In his book “Wishful Thinking,” one of my favorite theologians, Fredrich Beuchner, describes a parable as “a small story with a big point.” On first glance it would seem that the parable of the Good Samaritan is right up my alley. You may or may not have noticed since my arrival a year ago, but I love to tell stories! I love words and how the right ones can create a new atmosphere, how they can inspire, and force us to examine something we’ve heard a million times over with new eyes. Jesus was the ultimate storyteller in my opinion. His parables today are some of his most well-known teachings and usually when I learn I’m about to preach a sermon, my favorite part is figuring out how I can tell the story.
That was not the case this week. I’m not quite sure why. Perhaps it’s lack of inspiration, or in this case it feels like there is no inspiration left to be had. Everyone has heard the story of the Good Samaritan, of what he did for the man on the road. The Parable of the Good Samaritan has been dissected and viewed from nearly every angle imaginable. You want to know what the poor man on the road was thinking, there is a story for that, you want to see it through the Good Samaritans eyes, that’s not a problem, there are even stories that will tell the tale through the eyes of the priest, the innkeeper, or even a fictitious little child that witnessed the entire event and learned an important lesson that day.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that this parable has inspired so many people in all these ways, but for me personally it presented very little challenge to retell the story. But fortunately for me, as I began to explore the other scripture readings for today I found another story of a Good Samaritan, one that was far more real and needed to be told just as desperately.
Enter the church in Colossae. Have you ever heard of it outside the book of Colossians? Have you ever visited there? I doubt it. The church in Colossae, much like the rest of the city, no longer exists today. Unlike other Biblical cities whose ruins have been excavated and dug up, or Biblical destination cities where you can walk where Paul walked or see what Jesus saw, Colossae suffered earth-quakes, invasion, and devastation after devastation until its final destruction in the twelfth century. Its ruins have not been revisited since.
In reading about Paul’s letter to the Colossians, I began to examine some basic introductory statements about the city... about what it was and had been... and what I found was a city unlike what we are used to hearing about in Jesus’ time. Take these small sentences for example: “Paul never visited the church in Colossae,” “Colossae was a fairly unimportant market town,” “in its early days Colossae was once a large thriving town… in Roman times it had declined,” and my personal favorite, “Colossae was easily the least significant city to which any of Paul’s surviving letters were addressed.”
Small. Unimportant. Insignificant. Of course it’s hard to say just based on this, but what I gather from these pessimistic little gems is that by the time the Church in Colossae emerged, there was nothing special about the town anymore. Its numbers had declined to the larger cities of Laodicea and Hierapolis on either side of it. It was probably amazing to anyone that it had survived as long as it did. The church itself was founded long after Paul had visited the area by another missionary who had heard Paul’s teaching and brought it home to roost. How the word was received… it depends on who you ask. Most rejected the gospel. They held fast to their ancient gods while others remained firm in their Jewish philosophy. But much to the astonishment and discouragement of the Colossians, the gospel did take root in a small group of Christians, in extraordinary and miraculous ways. Though their city was small and dying, though others tried to change their minds and urge them to come back to their old faiths and traditions, though false teachings haunted this little church, they began to passionately practice the teachings of Christ. Teachings like the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The poor were cared for, the hungry were fed, the forgotten were loved. The small, unimportant, insignificant Church of Colossae might have been doomed for oblivion, if not for their good works and the attention they drew to their church.
It took a while, it took other missionaries “just stopping by” on their way to Rome or Galatia or Corinth, somewhere that mattered for the world to see what was happening in Colossae. The church was thriving. Against all odds, against a city on its last leg, against religious opposition, the church in Colossae had continued to grow, they continued to let their good works help their town. Though small and insignificant the actions of the church in this small town are not small in the least. They catch the ear of Paul, and even though Colossae is not his church, even though the faces are unknown and the names unfamiliar, the deeds and workings of this town prompted him to address it in a letter.
“I’ve heard of you,” he tells them in his opening remarks. “I might never have met you but I have heard of you and all that you are doing and I am grateful to you. Because though the world has never met you or seen you they too have heard of what you have done in your city, for the poor, for the endangered, for the forgotten. You have become an example for all small churches, for all new Christians. Don’t stop what you are doing, Colossae, the deeds may seem small to you, but they are not small to the rest of the world, to God they are not at all insignificant.”
Small. Unimportant. Insignificant. Today the Church in Colossae is gone, but the memory of it lives on in this letter, the proof of the small deeds that they did and will forever be remembered for.
“A parable is a small story with a big point”… Fredrich Beuchner went on to say that if you really have to have the point of the parable explained to you, it might be better not to bother at all. Of course that might be a little harsh, but the point is that a parables meaning should be so obvious it doesn’t need to be explained or dissected or retold.
I worry that the point of the Parable of the Good Samaritan has been lost. In all it’s over dissection and creative imagery, in all the various points of view we’ve used to describe it, I fear that we’ve forgotten what it means. The truth is that at the heart of it the Parable of the Good Samaritan is nothing more than a good story. Jesus came up with it on a whim when a lawyer wanted to know what he had to do to inherit eternal life and how to love their neighbor. Not surprisingly the answer was not, “Listen to this story, think long and hard about what it means, and that’s it, that’s all, you’re done!”
“Go,” he said. “Do likewise.”
That is where the wealth of the Parable of the Good Samaritan lies.
The church in Colossae, small as they were, understood that. They realized that the proper response of this parable was not to sit idle while there was work to be done. They never once let the state of their city hinder their ability to go and be Good Samaritans, good neighbors, to those around them. They did what they could in small ways, which led to other churches and other Christians saying, “Well if they can do it, why not me?!” And don’t get me wrong, the church in Colossae was far from perfect, they had their problems, some very big problems, but on this one subject, their small, unimportant, insignificant movement became anything but small, unimportant, and insignificant.
So, it turns out that thanks to the church in Colossae, the Parable of the Good Samaritan might be up my alley, just not in the way I thought it was. Because the true purpose of the Parable of the Good Samaritan is echoed very clearly here by the big, important, significant example of the nearly forgotten church in Colossae. Do not forget and do not just remember either. “Go, and do likewise!”