Michael Apted’s film Amazing Grace is about to be released in local cinemas.
Marking the 200 th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, it presents the story of British MP William Wilberforce and his painful, 20-year struggle to get his bill through parliament. Many of Wilberforce’s contemporaries saw the desperate plight of the slaves ‘in the hands of robbers’ and ‘passed by’ in favour of the financial and social benefits that slavery brought to them and their people.
Wilberforce saw but refused to pass by. He responded with deep compassion to the plight of hundreds of thousands of fellow human beings. He refused to give up the fight in spite of bitter opposition and cost to his health. He became ‘neighbour’ to former slaves and listened to their stories.
He was deeply influenced and encouraged by John Newton, former slave-trader turned preacher and composer of the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’. Slavery persists today in the form of human trafficking and there are modern day counterparts of Wilberforce drawing attention to the plight of our enslaved neighbours and working for their freedom.
The lawyer who questions Jesus in today’s gospel is not searching for an answer but trying to catch him out. Like Jesus’ audience, this legal expert ( nomikos) knows the Jewish law regarding love of God and of one’s neighbour and gives the right answer to Jesus’ first question.
This leads to another ‘test’ question: ‘Who is my neighbour?’ Jesus replies with a subversive story that ends in a final question: ‘Which of these three was neighbour…?’
The lawyer cannot avoid the obvious answer, though it would cost a Jewish legal expert dearly to admit that a Samaritan could be neighbour to a Jew in need. Rather than utter the word ‘Samaritan’ he answers obliquely, ‘the one who showed mercy’.
The Samaritan is ‘moved with compassion’ ( esplanchnisth%u0113), literally ‘moved in the depths of his being’. The same expression is used of Jesus when he encounters the twice bereft woman of Nain and restores her son to life. Compassion is invariably expressed in action. The Samaritan befriends the wounded traveller and draws on all his resources to care for him: wine and oil to dress the wounds, his ‘own animal’ as transport, finance for accommodation, companionship at the inn, provision for ongoing care.
The priest and the Levite come down to Jericho from Jerusalem, centre of Jewish worship, possibly after a period of service in the Temple. The story offers the shocking suggestion that a Samaritan knows more about love of God and of neighbour than do those who officiate in Temple worship. If we substitute ‘Al Qaeda operative’ for ‘Samaritan’, we might begin to understand the power of this parable and the surprising grace that it can offer.