The Jericho road: Jesus' parable is about transformation, not charity

One of Jesus' most well-known stories is the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37), about the man travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho along the Jericho road. Most of us can probably recite it in our sleep.

The Jericho road, connecting Jerusalem and Jericho, is about 17 miles long and notoriously dangerous road. In those 17 miles it drops 3,600 feet. It's steep and it descends sharply, with lots of rocky valleys and passes. Until the fifth century it was called the red or bloody way, and in the 19th century people still paid safety money to local sheiks before they travelled on it.

Martin Luther King said: 'One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway.'Wikipedia

Jesus deliberately set his parable on the Jericho road because it was 17 miles of violence and oppression.

For us, the contemporary Jericho road is the place where knife crime is on the rise, loneliness is endemic, food poverty is on the increase, racism and hate crime is widespread and people are sleeping on the streets.

The Jericho road is any place where there is violence; it is any place where there is oppression, or where people are robbed of their dignity or robbed of love, food or freedom.

Martin Luther King Jr said: 'On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life's roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars, needs restructuring.'

Edward F Markquart, a retired Lutheran pastor, wrote this interpretation of Jesus' parable: 'One day a priest went to visit the Jericho road. He was a very religious man, and he saw somebody who had been hurt on the Jericho road, and he was mortified. He came and gave that person the last rites, and he quickly ran back to his parish as fast as he could. The following Sunday, he gave a sterling sermon about the Jericho road, and he felt so much better.

'Then there was a pastor who went down to the Jericho road and she was appalled by what she saw. It was awful on the Jericho road, and so she came back to her church, and she taught a course called, "The Biblical Understanding and Perspective of Poverty." They showed films of people who were being beaten up on the Jericho road, and everybody felt rotten, but they all felt so good that they had finally done something for the people on the Jericho road.

'There was still another person. Now, he didn't go to the Jericho road, but he saw it on television. He then gathered thousands of people together, and they sang songs about the Jericho road. You should have seen them, with their microphones and all the spotlights. How they sang and prayed so beautifully about the Jericho road.

'Then, there was a left-wing activist who went to the Jericho road, and he was incensed. He was angry by what he saw. So, he came back and organised demonstrations in the cities. He got everyone out of the schools, colleges and universities; and they marched on the Capital City. Yes, they were very active on behalf of the people on the Jericho road.

'Then there was a person on the political right, and she went down to the Jericho road and wow was she aware of the moral decay. She thought, "We've got to solve this problem; we've got to raise employment and change the economy" So, what did she do? She lessened taxes for the rich, so the rich would have more money to make investments so there would be more jobs for the poor, and she increased the tax on the poor, so all people could help pay for the costs of maintaining the Jericho road.

'While these people were all busy, the man on the Jericho road died.'

The story of the Good Samaritan is one of the greatest stories ever told. I fell in love with Jesus and became one of his followers partly because of stories like this.

The parable starts with a lawyer challenging Jesus by asking him what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus contests the challenge by saying, 'You tell me.'

He replies with the words of the greatest commandment, 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind' and, 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' 'You're right,' says Jesus, 'do this and you will live.'

But the lawyer pushes him on what that means, so Jesus tells the parable of the good Samaritan to illustrate it.

He used the story to clarify what being a follower of his looked like. He wanted us to understand that being in a restored relationship with him would mean loving people despite who we are and despite who they are. He emphasised what it was to truly love your neighbour. Jews and Samaritans were neighbours but in Jesus' day, the two groups hated each other.

Jesus was stressing that loving your neighbour means intentionally and deliberately putting aside our own opinions, thoughts, prejudices and preconceived ideas. He was teaching us the importance of loving people where they are, in whatever circumstance they are in, whatever life choice they have made, whatever clothes they wear, whatever language they speak, however they define their gender or sexuality, whatever religion they follow, however they voted in the referendum. He was showing us that unconditional love can transform circumstances and lives.

We are all on Jericho roads. Our part in the 'restructuring' should be as integral to our Christian life as going to church on Sunday. But sometimes getting involved makes our neat Christian church communities complicated and messy – so it feels easier not to. The parable of the Good Samaritan is a story that challenges our non-involvement.

The Jericho road will look different for each of us. It could mean working with those experiencing poverty, dealing with the broken relationships in our own homes and families, combating loneliness, fighting injustice, standing up for the oppressed, being inclusive. Whatever our Jericho road looks like, it will be difficult, costly and painful but it will be well worth the journey.

Dwight L Moody, an American evangelist and preacher, often told a story of a little boy who would walk for miles to go to Sunday school. As he did this he would pass 30 or 40 other Sunday schools. One day someone asked him why he walked so far. He replied, 'Because they know how to love a boy there.'

How incredible it would be if that was the reputation of each of our churches – if we were known as people who know how to love. Because then we would be part of the transformation of the Jericho road.

Mandy Bayton is The Cinnamon Network Advisor for Wales, a speaker and a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter @mandyebayton