Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Sunday Sermon: Luke 10.25-37 The Parable of The Good Samaritan

                                                                   Luke 10.25-37

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall 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 your neighbour as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

So, today we have one of the most famous parables of Jesus: The Good Samaritan. When I was teaching Religious Studies, this was always a key text in the GCSE unit on Religion and Prejudice and when I was trawling back through documents on my computer I was mildly surprised to discover that I have never before preached on this most familiar of Gospel stories.

I have to say, though, that its very familiarity can be problematic: we all know it; we’ve heard it countless times. We know the story well and, as we listened to it today, I wonder whether we fell into the trap that is always there with those things that we know so well: “I know this one. I could stand up and preach from this text.” – and we probably all could, in fairness, and make a reasonably good effort. Goodness me, if we don’t know the moral of this story as disciples, there’s surely no hope for us. We could stop now really and take its message as a given, carry on with the service and have an extended coffee time.

Don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing wrong with the reassurance of revisiting the familiar. But – and it’s a big but – the danger lies in assuming that because it is a staple of our application of Christian ethics, there is nothing new for us here. But there is a difference between head knowledge and heart knowledge. One we know factually, the other we internalise and it becomes part of who we are and the way we live our lives, particularly in relation to others.

It’s with some trepidation, therefore, that I continue.

I mentioned Christian ethics before and this parable sits firmly and consistently within Jesus’ wider teaching on the care of “the other” in society: we know that Jesus welcomed the outcast and the marginalised in his society: women, the poor, the sick and disabled – mentally and physically, tax collectors, prostitutes and foreigners. In Matthew chapter 7, Jesus taught people to “Love your neighbour as yourself.” – The Golden Rule which, put another way, means that we should treat others as we would like others to treat us. Let’s be clear though: such teaching challenged the attitudes of the day by being inclusive in an environment when being inclusive was a novel, if not revolutionary, idea. If you weren’t able-bodied, self-sufficient, Jewish and ideally male in Jesus’ society you weren’t anybody. You didn’t count. It was a very hierarchical society and perhaps the first challenge is to ask ourselves if we can see any parallels in our own society. Who is at the bottom of the pile today? Who doesn’t count? Who is, effectively, a non-person today? Once we begin to recognise those parallels we can, perhaps, begin to see what the application of this parable is for us today.

So, let’s revisit the story.

The introduction is itself very important: Jesus is approached by a lawyer – an example of that able-bodied, educated, self-sufficient Jewish male. Now in the context of the story commentators generally see him as being a bit full of himself, a bit arrogant, blinkered and rather self-congratulatory. Has he come to Jesus as a true seeker of the truth or has he come hoping for praise and affirmation about what a good, upstanding example of Jewish discipleship he is? A bit of a smart-arse, dare I say? He knows the Jewish code backwards. A lawyer in Jesus’ day was generally an expert on the religious law, so when in answer to Jesus’ question he responds that the key to salvation is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.” he is absolutely right and Jesus tells him so. Brownie point to the lawyer! But he blows it in his next question, “And who is my neighbour?” Head knowledge not heart knowledge, so Jesus feels obliged to spell out the practical application of loving our neighbours as ourselves.

Now the story Jesus tells is not an actual event but, like so many of his stories, is based on possible realities. I’ve been to Israel and the journey Jesus describes from Jerusalem to Jericho is a real journey. Even from the comfort of my air-conditioned coach I could see the amazingly bleak and inhospitable landscape of that journey, unchanged down the years. When Jesus starts his story, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho ….” he pulled his audience in: they knew that journey. Many would have undertaken it themselves or would have known someone who had and it was not one for the faint-hearted and certainly not one to undertake on your own. The solo, unwary traveller might well find himself the victim of an armed gang. Only a foolish man or someone in a dire emergency would set off on that journey on his own. At dawn the marketplaces of both cities would be a gathering point for people to set off together in a group because there is, indeed, safety in numbers. You just did not go on your own. No doubt his audience was already ahead of Jesus in assuming the downfall of the traveller.

