Down through the centuries these two men, the priest and the Levite have got a very bad press. Some of it perhaps was justified but really they weren’t bad men, as the bad press would suggest. I suspect without knowing much about them they were in fact ordinarily good men but caught up in an extraordinarily bad system. They see the man in the ditch who has been stripped and beaten almost to the point of death by the robbers, and they walk by on the other side of the road; not because they were bad men. Yet they had a serious problem looking at the man in the ditch. This is because their jobs were in the temple. That’s how they fed their families and that was their income. In order to perform that job in the temple they had to maintain themselves in what was called “ritual purity”. Now the man in the ditch was naked and therefore they couldn’t tell whether he was Jew or gentile. In the Middle-East then and now, your identity is signalled by your dress. As they couldn’t tell if he were Jew or Gentile they couldn’t take the risk of going and touching a gentile because that would have rendered them ritually impure, and therefore disqualified from their work in the temple. It was their job which was at stake. The other thing they didn’t know was whether the man was alive or dead. We are told he’s half-dead but looking at him from the other side of the road he may well have looked deceased. Once again they couldn’t take the risk because if they went over and touched a dead body they were again ritually impure. So you can see what I mean about a bad system. It wasn’t that they were bad men but they were trapped in this bad system. These were men who were extremely keen to obey God’s law, they were devout Jews, but this system didn’t even enable them to obey the law because as we’ve heard in the word of Deuteronomy “the law is not beyond your strength or reach”. In fact at the heart of the law was the command to walk across the street and do something to help the man in the ditch. They make it seem impossible, or the system does, but clearly it is not beyond your reach. All you have got to do is walk across the road. The word is very near you, it’s as close as the body in the ditch; it’s in your mouth and in your heart. As you can see what it means to obey the law of God is not rocket science – walk across the road and simply do what the Samaritan has. Who could have believed a Samaritan acted this way. The Jew’s hated the Samaritan’s because they had been implants from another part of the Assyrian empire long ago. They were transplanted and plonked in the northern part of the holy land. They were regarded as usurpers of the land and the religion of Israel so they were hated. Here you’ve got the least likely candidate to do what he does. The insiders can’t manage it; the outsider manages it, and how! He doesn’t just pour oil on his wounds and bandage him up; he puts him on his donkey and then takes him to the inn and pays the bill. It goes way beyond the call of duty. There is a kind of madness caught up in it but that’s what the law of God entails.
The danger is that we too can be more or less good people, and I can tell that by just looking at you; you’re fine – the usual mix of good and bad which is the fate of any human being. Yet good people can be caught up in a bad system. The church is supposed to be God’s good system in a world full of bad systems. As we heard from St Paul a splendid vision of the church which is not just another clapped out human institution; the church is “Christ’s body”. He’s the head but we are the body, intimately and totally united to Jesus Christ crucified and risen; “a place where peace and reconciliation and mercy happen.” That is what the church is supposed to be, but we know the church too at times can be a bad system. It’s not hard to find the evidence. Here today we see that truth, as God does, but we see that it’s not the truth. We are called to be God’s good system, turning away from all the bad systems and turning them on their head. What does that mean? It means that the church is above all a hearth of mercy. We see this brilliantly in this Year of Mercy, especially on the banners, which read “merciful like the father”. The father is always the one who crosses the road and picks us up. We are all in the ditch and we stay there and die there unless he comes to get us, which he does in Jesus. That’s what Jesus is, that’s what Jesus means. A merciless or unmerciful church is a contradiction in terms. It simply means that the church is another bad system and not the good system that is radically countercultural and is the revolution of God on the face of this earth.
Does it all look too hard for the church to be the good system? Again the words of Deuteronomy: “it is not beyond our strength or reach.” Why? Because it’s not just a matter of us; there is a strength from on high. We call it grace which is given to us. We are weak but made strong; we are merciless but made merciful by that power which is not ours. So here today we hear the voice of Christ say cross the road, go down into the ditch, pick up those who have been stripped and beaten to the point almost of death. Get mud on your boots shedding blood from the heart that is wounded. The call is very near to you; it is in your mouth and heart. Amen