Sunday, 10 July 2016

Compassion in your guts, mercy on the road

Sermon preached at Duston United Reformed Church, 10th July 2016. Text: Luke 10:25-37.

Have you ever heard of a bad Samaritan? We’re often told that we’re in a post-Christian culture, but we live in a society saturated with biblical imagery. The idea of the Good Samaritan is all around us. There are charities and hospitals named after him, the phrase is universally understood and admired even among people with little interest in faith.  Indeed so good is the Samaritan that even he doesn’t need an adjective – those wonderful folks, The Samaritans, who help people in their direst emotional needs, don’t need any qualifier.

And of course it’s not down to the reputation of the people of Samaria. Because among Jewish people of Jesus’ time, that was shocking. They were heretics, who worshipped God not on Mount Zion but on a different mountain to the north. They were impure, the product of mixing between pure Jews and Assyrian immigrants, a real issue given the racialized culture of 1st century Israel. They were the subject of many historical feuds and grievances, battles between the two cultures. And they were inhospitable – Jews travelling to Jerusalem through Samaria were not welcome to stay in the villages along the way. So the idea of a bad Samaritan wouldn’t be a surprise to Jewish ears. The surprise is that we see them now as something positive, because of this one story.

Now it’s such a well-known story that you’ve probably heard it preached, or read interpretations, or seen re-enactments of it, a hundred times. It’s a story for children to listen and get a good solid moral message – be kind to others, even if nobody else will. And it’s a story that a preacher tackles with care if they want to get any point across except that one. There are many lessons to be taken from the Good Samaritan. But, spoiler alert, to me it gives a message that is at the very heart of the gospel. It gives us a clear message about what we need to do as Christians, and what eternal life feels like. It feels like mercy. It feels like receiving mercy when we least expect it, and from the places we least expect it. And it feels like giving mercy in ways that are costly to ourselves, that put ourselves at risk. That is everlasting life, and that is the heart of the kingdom of God.

We start with that lawyer, and he starts with a question that many asked Jesus and few have had answered to their satisfaction – how do I get eternal life? It’s basically a selfish question, a transactional question. OK JC, I’m important and I’m busy. How do I get this eternal life thing? What rituals do I need to do? How much do I need to pay? Give me the bill so I can get back to work, I’ve got a client coming at 12 o’clock. People in churches are still asking this question in the same self-centred and crass way, and it’s done the church a lot of harm. Because the answer isn’t paying an easy bill. It’s about relationships and it’s about giving yourself.

Of course the lawyer, clearly a good student, knows the proper answer. Love God and love your neighbour – the two-fold commandment. It’s a brilliant answer, which really does sum up the Torah, and it also sums up the Christian life. But the lawyer needs to set boundaries on his love, so he asks the question ‘who is my neighbour?’. As the biblical commentator Amy-Jill Levine puts it:
To ask “Who is my neighbor” is a polite way of asking, “Who is not my neighbor?” or “Who does not deserve my love?” or “Whose lack of food or shelter can I ignore?” or “Whom I can hate?” The answer Jesus gives is, “No one.” Everyone deserves that love— local or alien, Jews or gentile, terrorist or rapist, everyone.
Photo: Berend de Boer
And so Jesus tells that story about the man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, down that road which his listeners knew so well, and which was so dangerous. Really it’s the kind of place you’d expect to be set upon and robbed. I’m not going to spend much time on the priest or the Levite today. Their reasons for passing by on the other side have been widely discussed. There’s an argument about them breaching their ritual purity, which doesn’t quite work if you look at it long enough. Perhaps the best explanation is something Martin Luther King said – maybe they were just afraid and didn’t want to be robbed and beaten themselves. Maybe they felt it was some kind of scam. Or maybe they objected to helping individuals. I have myself walked past homeless people with their hands out, and not given them money. I’ve had the chance to complain to my MP about the conditions that lead to food poverty and not done it. I’ve seen pictures of terrible disasters in faraway places and done nothing. I don’t think I’m especially unworthy, I imagine we’ve all walked by at times. Don’t judge the priest or the Levite.

But let’s look at the Samaritan. I’ve said already just how hated were the Samaritans. They were the enemy, the other. The people like us and yet not like us. I watched a funny video from TV series That Mitchell & Webb Look which had Jesus telling the story to a group of liberal Jews who starting telling him off for his prejudice, that they all knew some great Samaritans, took their holiday in Samaria and the people were so nice. I’d have shown it today except it had some swear words that I didn’t want to inflict on you. But if there were such Jews in Jesus’ time, they were few and far between. Samaritans were despised. I’ve been trying all week to think of an analogy, of a group that’s close enough to us that know all their moves but to find them utterly alien. No single group fits the bill for all those in this room, I imagine, to say nothing of those outside. But I bet you have group that count as the enemy for you. Perhaps it’s those of another political persuasion, those who voted for Brexit or those who voted for Remain, or the Tories or UKIP or Labour. Perhaps it’s a different religious group – when I was growing in Glasgow, the divisions were really strong between Protestants and Catholics, and woe betide you if you strayed to the wrong tribe. In many places it’s about race, as we still see so tragically in the United States. For others, it’s around sexuality. Identifying a whole group of people as the enemy, as someone less than human, certainly not capable of good moral acts, is a terrible thing. It’s to deny that they’re made in the image of God, simply because they belong to a particular group. But, bluntly, it’s also a really common human activity, and at some level it’s something we all do.

