It’s easy to forget, when we read stories from the Bible, that Jesus wants us to think less about ourselves and what we should be like, and much more about God and what he is like, and how he can and does help us in various ways. The story of the Good Samaritan from today’s Gospel (Luke 10:25-37) is a good example of this. We tend to concentrate on the last words, “Go and do the same yourself.” Doing this, we easily miss the other more important point about what God is like – in this story that God is like a Good Samaritan to us. We may not be very good at loving and caring for people who are strangers or foreigners, but God cares for everyone whoever they are and whatever they are like, even for people that others have long given up on.
The question we may well ask when we hear this message is how does God help me. Often people tell me “I prayed and prayed for help Father, but no help has appeared.” The answer to this is not an easy one to give, because it is one we may not want to hear. Perhaps God is helping you, indeed perhaps God is at work in you now, but not in the way you expected. Deep down we would all like God to work in a magic way – I make a wish…a prayer.. and it all comes true. But actually true prayer is not like that at all. True prayer is opening ourselves up to the ways of God.
When I was a priest for a hospital, I remember visiting on ward where I got to know the nurse in charge very well. She didn’t believe in God, so once she got to know me, she was able to pose the hard question. She pointed towards all the sick people on her Ward and said, “So, where is your God in all this?” On this occasion I found the right reply straight away. “God is in you.” I said “As you care for each one of them in such a splendid way. God is in you.”
That’s the first point the Good Samaritan story makes. We might expect to see God at work in the priest or in the Levite – that’s the equivalent of a good church-going person. They are the sort of people who often do good, and we might well see God at work in them. But instead in this story, God is found at work in the Samaritan who is the hated foreigner with a different religion. So the answer to our prayer may come in unexpected ways and through unexpected people, and we must be careful not to be so concentrated on what we think the correct answer to our prayer will be, that we miss God helping us in a different way.
The other point the story makes relates to the condition of the man being helped. He’s described as “half-dead”. Indeed, that’s probably why the other two didn’t help him. They thought he was dead, and were scared of touching a dirty dead body, so they “passed by on the other side.” We know that he was still alive, because we know the end of the story, and my guess is that he was unconscious. So when the Samaritan helped him and took him somewhere to be cared for, the man may not have known who was helping him. Think of him eventually becoming fully conscious at the inn where he is now in a nice clean bed being looked after. He asks who helped him, and is astonished, even shocked, when the innkeeper tells him that the man who rescued him, and has paid for him to be looked after is “a Samaritan.”
Surely that’s the same for us. Often it’s only later, when we look back on a time in our lives when things were hard, at times when we prayed and prayed for help, and nothing seemed to happen. But now, looking back, we can see how God was at work, helping us, but in ways that we were not aware of at the time. We were in a way “unconscious”. We were “half-dead”. Indeed St Paul actually says to the Christians at Colossae “When you were dead in your sins… God made you alive with Christ.” Often our own selfishness makes us unconscious of what God can do in our lives. We look for help in the wrong way, but looking back we can now see that God did help us, but in his way and in his time.
It reminds me of the story of the man who thought that God only worked in magic ways, so when he was drowning he prayed for this magic hand of God to come down and save him, and instead he died. In heaven he said to God indignantly “Why didn’t you help me when I was drowning?” and God replied. “But I sent you help and you refused it. I sent you a life-saver but you refused his help. I sent you a lifeboat and you refused their help. I sent you a helicopter and you sent it away. In each case you told them you knew that God would help you so you didn’t need them, and so you drowned.”
So let’s keep our eyes open for the unexpected ways and for unexpected people For this is the way God often works.