Go and do likewise - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

Go and do likewise

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.

The most dangerous and insidious thing about prejudice is that by its very nature it is something that we observe in others, but fail to recognise in ourselves.

Opposite the house in Birmingham in which I lived for many years, was a row of Edwardian terrace houses, which had been divided into flats owned by a housing association.  And living there was a young woman of rather striking appearance.  She sported a very impressive Mohican hair-cut; she had a face full of metal - just about every part of her face that could be pierced had been pierced; she was covered in tattoos.  And she was evidently living off benefits - she didn't appear to be in any kind of gainful employment.  She had a little boy aged about three (who, rather fetchingly, sported a matching Mohican), and a rather mangy-looking mongrel dog whose collar was attached to a piece of string.  She owned a very ancient and clapped-out Land Rover, which she always had great difficulty getting started - we knew all about that, because it made an unbelievable racket whenever she attempted to take it somewhere.  I didn't know the young woman - I had never even spoken to her - but because of her appearance she was very difficult to miss.

It was one of those mornings when the weather was absolutely appalling: the rain was sheeting down, and it was blowing a gale at the same time - and I was already running late for a meeting.  So I sprinted to my car trying to avoid getting any wetter than was absolutely necessary.  And can you believe it, my car just would not start.  I tried the ignition again and again, but the thing was utterly dead - not a glimmer of life.  Of all mornings for it to happen it had to be that one.  I was about to start howling with despair, when a sudden bang on my car window made me jump.  And there to my surprise was Mohican girl.  'Oh no!' I thought.  'That is all I need - what does SHE want?'

I wound down my window somewhat apprehensively - and was completely taken aback by what followed.  She had spotted me out of the window having difficulty starting my car, and had come over in the pouring rain - she wasn't even wearing a jacket - to see if she could help.  She had a spare battery that she kept so that she could jump start her Land Rover, and she wondered if she could get my car going for me.  Which she duly did, very successfully, in the sheeting rain, getting absolutely drenched for her pains in the process.  And I was beside myself with gratitude - I even made my meeting on time.  But I was also utterly ashamed.

I was ashamed because it made me face up to all my unconscious prejudice against that young woman - prejudice based entirely upon her appearance, and my misplaced assumptions about the kind of person she must be.  And I was even more ashamed because her utterly selfless and generous action in rescuing me - a neighbour, but also a total stranger to her - left me with a terrible question.  Had our circumstances been the other way round, would I - the Christian minister - have put myself out to help her?  And I was horribly afraid of what the true answer to that question would be.  It was one of those appallingly exposing moments of judgment, when we are forced to look at those parts of ourselves that we would much rather remain hidden.  And I can say with all honesty that I was a different person the other side of that encounter.  I, the Christian minister, had found myself called to account, by the generosity of spirit exhibited by a girl whom I was inwardly despising.  Painful, isn't it!

The parable of the Good Samaritan, which we heard a moment ago, is one of the most famous stories told by Jesus.  You will, I'm sure, be familiar with the tale:  a man travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho is attacked by robbers, stripped, beaten, and left for dead.  Along comes a priest, who sees the man, but hurries past.  A Levite, another man of religious authority, does likewise.

But before we all start booing those guys for their cruelty and heartlessness in rushing past, let's just pause for a moment and think.  Firstly, note how recognisably human their response is.  After all, this was dangerous territory - an isolated desert road notorious for banditry - and I suspect many of us, if we are honest will recognise a reluctance to get involved; a fear of what we might be letting ourselves in for; a sense that this must be somebody else's responsibility - not ours.  And if the guy was indeed dead, as he appeared to be, there wouldn't be a lot we could do in any case.  But in this particular story there is even more to it than that. 

You see, at the time, Jericho was an incredibly important centre for the Jewish priesthood - many of them lived there, and much of the administration for the Jerusalem temple took place there.  So it is entirely possible that, far from travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho (like the man who had been robbed) the priest and the Levite were headed in the opposite direction: they were on their way to Jerusalem to fulfil their religious duties.  And if that was the case, it was imperative that they arrived in Jerusalem in a condition of ritual purity.  This would explain that odd but crucial little detail that they passed by 'on the other side' - the victim had been left for dead and they could not risk ritual defilement through being in contact with a corpse, so they gave him a wide berth.  Otherwise their religious duty to the whole Jewish community would be put in jeopardy.  Within their own context and their own rules, they had every reason to assume that the ritual claim upon them was the higher calling.  Interesting, isn't it.

And then we have the Samaritan.  The huge irony in this parable is that if anyone had justification for leaving the wounded man lying in the ditch it was he.  He was travelling in Israelite territory, so it was reasonable for him to assume that the man lying there was an Israelite.  And Israelites despised and spurned Samaritans, regarding them as an impure and inferior race.

So the story that Jesus tells us is not simply the tale of one man going to the aid of another human being who was in need.  It was the story of the Croat who goes to the aid of the dying Serb; of the Rwandan Tutsi who goes to the aid of the Hutu; of the Jew who goes to the aid of the Nazi; of the woman who goes to the aid of the man who murdered her son; of the torture victim who goes to the aid of his tormentor.

And in the story that Jesus tells, it is not simply the fact that help is given that is significant - it is the intimate and complete nature of that help.  The Samaritan binds the man's wounds, takes him to an inn, and pays for his care.  He takes full responsibility for him.  For what the Samaritan sees is not an ailing Israelite, but an ailing human being, who is therefore his brother and who therefore deserves no less.

In the mid-1970s, Sheila Cassidy was a medical doctor working in Chile.  In her book Audacity to Believe, she tells the story of her arrest and torture at the hands of the Chilean secret police.  Her 'crime' was to have treated a wounded man called Gutierrez, who turned out to be a member of an outlawed opposition group.  At one point during her interrogation, she describes the following exchange that she had with her faceless torturers:

Again and again they returned to the question, 'Why did you treat Gutierrez?', and again I repeated, 'He was sick.  I am a doctor.'  Exasperated, one of them said, 'But if I had a wounded leg you wouldn't treat me,' to which I replied, 'Of course I would.'  There was a long silence, and he then said slowly, 'I do believe you would.'

Christian love is not something that the strong, and the able, and the powerful, and the religious dish out to the deserving.  Because Christian love is the love of Christ crucified, and sometimes it is precisely the strong, and the able, and the powerful, and the religious who are in most profound need of liberation - and sometimes, paradoxically, it is only the vulnerable and the weak who are in a position to instigate that transformation.  Sometimes we have to learn that we are the ones who need rescuing. 

Conversely, if we would learn the compassion of Christ, we must be prepared to take risks; to make ourselves vulnerable in living out that love; and to hold up to the judgment of Christ all our worldly instincts about where our responsibilities to others begin and end.  And in so doing, to declare by our actions and through our lives that things can be different for therein lies the hope of resurrection, and the promise of new life for all.

At the end of the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus says to the lawyer whose question prompted the parable, 'Go and do likewise.'  If we are to follow him, we too can do no less.


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