July 14, 2019
Proper 15 Year C
AMOS 7:7-17 COLOSSIANS 1:1-14 LUKE 10:25-37
A news story made the headlines on the CBC website in the past week. In the town of Airdrie, Alberta, a man spotted a mother duck who wouldn’t budge from a storm sewer. He investigated further, saw her ducklings inside the drain, and managed to get them all out to safety. If you Google “Good Samaritan rescues…” you will find dozens of similar stories of strangers rescuing both animals and humans in trouble.
The story of the Good Samaritan has become embedded in our culture to the extent that the title is applied almost automatically to anyone who comes to the aid of someone in need (or something in the case of the ducks), for completely altruistic reasons. The “Good Samaritan” has become a definition of a good person. In spite of the story’s familiarity, I think it warrants another, closer look, so that we may hear the challenge in the story and its invitation to a new and radical alternative of a life motivated by love.
Where do we locate ourselves in this story? When we read it today, we probably want to be the Samaritan, the hero of the story. Let me point out that, given the long history of religious conflict and even violence between Jews and Samaritans, no one who heard Jesus tell this story would have chosen to be the Samaritan! The Jews hated and despised the Samaritans as a bunch of mixed-blood heretics. And yet, even though we may want to identify with the Samaritan, we are at the same time painfully aware of all the times when we do not act as the Samaritan did in the story, when we fail to measure up to Amos’s plumb line of right living.
It’s interesting that the story never calls the Samaritan “good”. That’s our name for him. So, I think it begs the question, “What makes him good?” The Levite and the priest are expected to be good. They have a religious vocation. They see but pass by. They see but they don’t see. Not only do they not stop, they go around. They pass by “on the other side”. They go out of their way to avoid the injured man. That is the truly shocking part of the story. Like the lawyer, the priest and the Levite know the Torah with its command to love God and neighbour. How could they not stop and help? What does the Samaritan see that the priest and the Levite do not?
The Samaritan belongs to a people that also uphold the Torah and trace their descent from Abraham and the patriarchs and matriarchs of Israel. His goodness lies in his compassion. He comes near and he sees. He is moved with pity and does not hesitate to get involved. He sees the injured man and recognizes a fellow human being in need. Goodness lies in what you do about whom you see and how you see.
Of course, in this story Jesus explodes the concept of neighbour. This fits with Luke’s telling of the good news of Jesus. All the way through this gospel, Jesus redefines our understanding of who deserves what and who is included in the message of God’s love. Rough and despised shepherds hear the message of the promised Messiah’s birth. In the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus reminds his hearers that God’s healing power extends beyond the boundaries of Israel to include foreigners. In a culture that saw material success and good health as signs of God’s favour, a paralyzed man receives assurance of forgiveness and the poor are declared blessed. At the cross, it is the gentile centurion who recognizes Jesus’ innocence. And these are just some of the examples of the ways in which Jesus turns our assumptions about neighbours and belonging upside down. And he does this in a way that challenges his hearers, elevating and choosing those whom the majority wouldn’t.
Then there is the man beaten, robbed, and left for dead. Our rector Donna is fond of the expression “That’s not a ditch I would die in.” Well, this man is literally dying in the ditch. We know nothing about him, whether he’s a Jew or not, a friend or an enemy. There is no data by which we can assess his status as a neighbour. And that’s the point. The story calls us to compassionate action toward those in need, whoever they may be, in whatever ditches they may find themselves. There is another invitation from this man in the ditch, though. It is the invitation to know what it is like to feel forgotten, abandoned, and ignored by those who pass by, and by that knowledge to develop our empathy and compassion. It is the invitation to know ourselves as people who stand in need of God’s healing mercy and of the compassion of those who express that mercy by their actions.
And there’s the lawyer. It is true that Jesus aroused the enmity of the religious and political establishment of his day. Many commentaries interpret this story as a hostile encounter between Jesus and the lawyer and see this “testing” of Jesus in an adversarial context. We judge the lawyer unfavourably for “wanting to justify himself”. Karoline Lewis, in her reflection on this story, is not convinced that the lawyer is aiming to trap Jesus or to validate his own righteousness. His question, “What must I do?” is a legitimate question that calls for an honest answer. The lawyer approaches Jesus respectfully and addresses him as “teacher”. Jesus treats the lawyer as an equal and answers his question with one of his own: “What is written in the Law? What do you read there?” In other words, what does the Law say and how do you understand it? It’s a question of what it really means to follow and live the Law. What does right living look like? The lawyer answers, “Love the Lord your God with all your being and your neighbour as yourself.” Jesus agrees with his answer. Jesus responds to the lawyer’s second question with a story and another question, “Which one acted as a neighbour to the man in need?” and again agrees with the lawyer’s answer, “the one who showed mercy”. Jesus challenges the lawyer to follow the Samaritan’s example. There does not seem to be any antagonism here.