Like so many of the Gospel stories this one is light on detail so let’s just fill in some of the gaps: the man is beaten to the point that he cannot continue; they take everything from him and that includes clothing, food and water and he is left in an environment without shelter from the heat of the day. Concussion, dehydration, blood loss, sun burn – this man is going to die. But through the heat-haze he sees a distant figure approaching. He’s going to be alright, particularly as, when the figure gets closer he can see by his clothing that he is a priest, presumably from the Temple in Jerusalem: surely the sort of person who because of his calling would offer help. Salvation is at hand. Not so, and neither with the second passer-by, a Levite, another religious leader. Why didn’t they stop? Fearful of becoming ritually unclean through contact with blood, or fear that the robbers might still be at hand? We’ll never know but Jesus’ audience were probably quite pleased about this implicit put-down of the religious classes, “They swan about thinking they’re better than everyone else but when push came to shove they were found wanting. Hypocrites!” But that audience would have been less pleased by the outcome of the story. Having been failed so miserably by his own, the man is helped by a foreigner, a despised Samaritan, deliberately chosen as the hero of the story to make Jesus’ key point. No doubt the unfortunate man expected nothing from this man once he had recognised by his clothing who he was.

So, when Jesus asked the lawyer who in his story was the true neighbour, the inescapable conclusion was that it was the least likely of the passers-by. It was an enemy who showed that true spirit of neighbourliness through his compassion: not just a bandage and a swig from his water bottle, but long-term recuperation at his own expense. Being a true good neighbour can be costly.

When I used to look at this passage with my pupils I often asked them to rewrite the story in an updated version to help get the point across. They invariably came up with some version of a football match involving a Leeds United fan, a vicar, a nun and a Manchester United fan. Occasionally we would get two soldiers from opposing armies or some gang-related event. The point was that they were able to identify with the parable and make practical, up-to-date applications from their own experiences and imaginations  – and that’s what the parable is designed to do because it is a universal story. Because it is applicable to each new generation its function is to challenge our innate prejudices by encouraging us to recognise who our own Samaritans are, “the other” in our society.

Who is your Samaritan – and it will be different for each of us? This is where head knowledge becomes heart knowledge because the moral of this parable is that neighbourliness is defined quite simply as the need of one person balanced against the capacity of another to help, regardless of who either person is.

Who, then, is “the other” in our society? Who are the ones Jesus tells us we should treat as we would like to be treated? Is it about race, class, sexual orientation? Love your neighbour as yourself: your homeless neighbour? Your black or Asian neighbour? Your Muslim Neighbour? Your gay neighbour? Your immigrant neighbour? Your refugee neighbour? Your addicted neighbour? Your disabled neighbour? Your Labour/Conservative/Lib-Dem/UKIP neighbour (delete as appropriate)? It’s a potentially long list. Who is my neighbour? Who is the neighbour Jesus is challenging us to recognise today in an increasingly divided and polarised society?

When we think in these terms and break it down like this, what was once a nice feel-good story we may have known since childhood becomes instead an immense challenge about how we relate to others today. "Go and do likewise" Jesus said. It's an imperative not an option. This is Christian discipleship in action.

Given that in reality we aren’t very likely to come upon the victim of violence on our streets, it speaks to the conversations we have with family, colleagues and friends and the attitudes we collude with or allow to go unchallenged; to the terms we use when talking about others – or to others; to what we accept from our politicians and print media. It speaks to our willingness - or otherwise - to engage with others we are fearful or suspicious of; it speaks to our willingness – or otherwise – to stand up and be counted in defence of “the other” in our society. Are we like the lawyer in terms of head-knowledge, or the Samaritan in terms of heart-knowledge?

There is another parable of Jesus which could well be the follow-up to the Parable of The Good Samaritan. It’s the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew chapter 25,

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’


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