Sunday 14 July, 2019
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Letting go of our convictions ©Suzanne Grimmett
Some scripture seems obscure and difficult. You might think after considering the other readings- including Amos and his harsh and strident speaking of truth to power, that I would arrive with some relief at the Gospel reading for today.
The Good Samaritan. One of surely Jesus’ safer parables….right? One that is about caring for those who need it, showing love to those who are suffering or in need. Being a generous friend to those in trouble. Surely there is a nice sermon in there?
Well don’t settle in and be too comfortable just yet. The parables of Jesus are loaded texts. As much as we might like to find a safe moralistic message here, this story does what Jesus parables have a difficult habit of doing- the text, if we read closely, begins to read us.
I actually think the real punch of the story can be found not in the story itself but in the questions that prompt Jesus to tell it. “But who”, asks the lawyer, wanting to justify himself, “is my neighbour?” This lawyer knew the answers… and he knew he knew the answers. When Jesus returns his first question with another question he is quick to respond that eternal life is inherited when you ‘…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.’ This double commandment is a combination of verses in Deuteronomy and Leviticus and was well understood by those who studied the law as the foundation on which all other commandments could be said to rest. Maybe the lawyer was seeking to test the limit of Jesus’ knowledge and insight and maybe desires to prove that he was meeting his required obligations to achieve the desired reward.
It is important to place this story in context. The road to Jericho was known for being treacherous. Not only were there narrow ledges and steep cliffs, but bandits often attacked unsuspecting travellers. So when Jesus begins the story, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho…’ I think his audience would have likely leapt to two conclusions. First, that the man was a Jew, and second, that his journey was not going to go well.
As expected the man falls into the hands of robbers who leave him for dead on the side of the road. And then here is when the story really starts to bite. Both a Priest and a Levite, well versed in the law and presumably more committed than most to the practice of their religion, both see the victim and choose to ignore him, crossing over to the other side of the road. But this is no failure to understand that their religion instructs them to care for others but rather a deep allegiance to their laws which dictate that touching blood or what could even perhaps be a dead body would make them ritually unclean and unable to perform their religious duties. You can imagine the justifications for inaction, which Richard Holloway spells out in his sermon, “The Danger of Sincere Religion”;
(The priest)… doesn’t know whether the man on the other side of the road is a Jew or a Gentile because he is stripped naked, there are no distinguishing recognisable characteristics, he doesn’t know whether he is dead or alive because he is unconscious. He knows according to his code that he can go up to five feet towards a dead body but no closer, because if he goes up to four feet he is rendered impure. If he touches a Gentile or a dead body he has to turn his donkey back round, go back to Jerusalem, cleanse himself and then ride back on to Jericho.
Sometimes no justification is more persuasive or indeed more dangerous to our soul than those formed from our religious convictions.
So when the Samaritan comes along, it would be hard for that audience to miss the import of the story. The problem with the Samaritans, was that they came from the same stock as the Jews. They had remained in Israel during the Babylonian exile, did not worship in the temple, but considered themselves the true heirs of the Jewish tradition. Sometimes it is those who are akin to us and yet different that we find most difficult to love.
This Samaritan, whilst also restricted by purity codes, was moved not by his calculations of religiously correct practice, but by compassion. The Greek word for ‘pity’ used here is derived from the word that refers to the inner parts of the sacrificial victim ripped out during a ritual blood sacrifice. It also has the connotation of one’s entrails being stirred up- either way it is a much more bodily experience than simply sympathetic feelings. Eugene Petersen in The Message rather cleverly translates the idea as “his heart went out to him”, thereby capturing the sacrificial element of the word, as well as the visceral response.
But here is the scandalous part of the story. This convulsive reaction of the Samaritan to the injured man’s plight blew apart any justifications and demolished his allegiance to religious codes and requirements. It made self interest obsolete. He crossed the road and did all that his humanity called him to do and to be for the wounded man.
Let us be clear what this is not. This is not about head vs heart decision, for that is a false dichotomy. All our decisions are, in a sense, heart decisions if we mean prompted by emotions. Psychology can tell us that we generally decide emotionally but then use our intellects to justify our decisions in terms of logic… and often praise ourselves for being ‘cool-headed’!
What we are talking about is living into a different way of being, living in the flow, from the life of God who lives in us. But letting love override the rules is not a mushy or sentimental move. It is demanding and soul-shaking and achingly vulnerable. At its heart is this incredibly difficult task of loving your enemies and letting go of all that you have constructed to secure your own identity and your own value. You have to let slide all the rivalries, judgements, easy labels and safe tribalisms. It is about recognising that religious or moral observance is not the answer to the tragedy and violence of our humanity. Morals are about acceptable and accepted codes of behaviour in a social grouping. But Jesus did not come to give us a moral code to which we could conform and be saved, but that our humanity may be graced by his humanity and brought into the divine life of God. Jesus came that the love of God may be lived out through our lives. In the face of love, all our careful moral score-keeping seems meaningless.
The 15th century Indian poet, Kabir perhaps said it best;
Look at what happens to the scale when love holds it:
It stops working.
Letting love override the rules is not simply a one-way street where we let go of our fears to care for those who are our enemies. The final subversive twist of this story is that love invites us to be cared for…even by those we may feel deserve exclusion. Like Simon the Pharisee in another story, who
judged Jesus because he allowed a woman with a questionable reputation to touch him, those listening to the Samaritan story would have been confronted by the fact that help for the wounded man came not from his religious and societal equals, but from one who was considered beneath him. Pádraig Ó Tuama notes that it hurts to receive help from someone whose moral capacity we have denied and asks the question, “From whom would I reject help?”1
It is a helpful question to ponder, and to reflect further by imagining what we think we may lose by accepting help from such sources.
Those listening to Jesus that day would have been faced with the same question. To offer help to our enemies, and seek and receive help from those we judge as morally deficient is to answer the lawyer’s loaded question which sparked the whole story off in the first place.
Who is my neighbour? Why everybody!
Everybody is my sister, my brother. There is no one lying wounded in isolation, no one who is an outsider, unworthy or undeserving of love, because we are all connected.
Perhaps, we just need to let go of our religious convictions for long enough to embrace one another.
1 Ó Tuama, Pádraig, In the Shelter: Finding a home in the world, Hodder and Stoughton, 2015, Kindle edition, loc 1489