Pentecost 5: What must I do?

5th Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon by the Reverend Doctor Brutus Green

Readings: Deuteronomy 30:9-14, Colossians 1:1-14, Luke 10:25-37

What do I have to do to be a good person?

It’s the wrong question.

What must I do to inherit eternal life?

Again, you lawyers, the wrong question.

They are reasonable questions. Excellent lawyer questions. Am I good? Am I good enough? What should I be doing?

Today’s Gospel’s very familiar. Every child knows and instinctively understands it. A few times during show-and-tell when children are asked what can they do to be better, we hear “helping people when they fall over, or when they’re hurt.” Second usually to the washing up.

How well people take it in is another matter. There was a famous study done on seminarians in America.  A situation was set up where the students were gathered in a hall and given certain tasks.  They were then told to move to another building where they would give a short talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan. On the way a man had been placed slumped in an alleyway. According to the research, only 40% of the students stopped to help. When the students were told they must hurry to their next event, only 10% stopped.  One student even stepped over the prone man, on his way to give a talk on the Good Samaritan, so urgent did he feel was the need to share his insight on this important parable. But we shouldn’t judge. Should we?

The context here is important. Notice that it’s a lawyer who asks the question, to test Jesus. The question he asks, is what must I do to inherit eternal life? And his second question makes his concern even clearer “wanting to justify himself”, he asked, ‘who is my neighbour?’ The motivation of the man is concern over himself. He wants to be good. He wants to inherit eternal life. He wants to justify himself. What must I do?

If Jesus was straightforwardly answering the lawyer’s question you’d expect a different set up. You’d expect the man in the ditch to be the Samaritan. The Jews didn’t like Samaritans. They’d intermarried with the Assyrians, so weren’t fully Jewish;  and their religious practices varied from the Jews.  They had different Scripture and didn’t worship at the Temple in Jerusalem as all Jews did. They were something like the Mormons of their day. So if the guy in the ditch was the Samaritan that would give us the basic set up of: “Who’s your neighbour?” Even a Samaritan is your neighbour. Be nice.

But Jesus doesn’t do that. The Samaritan is the hero, not the neighbour. Now parables on one level, are simply illustrations. You might ask, what does forgiveness look like? I’ll tell you the Prodigal Son. Does God love even lowly old me? I’ll tell you the shepherd who left his flock to seek out the one that got away. But Jesus’ parables are more than this. They have a very specific aim. To cut through self-deception. Parables should make you uncomfortable. They want to change you; to convert you. And to do this they come through a story. Because only a story has the subtlety, the ambiguity, the openness to interpretation to challenge the hearer not just on facts, on laws, on thou should, thou should not; but to challenge your presumptions. They have to surprise. The Word is very near you. But it’s not what you expect.

So our dear lawyer, wants to be good. He wants to inherit eternal life. He wants to be a good Jew. He knows he must love God and his neighbour. He keeps the commandments so he figures he’s ticked the God box. Now he’s asking how far, how many people, do I need to love in order to tick that neighbour box. A reasonable, lawyerly approach.

Like a fairy tale we have three characters. Our first on the highway is the priest. He’s in a compromising situation. On the one hand, he has official duties, which he cannot perform for a week if he touches a dead body. Although there’s equally an argument from Jewish law that preservation of life is a first principle and that despite becoming unclean his first duty is to help the man. You might think this is an ideal opportunity to take a justifiable week off work, but I’m not totally clear on whether the Temple had a policy for “unclean-pay” while people were off duty. Anyway, there’s an argument with the priest that he has a legal responsibility to walk on by. Of course, the very clear and present threat of bandits might be enough to hasten his steps. The Levite as a layman is free from public responsibilities, but will still wish to avoid becoming unclean and ruining his holiday. He is, after all, also on his way to Jerusalem, where unlike the Samaritan Jews go to worship. But both these figures are clearly Jews, who know the Law, and you should expect them to consider this left-for-dead man, their neighbour.

Now enter the Samaritan. And we’re told ‘he was moved with pity’. Not ‘he asked himself what does it mean to be good or how might I inherit eternal life?’ ‘Not he asked himself, “Who is my neighbour - is this man my neighbour.” He was moved with pity.

And look how he responds. He knows to use oil and wine on wounds — that is he has some basic first aid understanding, and the means with which to clean the wounds. He’s not just “trying to help, looking useful or trying to be nice” He has the skill to make a difference.  And then he spends time with him, makes sure he’s recovering and pays what would be several hundred pounds for someone to look after him. So he has the means to deal with this. He’s not trying to do something for which he’s ill-equipped or untrained, that might, despite intentions, make matters worse. And he’s not bothered to stick around to seek the reward, the thanks, the praise. He’s not sacrificing his entire life and so giving himself the chance to tell everyone how good he is, at what cost, or limiting the impact of other good he can achieve. He doesn’t need to be needed. He has not then troubled himself with the question of whether he should do this? Who is his neighbour? What will he receive for his actions? He was moved with pity. He recognised the human need and responded immediately with no desire, except to help the person in need. 

*** 

Jesus has shifted the conversation. The lawyer has asked, ‘What must I do’ ‘how can I be justified?’ The Samaritan has simply connected with the injured man. He was moved with pity. He’s not done it for the Law, to be good, justified, to inherit eternal life. He is not acting for himself, out of concern for himself, but for the other person.

The lawyer has asked ‘who is my neighbour’ to ascertain the loop holes. Like the priest and the Levite he wishes to be justified but doesn’t want to take unnecessary risk; get his hands unnecessarily dirty. What must I do to inherit eternal life. He is thinking of his virtue, his salvation as something he can achieve.

Jesus has told a story about a man who is not a Jew; who doesn’t follow the same law; doesn’t worship in the temple; is not socially acceptable to these people. And in the context of ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life? How may I be saved?’ It is this Samaritan, this man of another religion, this outcast, who is the paradigm. The law, the temple fall before the fact that this man was moved with pity, and responded spontaneously to human need. Jesus is asked ‘who is the neighbour I must love?’ He responds by pointing out ‘you haven’t yet worked out how to love.’ Loving begins with the other person.

So what does this mean for us? Well, firstly, it’s a warning against thinking that we’ve got it all sewn up; that you or St Margaret’s has nailed down what it means to be good, to follow Christ, to inherit eternal life. The parables are there to surprise us; to cut through our self-deception; they are a mirror to the laziness of our moral compass.

Secondly, it’s a reminder that we don’t inherit eternal life by racking up a list of good works, by ticking off our church and charity checklist. Jesus teaches us to pray for grace, and in that to find the love that enables us to connect with other people. And so be ready to respond when we meet that need on the road.

So what must I do? Connect - see that your salvation is bound up with your brothers and sisters. Salvation is like love, it begins when two or three are gathered. Try not to rush. People who are rushing are moving too fast to see the people in the road. And be ready. Ready to offer the crucial help, to have the skills and resources needed when the moment arises. Ready to be moved with pity; to see in the people you meet on the road, that need and vulnerability that is waiting for love. Go and do likewise.