Karoline Lewis sees the lawyer’s question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” as an invitation to a dialogue on interpreting the law. Jesus and the lawyer are both concerned with living by the Torah. The purpose of a legal discussion or even debate is to seek clarity and define meaning. If loving God and neighbour is a matter of eternal life, then you need clarity in the definition of “neighbour”. Interestingly, neither Jesus nor the lawyer need to define “who is God” alongside “who is my neighbour”. They both know who God is. But you can’t answer the question about your neighbour without knowing something about God. If the Torah reveals the relationship between Israel and God, and if the heart of this relationship is love, then how can you put a limit on whom you love? The Samaritan is good because he acts as Jesus would act. He embodies God’s mercy. Jesus and the Samaritan are on the same side – another shocker for Jesus’s original audience. In Jesus, God draws near to us, sees us with compassion, acts to heal and save us, and helps us to see and act as God does.
Karoline Lewis suggests that we need to take the lawyer as a model. We don’t know how he responded to Jesus’s injunction to “go and do likewise”. What he did do was to ask. And we need to ask the same question. What must I do to be part of God’s realm? What does it look like to follow God’s law? It is so easy to fall back into familiar and comfortable categories, to rely on expected patterns of behaviour, to lapse into certainty, to think we have it all figured out. We need to ask ourselves daily and ask God to show us where and how we can act out God’s reign, where and how we can see and help those whom Jesus sees and helps. God’s law is not a list of demands to follow. It is meant to be a blessing, a way to enable people to live together in a way that supports human flourishing. The Torah reveals a God who is deeply concerned with human well being. It is challenging but it is doable; otherwise it wouldn’t be asked.
Jesus certainly shifts the discussion from “What must I do? Who is my neighbour?” to “What does a neighbour do? How does a neighbour act?” To be a neighbour is to see all people as deserving of our love, compassion and care. To be a neighbour is also to accept gracefully the care and compassion of those with whom we may differ radically. It is the opposite of the fear-based objectification of people as “other”, the stranger. In the words of the Psalm for today, the story of the Good Samaritan lays on us the responsibility to “save the weak and orphan; defend the humble and needy; rescue the week and the poor”. When we do these things, when we practice justice, we both embody and are taught something about God’s mercy and God’s justice, which go hand in hand. In the words of the letter to the Colossians, when we practice justice and mercy, we “live lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as we bear fruit in every good work”.
This story is timely for us today. It is timely for a world that wants to “other” anyone who doesn’t fit the majority mold: racial and religious minorities, poor people, Indigenous peoples, people who live with physical, intellectual or psychiatric disabilities. It is timely for a world that is closing borders to people seeking refuge from violence, persecution, and climate disaster. It is timely for a world that tells people “Go back where you came from”, as the chief priest in Bethel told Amos. It is timely for a country like Canada, where nearly 60% of respondents in a recent poll said they thought we were admitting too many newcomers. It is timely for a world that wants to leave the “other” in the ditch.
This story is timely for us a church too. It is timely for a church where some label people conservative or liberal, “orthodox” or not, according to their views on one subject only. It is timely for a church where some want to “other” those with whom one disagrees. It is timely for a church that is tempted to create and live by policies and procedures that leave some by the side of the road, whether those be our Indigenous brothers and sisters in Christ, our LGBTQ2S brothers and sisters in Christ, or those who hold the more traditional view of marriage. It’s very hard for those whose hopes were disappointed not to feel personally rejected and abandoned, to hear the church say “We love you and we want you” and feel that at the end of the statement there is a giant unspoken “but…”. As I watched the live stream on Friday night, my heart ached for the young woman who wailed inconsolably as the Synod sat in silence after the results of the vote were announced. At the same time, I recognize there would have been just as much pain in the room had the result been different. I don’t know what to do with that except to say that as members of the Body, we sometimes cause each other terrible pain, and that is not a thing to be proud of. I hope and pray we can find ways to live into the commitments in the “Word to the Church” adopted by the General Synod:
- We affirm the right of Indigenous persons and communities to spiritual self-determination in their discernment and decisions regarding same-sex marriage.
- We affirm that, while there are different understandings of the existing Marriage Canon, those bishops and synods who have authorized liturgies for the celebration and blessing of a marriage between two people of the same sex understand that the existing Canon does not prohibit same-sex marriage.
- We acknowledge the ongoing reality that there is a diversity of understandings and teachings about marriage in the Anglican Church of Canada, and we affirm the prayerful integrity with which those understandings and teachings are held.
- We affirm our commitment to presume good faith among those who hold diverse understandings and teachings and hold dear their continued presence in this church.
- We affirm our commitment to walk together and to preserve communion, one with another, in Christ, within this church, within our Anglican Communion, and with our ecumenical partners.
God of bandit places, love that demands our all: reveal to us our wounds and give us grace to know our neighbour, tending us with foreign hands; through Jesus Christ, who crossed over for us. Amen.
Steven Shakespeare, Prayers for an Inclusive Church