A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on July 10, 2022 by Revd Sally Hitchiner
Reading for address: Luke 10: 25-37
Today’s gospel reading is well known. It’s one of those readings that even if you haven’t been to church, you probably feel you know the gist; two religious leaders walk past a man who is in need but a third man stops to help. We might think of the various charities who use the name Samaritan.
However there’s something different if we look a little closer.
A lawyer (before you feel this is another go at lawyers, here this means an Ethics Professor – an expert in the religious law) asks Jesus, ‘What must I do to inherit Eternal Life?’.
Let’s pause at this question because this reveals a lot about this man.
The idea of Eternal Life was innovative in first century Judaism. There is a lot of hinting in the Old Testament that there must be something beyond death, ‘Surely you won’t abandon your beloved to Sheol’ cries the Psalmist, but there’s nothing concrete. By the first century a few rabbis had started to join the dots and talk about a peaceful afterlife for Jews who had lived according to the law but it was unusual to talk about it as firmly as Jesus did.
Then there’s the idea that this lawyer would inherit something. Throughout the Hebrew writing we see God’s covenant of care with the descendants of Abraham – this wasn’t about inheritance as much as ongoing care. In the second half of the Old Testament this idea was shaken when most of the Jewish people were trafficked into slavery. Prophets started challenging them saying they need to be circumcised in their hearts not just their bodies. Caring for the widow and the orphan, acting justly is as important as being born in the chosen people of God.
So there’s a disconnect. On the one hand this man seems to think, if there’s something new on offer from God, he should, as a reasonably good Jewish man, be entitled to it. On the other hand he thinks he might have to do something extra to actually get his hands on it.
There’s a whiff of unfairness. ‘What MUST I do to inherit Eternal Life?’. That isn’t the question you ask if you’re happy in a relationship. Imagine a son gathering to hear the reading of his late father’s last will and testament only to find there’s a clause. Before he can inherit the family estate he has to spend some time volunteering for a charity. ‘Oh, for goodness sake!’, he exclaims, ‘Which charity and exactly how many hours do I have to do?’.
Have you ever met someone like this man? When I was a chaplain at Oxford I remember one of my charges falling apart because he failed his driving test. He’d never failed anything before. It sounds to me like this man has been able to achieve everything he’s ever wanted. He’s a man in a very patriarchal society, he’s well educated, probably comparatively well off and the implication is that he believes he’s lived a reasonably moral life. He’s never seriously hurt anyone.
And yet, he sees a future time when he will be vulnerable. Death. However good your education, however prudent your financial planning, however moral your life, 100% of people die. But he doesn’t appeal to God for help like the Psalmist does. God isn’t an active part of his reality. The one thing you know if you are talking about inheritance is that you believe someone has died.
God might as well be dead in his life. He doesn’t need God apart from this one thing, to leave him the ability to get through death. And he feels hard done by that his inheritance comes with strings attached.
So he asks Jesus ‘Teacher’ – you can sense the irony in this word as Jesus is this uneducated, working-class rabbi – ‘Teacher, What must I do to inherit Eternal Life?’
Just as he is transactional with God, he approaches Jesus just wanting something – he wants an answer that will get him the goods, perhaps he wants to look good in front of his lawyer friends by making Jesus look stupid.
But Jesus turns the encounter away from transaction first with a question back ‘You know it already, you tell me’. The lawyer responds that the law teaches us to love. ‘…to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, strength and to love our neighbour as ourselves.’
Then Jesus praises him. Again praise usually isn’t asking for anything back. ‘Exactly right’ Jesus says. It’s all there in the Old Testament. There’s no need for transaction in wholehearted Love. ‘Do this and you will live’.
Eternal Life (and perhaps God) is a thing the lawyer feels he only needs for the future when he gets to the point of death. But Jesus is talking about living now…
But the lawyer still doesn’t get it. ‘OK Jesus, Exactly how many neighbours do I have to love… just the people on my street? Everyone in my home town? How many is enough to get the goods?’ Notice he skips over the loving God part and is still focussing on his actions to get the goods. God still doesn’t factor in his equation.
So, Jesus draws him in further with a story. Stories aren’t efficient. They don’t give you a quick answer that you can accept and add to your tool belt or reject and move on. By inviting him to sit down and take some time to listen to a story, Jesus is drawing him into a relationship.
We’ve set the scene, now let’s get to the parable itself.
A man sets out on a walk from Jerusalem to Jericho. Everyone’s ears would have pricked up. This was well known bandit territory. This is the opening scene of a crime drama. ‘A man was walking through the shadiest part of your city at 3 in the morning.’
Jesus barely needed to say the next line. ‘He was attacked by robbers and left for dead’. No kidding.
