, to love your neighbour as you love yourself is one of the two basic requirements of the Law - meaning the religious code of Judaism. The other is to love God.

But it is the requirement about love of neighbour that produces the question. The story Jesus tells by way of reply has become one of the foundations of the Christian ethic. The title given to the story, that of the 'Good Samaritan', has passed into the language, to be used by people who may never have read or even heard the story itself. But most people will be familiar with the basics.

A traveller on the road to Jericho from Jerusalem is brutally attacked by robbers. They leave him for dead. The wounded traveller lies helpless, and two passers-by - a priest and then a Levite, a religious lawyer - fail to offer him any assistance. But a Samaritan, a member of an ethnic / religious group despised as heretics and worse by the sort of people Jesus was talking to, stopped to help the man.

'He was moved to pity', said Jesus.

And not only does he tend the traveller's wounds there and then, he also takes him to an inn and pays for his accommodation.

Of course, this is not just a story about a man doing someone a good turn, at some considerable trouble, expense and even danger to himself - even if that is its basic message. The fact that the Samaritan was a Samaritan gives it an added significance. Jesus makes the hero of the story someone whose religion and nationality or ethnic group most Jews despised at that time. And the Samaritan stopped to help a Jew - at least we assume that he was a Jew, for this isn't actually stated.

And maybe this is significant. For the Samaritan, it didn't matter what religion or nationality the traveller was. All that mattered was his need for help. The Samaritan was 'moved to pity' for a fellow human being. And this was the point.

'Who is my neighbour? My neighbour is any and every human being, especially when he or she is in need or distress. Their worth lies in their humanity and not in any accident of birth or circumstance - least of all their religion, nationality or ethnicity. And what's more, our moral obligation to help is not dependent on our religion, nationality or ethnicity either. That proceeds from our humanity, the humanity we share in common with our neighbour.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan is a very human story. It has an immediate relevance in every age and culture. It speaks of the potential for kindness, compassion and generosity that exists in human beings everywhere. It says that, although the evil represented by the robbers is a constant feature of human society, that evil doesn't tell the whole story, or even the most important part of it. That part is the goodness that awaits its awakening in the human heart. To be a good neighbour is the high calling of every human being.

The story that Jesus told in response to a religious question is remarkably free of what might be called religious content, at least in the conventional sense of the term. It is refreshing for its complete absence of supernatural or miraculous content. It has no obviously theological, philosophical or dogmatic content. True, Jesus tells it to illustrate a religious requirement, but it is a requirement solely concerned with human relationships. Jesus deals with it at this level and this level only.

And, of course, the story can even be seen as critical of religion. Apart from the robbers, the two other people in the story who emerge with little credit - the priest and the Levite - are representatives of the religious establishment.

I don't think we should make much of the fact that they were members of the Jewish religious establishment. Jesus was a Jew, talking to a Jewish audience in a Jewish religious and cultural context. Change the context and the message holds good. The priest and the Levite simply stand for people in any faith tradition who fail to practice human compassion. There is an added edge to this, though. The priest and the Levite feared being tainted by the ritual impurity incurred by touching a dead body - which the injured traveller might possibly have become. Jesus was saying, then, that an over-scrupulous religiosity is a bad thing when it gets in the way of loving your neighbour; when it becomes an excuse for 'not getting involved' in situations that will cause personal inconvenience.

The Samaritan saw a human being in distress. The priest and the Levite saw a possible source of ritual impurity, not to mention a nuisance! Jesus was saying that whether you are a priest or a Levite or anyone else, the obligation to 'love your neighbour as you love yourself' overrides all other considerations, all excuses - be they cloaked in religion or not. And that message has the power to trouble our consciences as much now as it did those of Jesus' original hearers.

It should not be supposed, of course, that Jesus was attacking religion as such. Rather, he was saying that the purpose of religious teaching and practice is to make us more loving, more truly neighbours to each other. When religion is the means by which we relate to each other with respect, sympathy, compassion and kindness as fellow human beings, then it is indeed the mediator of the divine to the human. When, however, religion throws up barriers of prejudice, bigotry, self-righteousness, pettifogging legalism and narrow dogmatism, then it betrays both God and humanity.

