Sermon from Sunday 14th July

Luke 10: 25 - 37

 

Sermon

In my last church, when the children in our Sunday School learned about the parables which Jesus told, they were first shown a parcel to let them know that these stories are a gift to us.  Then, when one of the children got to open up the box what they found inside was… another box.  When you open that they discovered… another box.  And so it went on.  The point being that parables work on many different levels, and that each time you come back to one of them, even it looks very familiar, you might just be able to uncover something that you had not seen before.  There is always more waiting to be uncovered.

Today’s parable is a classic example.  The story of the good Samaritan is probably a familiar one to many, so as soon as we come to it we bring certain assumptions.  We might have vague impression that Jesus is telling a story to instruct his followers that they should treat people well; it is good to be good and it is nice to be nice.

Which is fine, but then we might look a little closer and notice that this is about a bit more than being nice.  The hero of the story really puts himself out, he gets his hands dirty, it costs him to do what he did, and yet he is still willing to come to the rescue of a total stranger.  So we see that this is not just an example of being kind, it speaks of going further than most of us have gone, and that in itself might leave us with some unsettling questions about our lives and our values and our priorities.

Yet that is still only at the outer levels of what this story has to offer us.  The little bit of history I gave you earlier opens up another level for us.  This is not merely an example of someone going out of their way to do good to some random person they happen to come across on the street.  Jews and Samaritans were enemy people involved in regular acts of terror against one another.  The costly act of care described in the story was also a brave act of care: one that reached across the barriers of human division.  When this man got home, his friends were not going to congratulate him on his kindness, they were more likely to accuse him of colluding with the enemy, of betraying his own people.  His actions are an example of recognising our common humanity, an example of someone seeing beyond the populist headlines and the popular stories we hear about others, and acting on a deeper understanding of our common humanity.  Perhaps at this level we start to see, not only the power of the moral teaching, but the personal challenge.  How far would I go, how much would I pay to help, not only to help a stranger but to help one whom I have been taught to think of as an enemy?  How much ridicule and hostility would I be ready to put up with for doing the right thing?  What are the barriers that keep me at a same distance from a fellow human being who I might be able to help?

So we start to see how radical Jesus was, and how shocking his stories were.  He even drags the story out by including two people who would have been seen as the good guys but who fail to do the right thing, before bringing us to the one who would have been thought of as the enemy.  We start to see why the powerful people of his day might have wanted to be rid of him.  Can you imagine the twitter storm it would create if such a story were told in our context today?

Yet even then, we haven’t really got to the heart of the story.  If you look at the text a bit more closely, you discover that Jesus told this story as part of his answer to a specific question.  The question was not about how we do good or who we should help.  The question was: “What must I do to receive eternal life?”  It is a big question, and the man asking it was perfectly sure that he knew the answer.  He could have given you chapter and verse on what the answer was and where it came from.  He was really setting out to check whether or not Jesus knew the correct answer.

Initially they are agreed.  “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.”  It is the classic Old Testament response which everyone listening in would have known.  Perhaps this disappoints the questioner.  It is not much of a debate if everyone agrees on everything.  In any case, he would have looked a bit stupid if that was the best question he could come up with when the answer was so obvious.  It would hardly enhance his reputation as an intellectual.  So he presses the point: “And who is my neighbour?”  In other words, how am I to define who I am to love as I love myself?

Again, I think that he was already quite sure in his own mind what the correct answer was, and perhaps he thought that he was being very broad minded.  His own answer might have been that my neighbour is any fellow Israelite, whether from my town or another town, whether rich or poor, whether a good person or a scoundrel, God commands us to love every one of his people.  Good answer, but not good enough.  This is when Jesus answers with the story and a question of his own, to which the lawyer is forced into the conclusion that it was not one of his own people but the Samaritan who did the right thing, even if he can’t quite bring himself to use those words.

So this story is not simply about doing good or being nice or following the right example, it is actually about receiving eternal life.  What must I do to receive eternal life?  The big answer of the gospel to that question is that we don’t have to do anything.  Eternal life is a gift of God which is given out with a ridiculous and wild generosity, perhaps a bit like the generosity shown in the story to the anonymous man at the side of the road.  If you want to be part of this eternal life that I’m talking about, Jesus says, then you too should start acting in that way, you should live with that kind of generosity yourself, you should be part of what goes on in the kingdom of God.  Never mind defining who your neighbour is, you get out there and be a neighbour, to anyone who are privileged to be able to help.  Anyone, whether they are close to us or not, whether they are like us or not, whether they agree with us or not, because that is the way in which God is good to us.  So in answer to the question, Jesus describes the actions of the good Samaritan, and concludes - “You go, then, and do the same.”  Go and be like him, if you wish to receive eternal life!

Can we imagine how hard that must have been for a good religious man to hear?  He had thought that Jesus was one of them, but Jesus tells him to go and be like someone he thought all of them despised.  Maybe it is no surprise that we prefer to think of this as a story about doing good and being nice.  It is much easier on that level.  We can tell it to children and use it to encourage them to be nice and helpful.  Yet a bit of unwrapping reveals so much more, a story about what it means to receive eternal life, and to live as one who believes that they have received eternal life.

It is really a story about identity.  What does it mean to be one of God’s people?  For the questioner that was a matter of race and nationality.  For us it might be a matter of church membership or personal belief, or lifestyle.  The question remains the same.  What does it mean to identify ourselves with Jesus Christ, to call ourselves “Christians”?  What Jesus is doing is redefining the purpose of being a chosen people.  It is not to be right and holy and smug, enjoying the love of God while remaining aloof from those around you.  Rather it is about serving, about listening, about healing, about taking on and living out the mission of that kingdom.  It is about crossing boundaries and reaching out, it is about learning from others and learning to see God in them.  It is about doing all the things that Jesus was doing, and being all the things that Jesus himself was, and doing that without worrying about counting the cost, because we trust in God.

“What must I do to receive eternal life?”  “Go and do likewise”.  At the very heart of our faith Jesus tells us that what matters is not what traditions we follow, but how much compassion we have, and how willing we are to allow that love to direct our actions, rather than our human prejudice and fear and suspicions. Taking that seriously may lead us to a very different kind of church. It might lead us to a very different kind of world, and it might just give us a little glimpse of what the kingdom of God is all about.