St Bride's: Sermons

The Samaritan and the Levite

Luke 10. 25-37

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25 And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?

26 He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou?

27 And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.

28 And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.

29 But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour?

30 And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.

31 And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.

32 And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.

33 But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him,

34 And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.

35 And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.

36 Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?

37 And he said, He that shewed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.

At Church House in Westminster, where I work, we have an ongoing project, which goes by the snappy title of 'How we work together'. It's a project designed to encourage the various parts of the central church bodies (there are seven separate organisations) to work better together (the clue is in the project title, as is often the case); to encourage better dialogue between those parts of the organisation who share common goals, and between us as individuals; we're all human after all, and it must be said that even in the hallowed portals of Church House whenever two or three are gathered together ... let's just say that Jesus' name is not always top of the agenda. We've had a number of meetings of all the staff; presentations from senior colleagues and staff reps and analysed the results of recent staff surveys. It's a long process but I know we'll be better of for it in the long run.

I tell you this partly because it's likely to be familiar to those of you who have worked in a reasonably large organisation. But I also want to share one comment from a colleague at a staff meeting a few months ago, which really struck a chord. 'In a way', she said, 'it doesn't matter how many meetings and surveys we have, change will only come if it comes from all of us, individually, and from within'.

And that comment resonates particularly with today's readings. In the Gospel, Luke reminds us that when it comes to our faith, we need to apply both our minds and our hearts to our words, our deeds and our faith. Because if we love God and choose God it should be so easy to do that - as we heard in Deuteronomy: "the Lord will take delight in prospering you when you obey him, by observing his commandments and his decrees that are written in the book of the law, because you turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul". Oh that it were so simple.

So is this the point being raised by the lawyer to Jesus in our Gospel reading - a question which was designed to test Jesus. The lawyer here would most likely have been an expert in the religious law (rather than what we know as a civil or criminal lawyer).  And the question he asks seems simple enough - 'what do I have to do to have eternal life?' In essence, what good thing must I do under the law to have eternal life? And Jesus, as he so frequently does, throws the question back at him - OK, what do you think the answer is ... what is written in the law?

Now we know that the lawyer knows the answer to the question, because he quotes it off pat. Love God - truly love God, with your heart and your soul - and love your neighbour: the Shema, the words of Moses delivered to the Israelites before they enter the Promised Land. So far so good. Jesus asks the question; the man gives the answer and then Jesus responds by saying, 'Good answer, now do it.'

But again, oh that it were so simple. We assume here that Jesus wasn't simply saying obey the law and you will have eternal life. Or perhaps he was. Partly. It's always seemed to me that Jesus is frequently reminding his listeners that the law had become impossible to follow, it had become so prescriptive that the followers of it had become impervious to its true meaning. If all you are doing is obeying the law but not giving any thought to why you are doing it, or how it affects others, then are you really observing God's commandments?

In the Gospel, this is what the lawyer is about to be told. To be justified under the law one must be perfect. Jesus wants the lawyer to see that the law itself cannot save anyone, because no one can keep the law perfectly. OK says the lawyer, as a further test for Jesus, I can keep the law, but I really need to understand from you who you think my neighbour is. Whom do I have to love and how much do I have to love them?

And this is what my colleague's comment reminds me - it's easy to love people who love us, or it's easy to love people who we think are lovable. Let's do nice things for people we know and we've fulfilled that bit of the law in God's eyes. But this is the opposite of what Jesus is saying.  

The parable has two sections: the man being attacked and the response of the passers by. If you Google 'Jerusalem to Jericho' you'll see some images of a barren and not very hospitable place, even now, dusty, hilly; an easy place to hide out and attack anyone heading along the route. Which is what happens in the parable - the chap is beaten, robbed and left for dead.

The second part, the response part, of the parable seems shocking to us, but probably would have been more shocking to the lawyer, but in a completely different way to what we would expect.

For us, perhaps, it's shocking that the Priest and the Levite passed by and did nothing. For the lawyer, this may not have seemed so odd at face value. A priest was a holy man, the holiest there was in Jewish religious culture - any such priest may have worried that he would become unclean ceremonially if he had helped this man, and therefore unable to carry out whatever priestly duty he was heading to and not able to fulfil his duties under the law.

The same could be said of the Levite, again a religious functionary, upholder of the law. In the story, he at least had a look. But he did nothing. You would think that if anyone was going to reflect the character of God and help, it would be one of these two.

For the lawyer, the really shocking part is just about to be told. As we know the next person to come along was an ordinary person.  The fact that Jesus portrays him as being from Samaria would probably have caused a sharp intake of breath.

There was little love lost between these two peoples. Samaritans rejected the Pentateuch and claimed to be the true followers of Judaism. Jews would cross the River Jordan when travelling between Judea and Galilee just to avoid Samaria. Samaritans were regarded as being unclean; to be in contact with a Samaritan would risk becoming defiled in the eyes of the law. The antipathy was mutual and deep rooted.

So imagine the shock to the lawyer when Jesus portrays the Samaritan as the good guy of the story. The one who had compassion, who did something to help because he felt within him that he should. The lawyer, it should be noted, can't even bring himself to use the word 'Samaritan' when responding to Jesus' question about who was the most neighbourly one of the three - merely acknowledging him as 'the one who showed mercy'.

The comparison is clear - there are those who are caught up in a lifeless religion, unwilling or unable to allow their love of God (which is never called into question in the story) to affect the way they live their lives. Caught up in the minutiae of their religion but missing the wider picture.

Or there are those who don't pass by on the other side; who get involved because something within them tells them they should. They live out their faith by their actions. They are prepared not only to love and help their friends but also their enemies or those who they simply just don't know. We've been reminded of this over the past months, with many examples of Christian families (and others) taking in refugees, people they don't know, but know they have to try to help. Or Bernard Kenny, going to the aid of mortally wounded MP Jo Cox.

And in a faith context, a more, shall we say, normal and everyday context (where our actions won't be as heroic as those), as St Paul puts it in the epistle, entreating the Colossians, we should simply all try to 'lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God'.

And so back to my colleague at work and her succinct comment - if our faith comes from within, and our lives are grounded in that faith, how much better will our relationships be - both with God and with those around us. In the parable Jesus separates the person who has a real relationship with God from the merely religious. And when we ask what we must do to have eternal life, perhaps the answer is to take our faith, nurture it and ensure that good comes from it.

As Jesus simply puts it we should all go, and do likewise.              Amen.

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