It was a consistent theme of the teaching of Jesus that the truth of a person's faith lies solely in the extent to which he or she displays the same undiscriminating love of neighbour that was displayed by the Samaritan. And the fact is that no surer ethical foundation for human relationships has ever been described. It is the standard against which any religious system or institution must be tested. And Jesus was not attacking his own faith tradition in portraying the priest and the Levite as he did. Rather he was drawing on the fundamental ethic of that tradition in order to recall his hearers to a truer way of living it. The target of his criticism was a moribund and inhuman religiosity - whatever its label - that puts rules, regulations and dogma before love, the letter before the spirit.

God's purpose in religion is not the enslavement and degradation of human beings. Rather it is to free us from our own follies, delusions and narrow self-concerns, that we might be the good neighbours to each other that the Samaritan was to the man who 'fell among thieves' on the Jericho road.

If we strip away the supernatural and miraculous trappings of the story of Jesus, we are left with a revolutionary spiritual ethic that still stands on its own feet. It does not require those trappings to authenticate it. The truth and efficacy of the love ethic proclaimed by Jesus is manifested in our own experience. Where it is present, we see human life enhanced, fulfilled and redeemed. Where it is absent, we see life degraded, debased and rendered hopeless and meaningless.

But just as Jesus saw the 'second great commandment' compromised and betrayed by those in his own faith community who should have upheld it, so too has it been compromised by their counterparts in other faith traditions. Vast structures of hierarchy and pomp; endless rules and regulations intruding on every least aspect of life; interminable fantastic metaphysical and supernatural speculations; countless tomes of obscure theology, abstruse philosophy and nitpicking dogma - all these and more arise where once there was a message of stark and pure simplicity. It is as if we human beings try to bury truth just as we burn, crucify or otherwise kill those who challenge us with it.

Rediscovering simple truth was what Jesus was about. So too have been the religious reformers in many faiths. They saw the original genius and spirit of their tradition being lost beneath a mass of corruption, distortion and misrepresentation.

Our own roots as a Unitarian movement lie in such folk as this.

Firstly, in the Reformation, people such as Martin Luther and William Tyndale gave us the foundation documents of Christianity in our own languages. The simple message of Jesus was finally there to be read and heard without the intervening spin of pope, prelate and priest. Then secondly, some of those who read the Bible for themselves found that it didn't always say what even the Reformation's leaders said it said! And they also found that the leaders of the Reformation were as capable of putting religious dogma before simple human love as anyone else.

Thus the Radical Reformation included the progenitors of the Unitarian movement - people who saw through the miasma of so-called 'orthodox' dogma to the human Jesus and his human teachings about how to live lovingly as human beings.

Another important movement of the period, and, indeed, slightly predating it, was that of Renaissance Humanism. Its most lauded achievement was the rediscovery of the art, literature and learning of the Ancient World of Greece and Rome. But more specifically, for our purposes, it did two other things. Firstly, it transformed the prevailing view of humanity. Traditional medieval doctrine saw human beings as puny, miserable and depraved creatures - helpless and worthless before God as a remote, heavenly potentate. Humanism, while remaining firmly Christian, saw human beings in a much more positive light, derived from the ideas of the ancient Greeks and Romans. They saw human beings as having worth and potential; as being capable of creativity, nobility and independent thought.

Foremost among the Renaissance Humanists was Erasmus of Rotterdam, to whom we owe the second great contribution of the movement. Erasmus applied the classical scholarship and intellectual rigour of Humanism to the Bible. In particular, he produced - in 1516 - a new and definitive edition of the New Testament in the original Greek. It was this that Luther, Tyndale and the other Reformers used in their translation of the New Testament into their vernacular tongues. Humanist learning also enabled the Old Testament to be translated afresh from both Hebrew and Greek originals.

The relationship between Renaissance Humanism and the Reformation was a complex one. Although the Reformation would never have taken the course it did without Humanism, far from all Humanists were Protestant Reformers. Erasmus himself remained loyal to the Roman Catholic Church, even though he was bitterly critical of its abuses and corruption at that time. Indeed, Humanism played its part in producing the Counter-Reformation, the great movement for reform and change within the Catholic Church. On the other hand, some of the leading Reformers, notably John Calvin, turned their backs on Humanism's positive view of human nature.