This rich (he must have been rich if he had something to steal) Jewish man was suddenly in dire need.
Two religious leaders didn’t stop to help, maybe because they were too busy, maybe because they were focussed on maintaining their religious purity by not touching blood or a potentially dead person. It’s interesting the bad people in the story aren’t just the robbers who actively cause harm. If you want to be a good neighbour, it’s not good enough to simply live a reasonably good life and not hurt anyone.
The crowds would have expected the hero of the story to be one of them, a lay Jewish person who showed the clergy how it’s done. But the challenge of Jesus’ story goes even deeper.
The Samaritans were not known for being charitable. They were a breakaway religious sect who were known for being theologically and ethically wrong, they were known for violent extremism. Imagine a member of the IRA in the 80s or Hamas in the 90s stopping to help their enemy.
We also overlook the extent to which he helped. Jesus goes into visceral detail here so we don’t want to miss it. This wasn’t just answering the phone and listening to someone for a few minutes – as important as that is. The Samaritan here is also travelling through bandit territory alone. He climbs down from his donkey. In stopping he risks attack by the same robbers. He touches the bloody, potentially dead man, making himself ritually unclean. He gives him wine and pours oil over his wounds as antiseptic and pain relief. He walks with him down the long road, carrying the hurt man in the place of safety on his donkey. Then when he gets to the inn he personally nurses him. I don’t know if as an adult, you have ever needed someone to undress you and care for you like this. The Samaritan isn’t being paid to do this, he isn’t doing it out of obligation to a family member, he isn’t doing this to gain honour or reward. In fact he leaves the equivalent of a month and a half’s wages with the innkeeper and the promise of more if it’s needed. How much do you earn in a month? Think about that number in your head. Now imagine you’re stranded far from a city in a strange country, all your documents and bank cards have been stolen and a total stranger give you that much money in cash without leaving their contact details.
But is there more to this story.
The story of the Jewish man travelling away from Jerusalem could just as easily be the whole Jewish people. They’ve been travelling away from their homeland for a long time. They’ve been beaten up, not just by one robber but nation after nation has stripped them of their honour and stolen their wealth. Now, finally, they are left by the Romans, beaten down, nearly to death and abandoned as a thing you can throw away by the side of the road. The lawyer may have thought he was doing ok personally but he was part of a people who were on their knees.
The Samaritan too sounds familiar.
This story is a summary of Jesus’ commitment to the Jewish people – Jesus has come down, Jesus has touched the physical and ritual uncleanness of humanity, Jesus has walked with us, carried us down the road away from Jerusalem outside the city gates to Golgotha and death. Jesus has personally nursed us, bringing us to a place of hospitality and care in the church. Jesus anoints our head with oil and our cup of wine overflows. The healing and joy found here is from Jesus himself. Jesus has given more than enough and will fix whatever is broken while he’s away when he returns.
God isn’t absent.
If God, in Jesus, is the Samaritan in this story, God is very present, very involved in the suffering of God’s chosen people. It’s hard to paint a picture of someone more involved, more committed, more alive, than the Samaritan in this story. And yet God comes in a package the lawyer wasn’t expecting, in a body the lawyer looked down on, in a person who the lawyer thought couldn’t give him anything. When I worked with folk who were homeless in a previous church, I used to say ‘You think God is like the council, distant bureaucrats who you have to wrestle with to give you things you need. But what if God is more like your dog who won’t leave your side no matter how cold or hungry you get.’
The invitation that Jesus gives in the end to ‘Go and do likewise’ is an invitation to a different quality of life. ‘Go and live this Eternal Life’ Eternal life isn’t something we need at some point in the future, a ticket to get us through the barrier of death.
Eternal life is an invitation to enjoy a different way of doing life.
The word neighbour isn’t a verb, it’s not something you can count up. ‘I’ve done four neighbourings this week’. It’s an invitation to a loving relationship that is reciprocal, an invitation to receive as well as give, and to give to build an organism of community not as a measurable transaction to get you something else. True neighbourliness is only something you can enter into whole heartedly loving a person as yourself. What if all my resources are taken by them? To that you have to see the third neighbour – Jesus who is overflowing with all God’s heart, soul, mind and strength in love for you. When you die and meet Jesus face to face, you won’t need to buy your way in with enough points or have helped enough people in this life, the point isn’t you. If you feel like this is the case may I suggest you need a bigger view of Jesus. Jesus is more involved than you think but is usually there in the person you overlooked.
Because whether you are feeling like the man beaten up and left for dead today or whether you feel like the affluent, lawyer with barely a care in the world, Eternal Life is right here for you, and it will carry you through, not just death but life today, life right now.
Jesus is your neighbour.
And Eternal Life has the same name.