Sermon preached on July 14, 2013
Saint Clements by the Sea, San Clemente
By Shireen Baker
Text: Luke 10: 25-37 (The Good Samaritan)
Today’s Gospel starts in the same way as many other Gospel lessons, a leader in the community, stands up and ‘tests’ Jesus in some way. This time it is a lawyer and he asks Jesus “what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Lawyers were teachers of Jewish law and were concerned with maintaining the law in its minutia. In this story he is testing to see how well Jesus knew and preached the laws of Moses.
Despite the antagonism of the questioner, Jesus takes the question seriously, and turning it around on the lawyer asks, “What is in the law?” Amazingly the lawyer answers Jesus by reciting the two great commandments, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself."
You see, the importance of loving God and your neighbor was by no means a new concept. There is a story about an honored Jewish leader, a Pharisee and lawyer known as Hillel the Elder, who died when Jesus was about 10 years old. In this story a Gentile approaches him and asks him to explain the Torah to him while he stands on one foot, Hillel’s answers the Gentile saying, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary; go and learn.”
So the Lawyer already knows what he is meant to do, but he persists because he wants to ‘Justify himself.’ He wants to know the exact boundaries of the law, who exactly is he supposed to love, who can he leave out, how little can he do to be made righteous?
It is in answer to this question that Jesus tells the story that we now know as “The Good Samaritan”. These days the word Samaritan has come to mean ‘compassionate helper.’ And generally we think we understand the point of the tale – ‘Don’t be like those bad compassionless priests and Levites, be nice like the Good Samaritan.” But is that what the story is really telling us, or is Jesus challenging the lawyer, and us, to something much more difficult?
In the story that Jesus tells, the priest and the Levite, were respectable, good Jews. They were the ordinary temple workers, not so high up in the temple hierarchy that they would have been unrelatable, but were still holy, clean and law abiding. And their reaction to the man lying on the side of the road, was not done out of callousness, or cruelty. Their jobs required that they maintain a high standard of purity. They would no longer be able to work in the temple if they came in contact with a dead body and the very act of going over to check would have put their jobs at risk. What’s more, the body could easily have been a trap, set there by robbers, they very easily could have become victims of a crime on that isolated stretch of highway, all in all the risks seemed to outweigh the rewards. So they did not get involved, before they could even think about helping or not, they crossed over to the other side of the street, avoiding the problem entirely.
Jesus’ listeners would probably have been saddened by the actions of the priest and Levite, but those actions would still have seemed understandable.
The actions of the Samaritan, on the other hand, would have been alarming, nonsensical even.
Now, of course, we know that a Samaritan is not necessarily someone who helps people in need, a Samaritan is part of a schismatic sect of Judaism that lived a very separate life from the rest of the Jewish population. Instead of worshiping at the temple in Jerusalem, the Samaritans worshiped on mount Garizen, and they did not interact with those outside of their sect. Samaritans were seen as unclean heretics, but what is equally important is that Samaritans saw the Jews as unclean heretics as well. Generally Samaritans would have avoided contact with Jews at all cost. So for this particular Samaritan to delay his own journey, risk his own well-being, spend a large sum of money and promise to return to check up on the injured man, was absolutely astonishing. He went far above anything that would have been expected of anyone, much less a Samaritan.
And after all this, the Lawyer’s question “who is my neighbor?” is actually the wrong question entirely, so Jesus doesn’t even answer it, instead he rephrases it, asking the lawyer “who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
The lawyer wants to know what his rights and responsibilities are under the law; he wants to know “who do we have to be neighbors to?” But Jesus wants to know “how much of a neighbor are we capable of being?” How far can we push the limits of our love for one another? How much are we willing to risk, how much are we willing to sacrifice?
Without question the man on the street, a fellow Jew, would have been considered neighbor to the priest and the Levite, but they had other laws to worry about, other responsibilities to hide behind. Without question the man on the street would NOT have been considered a neighbor to the Samaritan, but he acted, not out of responsibility but out of love.
Every day we are faced with similar challenges, and I know that I for one am constantly falling into the mindset of the Lawyer, asking myself questions, “how much do I have to give to the homeless man asking for change?” “How much time do I have to spend helping this person find their lost dog?” “How long do I have to spend talking to this lonely person on the subway before I can go back to reading my book?”How far do I have to go? How much do I have to sacrifice? But most of the time I have stopped asking entirely, I have set the limits to what I can do and that is that. Love does not really come into it at all.
But Jesus makes it pretty clear that there really is no limit to the love we should be showing to one another, and we know this, every Sunday we are faced with Christ’s teachings, over and over again we are told to ‘put on Christ,’ to take up the cross and follow, we know the challenge that is before us - we know what it really means to be a ‘Good Samaritan.’ But knowing is simply not good enough and Christ says in the end “Go and do likewise.”
But how can we, really? The task seems so daunting, so beyond reason even. Real loving compassion, the kind the Samaritan felt, that kind of compassion is so difficult to sustain. It requires entering into other people’s suffering, into other people’s weakness and pain, It requires becoming vulnerable when what we really want to do is find a quick and easy cure or run away from the suffering entirely.
It is most certainly not easy, but there are ways -
Thomas Merton once wrote “"Living is the constant adjustment of thought to life and life to thought in such a way that we are always growing, always experiencing new things in the old and old things in the new. Thus life is always new."
I think it is in this way that we can slowly but surely be formed as Christians, abandoning the question “what are my Christian responsibilities?” and asking instead “how much love can I show today?”