Today, of course, the term 'Humanism' is more often associated with a strongly non-religious, if not anti-religious, secular world view - very unlike that of the Renaissance Humanists. However, there is an important connection between Humanism and the Unitarian stress on a human Jesus, and on his teachings as fundamental insights into human nature and human relationships. The advance of science and of biblical scholarship steadily eroded belief in the supernatural world view of the Ancient, Medieval and even Reformation periods. Reason and the scientific method transformed notions of truth and how to determine it. Theology either took this on board or condemned itself to obscurantist irrelevance, or maybe a confused attempt to keep up - usually two or three steps behind!

Unitarians too had their differences and developed conservative, liberal and radical wings. All these, however, retained their human view of Jesus and their belief in the teachings and example of Jesus as the model for human life. They shared also their faith in human beings as temples of the divine. But while some retained their traditional belief in God as the benign ruler of a supernatural realm, others began to understand God very differently. Some even began to ask whether the word 'God' was still useful or applicable in a universe driven by natural process rather than by supernatural intervention. They came to see supernaturalism as a barrier to the evolution of religion into something that truly freed and ennobled human beings. The ethic enunciated by Jesus remained, but it was now seen in wholly human terms, without the need for supernatural backup. That is, its truth is independent and self-evident.

In American Unitarianism particularly, this radical humanist view became very influential. In the 19th century it found expression in the Free Religious Association (formed in 1867) and its 'Fifty Affirmations', which gained the active and enthusiastic support of Charles Darwin amongst others. In the 20th century it was expressed in the Humanist Manifesto of 1933. This was the work of Unitarians, who also formed the majority of its signatories. Without closing off the options of future discovery with a new dogmatism of its own, the Manifesto affirmed a wholly natural view of universal and human origins. It saw the fulfilment of human life as the true purpose of all institutions and associations. Article 12 stated: 'Believing that religion must work increasingly for joy in living, religious humanists aim to foster the creative in man and to encourage achievements that add to the satisfactions of life.'

The Manifesto was a declaration of religious humanism: of religion that reflects and uplifts the human spirit without any suggestion of the supernatural. 'Though we consider the religious forms and ideas of our fathers no longer adequate,' it said, 'the quest for the good life is still the central task for mankind.' The Humanist Manifesto of 1933 has the feel of both optimism and defiance about it. We human beings are on our own, it says, but we have the potential to make it on our own! Religion must surrender the trappings of its pre-scientific past and become what, at its best, it always was: the servant of human beings, their guide and support in living well.

In 1973, forty years after the first, a second Humanist Manifesto was issued. Although this too attracted Unitarian Universalist input and support, it no longer affirmed a specifically religious humanism. It saw this as only one of many types of humanism. It saw its predecessor as overly optimistic in the light of the century's totalitarian regimes, but it could still speak of, 'Faith, commensurate with advancing knowledge,' as being, 'also necessary' along with 'an affirmative and hopeful vision'.

Entering the 21st century, the idea of religion's primary concern being with human life and its enhancement in the here and now, is pretty general in Unitarian circles, regardless of theological position. The teachings inherited from our religious past are treasured for their intrinsic value rather than their supposedly supernatural origins. We are now less likely to draw distinctions between the divine and the human, the natural and the supernatural - or to see the spiritual as otherworldly and alien to us. In that sense, we are all religious humanists now!

But these same factors have also enabled us to reclaim much of the language, myth and metaphor of our religious heritage. Religious humanism is part of a Unitarian movement that sees confluence, not conflict, between, on the one hand, the timeless truths taught and lived by Jesus, and, on the other, the deepened understanding of our place in the universe - of the human spirit and its potential - which religious humanism has long struggled to express. Perhaps the term 'Christian humanism' - once applied to figures such as Erasmus - is not inappropriate to describe the position that many of us, including me, have come to hold within the Unitarian context.

This year, 2003, seventy years after the original Humanist Manifesto appeared, a third one has been issued under the auspices of the American Humanist Association. It declares a 'lifestance guided by reason, inspired by compassion' and which, 'informed by experience, encourages us to live well and fully.' Although I expect that many of us, myself included, would not find it to be a wholly adequate expression of our belief system, nevertheless there is little in Humanist Manifesto III with which I would disagree. And neither is there anything in it that conflicts with what Jesus said in the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

An address by the Reverend Cliff Reed

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