Sermon for Trinity 4 High Mass Sunday 14 July 2019
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Fr Alan Moses
Readings: Deuteronomy 30.9-14; Psalm 25.9-14; Colossians 1.1-14; Luke 10.25-37
Christians read the scriptures in a number of ways, in different settings and for a variety of reasons. We listen to them together, as we have done this morning, in worship: the context for which most of them were written. We look to them to learn about the God who is revealed in them and, just as importantly, to learn about ourselves. We seek guidance from them in our lives and the ordering of families and communities, of nation and world. Scholars study the meaning of words from ancient languages and cultural and theological backgrounds to help us understand the original intentions of the various authors and editors of the library of books produced over a period of centuries which we call the Bible. We read them in personal devotion and prayer seeking direction and purpose in our lives.
A tried and tested method of Christian prayer, one taken up and developed by St. Ignatius Loyola in his ‘Spiritual Exercises’, is to take a passage such as we have heard this morning from the Gospels and to use our imagination to enter into the scene, We are to visualize the event as if it was a movie; paying attention to the details – the sights and sounds and feelings – thinking ourselves into the roles of the characters: lawyer, priest, Levite, Samaritan and victim. This leads into a prayerful conversation with God and a resolution to act upon its fruit: to “go and do likewise.”
Contemplating a Gospel scene is not simply remembering it or going back in time. Through the act of contemplation, the Holy Spirit makes present a mystery of Jesus’ life in a way that speaks to us now, that is meaningful for us now. We are to use our imagination to dig deeper into the story so that God may communicate with us in a personal, evocative way. In our questioning exploration of the story, we find ourselves being questioned; not to condemn us but to help us to see more clearly where God is already at work in our lives and what he is asking of us; where he wishes to take us.
An important part of this process involves becoming aware of the assumptions and prejudices we bring with us and to strip them away. I came across the other day a priest’s recollection of how it was not until she had left behind her upbringing in the Salvation Army that she had come to realize that the priest in the parable was not the local Anglican vicar and the Levite the Methodist minister.
More seriously, there is a long-standing and deep-seated tendency among Christians, and not least among preachers, to see this parable as a critique of Judaism and the law, and to assume that the Good Samaritan is a prototype Christian. The Labour Party is not the only institution which has a problem with anti-semitism. There is a moral lesson about being compassionate, but the critique is always of other people and not of ourselves. In making us aware of both the original contexts of such passages and the assumptions we bring from our own, scholars help to enrich our reading of scripture.
Shortly before the encounter which occasions the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus and his disciples are turned away from a Samaritan village. James and John, the ‘sons of thunder,’ want to call down fire from heaven in revenge for this refusal of hospitality to travellers– but Jesus reproves them and moves on. Their response is symptomatic of relations between Jews and Samaritans at the time and of communities divided by religion or race or nationality ever since. We need only think of the Catholic and Protestant in Northern Ireland and even in parts of mainland Britain populated by people from Northern Ireland.
The Samaritans were descendants of those people who had not been deported after the destruction of the Jewish kingdoms of Israel and Judah by the Assyrians and Babylonians. The Jews who had returned from exile regarded them with suspicion as having intermarried with Gentiles and absorbed some of their religious practices. At one point, they had destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim. So for Jesus to respond to the Jewish lawyer’s question. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” with a parable in which the good guy is a Samaritan not only seems deliberately provocative; it is.
The parable comes in response to the lawyer whose question is not just an innocent inquiry. He means to ‘test’ Jesus – the same word as used of Satan’s temptations of Jesus in the wilderness.
So Jesus turns the question back on him: You’re a lawyer, so tell me, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”
The lawyer recites commandments from Deuteronomy and Leviticus – which Jews saw as the hooks on which the whole law hung: the one focussed on devotion to God with one’s whole being – the other on love of neighbour. The two necessarily go together. Throughout this chapter, Luke relates devotion to God with actions that represent God’s love and mercy for humankind.
Jesus’ reply confirms the lawyer’s answer, as far as it goes – but has a sting in the tail. The lawyer’s answer is ‘right’ – orthos –that is ‘correct’ or ‘straight’ – but not necessarily complete, for orthos is not the same as dikaios – ‘just’ or ‘righteous’. That would depend on what the lawyer actually does to fulfil the commandments: “Do this, and you will live.” God’s justice requires doing righteousness; especially toward the vulnerable, to neighbours and enemies alike.
The lawyer is not so much seeking justice for others but to ‘justify himself.’ His question “Who is my neighbour?” seeks to narrow the quest for eternal relationship with God to something fixed and manageable; something he can define and control. He is really asking, “Who is not my neighbour?” “Where are the limits?”
Defining the neighbour inevitably narrows the focus: this one, not that one; Jews not Samaritans; Protestants not Catholics, Christians and not Muslims, Brexiteers not Remainers, Straights not Gays, Liberals and Traditionalists; and so on. Make up your own list – and include yourself. The lawyer’s enquiry is focussed neither on God nor on the neighbour, as the commandments require, but on himself. This story challenges our deeply-held tendencies to divide the world into ever smaller circles of insiders and outsiders, friends and enemies.
Jesus’ Jewish hearers might have expected the third character coming down the road to be an everyday Israelite. Instead, they hear of a Samaritan. We are not told why the priest and the Levite pass by on the other side. Commentators have argued that they wanted to avoid defilement from coming into contact with a dead or bleeding body. But the law obliged them to care for those in distress, and even to bury the dead, if they were the first on the scene. As they were coming down from Jerusalem rather than going up to it to perform their temple duties, ritual defilement would not be such an issue.
The priest and the Levite are not symbols of what is wrong with Judaism and the Law, as many have assumed, but of a failure to do what needs to be done. They are highly religious people – so this morning, in this church, they are people like us – mass-going high church Anglicans – when we fail to act in compassion, or even out of obligation, toward those in desperate need. Like the lawyer, they may be people of privilege, interested more in their entitlements than in a stranger in need. Jesus calls us to reconsider our basic understandings of neighbours, neighbourliness, and justice, upon which salvation hangs.
Unlike the other characters in the parable, the Samaritan is depicted in detail. Like the priest and Levite, he comes near and sees, but he alone is moved with compassion, the only person in the Gospel apart from Jesus to be described in these terms. (See 7.13; 15.20). He goes to the wounded man rather than around him. He attends to his wounds, pouring on oil and wine puts him on his animal, brings him to the inn, cares for him, pays the innkeeper to continue care and promises to repay the costs.
The details demonstrate complete, boundless care. And all this from a despised Samaritan, the enemy. He has nothing to gain from this kind of care for an unknown victim. He demonstrates what it means to act as a neighbour and thus to fulfil the commandments.
This parable easily lends itself to translation into more contemporary terms. The Samaritan could be an immigrant, a Muslim, an ex-convict, a rough-sleeper. Which enemy or neighbour seems most threatening and risky to us?
At the heart of all Christian life and practice is the impulse to reach out in compassion and genuine care, without regard for our self-interest or even our own salvation. Salvation, as Pope Francis has said, is found not in building walls, but in building bridges, in joining hands with the enemy and the alien – an idea just as challenging today as it was in the time of Jesus.