Image: Jesus Mafa

So when the story took that three-part form that’s common in stories, the listeners would not have expected to hear the word Samaritan as the one who helped the man in danger. It would have come as a real shock, almost as something offensive. Those people, they’re the ones who help someone in danger? They’re the ones who act as a neighbour to the man? Yes, says Jesus, and moreover you need to be like them. Jesus says that the Samaritan felt compassion for the victim (the NIV which we heard says pity but compassion is a more common translation), using a really strong word which relates to your guts or even your bowels. The Samaritan felt so sorry for that man that it made his insides churn up, the way you do when you feel something is so wrong that you feel physically ill before you act. This was not a man with no moral sense. And Jesus says that the Samaritan showed mercy to the victim. Throughout the scriptures, that word mercy is the attribute of God. It’s God who shows mercy. The Muslims say “in the name of Allah, the most compassionate, the most merciful” and they have this biblical sense just right. Mercy is an attribute of God. And that is what the Samaritan showed to the beaten man.

So here’s the first message to take from the Good Samaritan. Mercy comes from unexpected places. God’s love comes through all sorts of people and in all sorts of ways. We live in a world that’s so deeply divided. It really feels this year as though things are falling apart. Our country has chosen to divide itself from the European Union. We have racist politicians in this country, throughout Europe, we have Donald Trump in America, all strengthening and exploiting divisions between people. We have horrendous acts of violence across the world carried out because of division. Elsewhere in the scriptures, prophetic voices loudly argue against this kind of division. The parable of the Good Samaritan says the same, more quietly and subtly, but no less clearly. Hear the message of the Samaritan with mercy and compassion: this man was doing God’s work. Division between human beings has no place in the kingdom of God. All human beings are brothers and sisters, and all are capable of goodness.

Let us move on to look at the story from a different perspective. The question is often asked who you identify with in this story, who you think is the key character. In passing, my wife Becky has told this story to children at our church a couple of times using the method called Godly Play, which includes asking which character in the story you most identify with. The answer is often the donkey! For adults the answer varies, but all too seldom is it the injured man. Yet I think there is real insight to be had in seeing yourself in the position of the person who was attacked, of taking what one commentator calls ‘the view from the ditch’. We don’t know anything about him. He’s described in some translations as ‘some man’, which is to say everyman – or everywoman. The injured man could be any one of us.

Because here’s the thing. Many of us are wounded people. Some of us have literally been physically beaten. Others have been emotionally beaten, or spiritually, or in our working lives, or in any of a number of ways. Sometimes that beating happens from strangers. Sometimes it happens from people we’re afraid of. Sometimes it happens from those we thought we could trust. Any of these is a terrible thing. My heart goes out to anyone here who has experienced these things.

But help often comes to us, and sometimes it comes in unexpected forms. The stranger who stops when someone is calling another person by racist names, and they simply say ‘enough’. The older woman who sees a young woman in a vulnerable position and walks her home. The street pastors who at weekend nights roam our town centre, and those of many other towns, helping people in danger. And the people who help those of different races, different religions, different political stances.

When that happens, can we acknowledge the help? Are we prepared for mercy to be shown to us? Later in the service, we will sing the hymn ‘Brother, Sister, let me serve you’ which contains the lines ‘pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too’. Are we prepared to do that? In moments of vulnerability, of hurt, are we able to respond to mercy when it comes from unexpected sources? So that to me is the second message of mercy from the story of the Good Samaritan.

And last comes those closing words of Jesus to the lawyer: ‘Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’ to which the lawyer responds, ‘The one who had mercy on him’ and Jesus says ‘Go and do likewise’. We may receive mercy freely, from the unlikeliest of places, but we are also called to show mercy and compassion to others. We are called to follow the example of this man who felt the pain of his fellow-traveller in his guts, and actually did something about it.

Some of this is the individual response of the kind I have already mentioned – of showing compassion to somebody we encounter in trouble or in need. This response may be easy for us to take, but it may equally well be costly. As I said earlier, the priest and the Levite may well have been putting themselves in danger had they stopped for the injured man. The Samaritan may well have done so also. But he chose to accept that danger.

I know of plenty of Christians who have given up well-paid jobs to work and live among people in great deprivation, in this country or elsewhere, serving their needs in many ways. There is no condescension or patronising behaviour in such acts, they see the people they live among as equals and friends. These are hard paths, but those who follow them report that they are living life to the full. Or consider the Christians who travel to Palestine as ecumenical accompaniers to live alongside people in great hardship and oppression, both Christian and Muslim, in the land of Jesus.

But this kind of individual action can only go so far. Because there are many different people in many different kinds of trouble travelling from Jericho to Jerusalem, and other places beside. And helping them takes more than individual action. Consider food banks, like you have here – it’s great that they exist to help those in immediate need. But it’s a terrible thing that they need to exist, that living in the 5th largest economy in the world as we were constantly told last month, that we have anyone in food poverty who needs food banks. It’s a scandal, a disgrace. Our calling to go and do likewise goes beyond helping those in immediate need, it surely includes helping stopping that sort of need from arising. To quote Martin Luther King again:
We are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be beaten and robbed as they make their journey through life. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it understands that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring.
The parable of the Good Samaritan tells us so much about God’s mercy and compassion, shown through others and which we are called to show to others. It speaks to a divided and hurting world, looking up from the ditch by the side of the Jericho road, and it speaks to us now in the commission of Jesus: go and do likewise.