What must I do to inherit eternal life?
The lawyer in today’s Gospel asks two extremely important questions. The first relates to how we connect with the eternal realm, with the ultimate, i.e. with God. The second question is the result of Jesus reminding the man that the commandments always point in two directions: toward God and toward those around us. There has to be integrity in both directions, or one tends to invalidate the other.
So in this case the real question for this lawyer becomes: Who is my neighbour?
We live and work and ride the train beside people who won’t even look at us, who avoid personal contact at all costs. There are many reasons for this but the reality is that we live in the midst of strangers. In the midst of so-called “communities,” many people if not most are isolated and alone and afraid.
Look at the picture on the front of the leaflet – the young woman walking by the homeless woman.
What’s wrong with this picture? The young woman has her earphones plugged in and therefore has removed herself from her immediate surroundings. Remember those figurines of the three monkeys? I seem to recall that one of them covered his eyes and another one was covering her ears. To me, it’s a powerful modern-day symbol of the way in which we try to block out what is going on around us rather than being open to what and whom we may encounter. In the midst of huge cities, we are trying to live in our own little worlds and it’s not working. We may think it’s ridiculous to attempt to build walls that separate countries, but look at that picture and tell me there isn’t a wall between those two people that’s every bit as effective.
What is a neighbor?
Simply being in geographic proximity does not make a person a neighbor, which is part of what today’s Gospel indicates. People from the injured man’s own community, important people, trusted religious people you would expect to be able to rely on were pointedly not the people who stepped forward to offer any help.
At a time of need and crisis they had nothing to offer. Symbolically, this may be intended to point to the way in which Jewish religious practices had proven futile in the face of the violence and oppression of the Roman occupation.
Which one was the neighbour? Jesus asks. Ironically, it was a stranger, a Samaritan, a man whose background and beliefs were suspect, someone who would’ve been shunned by the injured man’s own community, who ended up being the neighbor, the good person, rather than the priest and Levite. And the Samaritan in turn could be seen to represent Jesus, coming from the outside in order to restore and bring life to the broken and wounded of the world. Can people like this Samaritan serve God, the story seems to ask? Clearly, according to Jesus’ teaching in today’s Gospel, they can.
Today, maybe it’s a Muslim or a Sikh, maybe it’s an atheist who doesn’t seem to need God to act compassionately, maybe it’s some kid in dark, Goth-looking clothing with her nose pierced, maybe it’s a homeless person, who seems to step out of the image we have formed of them and acts in a generous and compassionate way. I think the Gospel is trying to tell us that it’s often surprising, even shocking, who ends up being the good person in the moment.
The “neighbour” according to Jesus is someone who cares – someone looks beyond him or herself – someone who allows another person to become their agenda — someone who exercises compassion, which is the willingness to enter into someone else’s life, with all its struggles and pains and disappointment.
A couple of social interactions caught my attention this past week, one in a shopping centre and one in Value Village. In each case, there was a caregiver and a mentally handicapped person. If I had simply looked at them I would not have necessarily known that one was mentally challenged and the other was not. It was the condescending, stilted and obvious manner in which the caregivers were speaking, directed not so much to the person they were with but to the world around them, as though we were an audience meant to understand that the caregivers were not really WITH this person, or friends, but “Care-givers” and in the Value Village scenario, the caregivers were also making it extremely clear that they were there only because they were trying to help this unfortunate person, and would never be caught dead in the place otherwise, so they managed to insult the people who shop there as well . In both cases I felt we tend to label the wrong people as being “challenged.”
The caregivers may have seen themselves as Good Samaritans, but for my part, I thought they seemed more like the people who robbed and mistreated the man on the journey, isolating and abandoning him. Being a Good Samaritan – being neighbour — is not just something we do to or for others, but is about being open and vulnerable to what others have to give to us — it’s a two way relationship. It’s all too easy to focus on someone else’s problems while ignoring our own brokenness, isolation and emptiness; in that case, we are simply using the other person to meet our own needs.
Jean Vanier, the gentle man famous for creating inclusive and affirming communities for the mentally and physically challenged (called L’Arche communities) said:
“in the end, the most important thing is not to do things for people who are poor and in distress, but to enter into relationship with them, to be with them and help them find confidence in themselves and discover their own gifts. . . . The promise of Jesus is to help us discover that the poor are a source of life and not just objects of our charity” (Community and Growth).
We are surrounded by strangers, that is, people we think of as strange, weird, suspect, undesirable, alien. Part of the problem is that we have not accepted the increasing diversity of our society and our world and thus of our neighbourhoods. Communities change but sometimes our concepts of them, our expectations of them, and the way we act in them, do not. Today’s Gospel suggest we ought not to be rigid in our expectations of who might be our neighbour and who might be the person we might end up relying upon for help and care and support.
At the moment our national church is gathered in General Synod, and there are many anxiously awaiting the results of the vote on the marriage canon – our policy and definition regarding marriage in the Anglican Church of Canada.
Our Primate, Archbishop Fred Hiltz, challenged the Church to be a catalyst, a source of new life. In his opening address, he said that many of the issues the Anglican Church has wrestled with have centred around inclusion. His address reminded the General Synod members that many major debates have happened in that context over the last 100 or more years (in that time the ACC has dealt with immigration issues, racial issues, the ordination of women, the right of children to take the Eucharist, the remarriage of divorced persons and the place of Indigenous peoples), before culminating with the most contentious issue of the present day: the marriage of same-sex couples and potential changes to the Marriage Canon. Hiltz urged synod members to pray for one another and offered former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams’ counsel at the 2008 Lambeth Conference to “muster the courage to speak to someone with whom a conversation would be difficult.”
Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church of the United States is a special guest at General Synod this year. In his address, Archbishop Curry, who happens to be African-American himself, referenced the inter-racial violence that has been escalating in his country, and said this violence is rooted in a “spiritual malady.” He reminded synod members that Christians have gifts that a conflicted and wounded and bleeding world desperately needs — the gift of loving community, and the gift of seeing all people as being created in the image of God and therefore sacred. “Our culture, our society, our world, is begging us, he said: ‘Show us another way!’” He quoted Martin Luther King, Jr. that human beings face a choice between “chaos or community.”
Martin Luther King himself, speaking on the parable of the Good Samaritan, said: “I imagine that the first question the priest and Levite asked was: ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But by the very nature of his concern, the good Samaritan reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’”
It’s never just a question of what happens to you.
The parable is not saying you need to stop and take responsibility for every single person you encounter (like the person who wants to bring every dog home from the pound), but to be open enough to be able to depart from your plan, your path, your journey, to respond to what may present itself to you on the way that might change your direction and focus.
Some of the people and situations that present themselves surprise us and challenge us. At the moment, the LGBTQ component of our society is presenting the Anglican Church of Canada with the challenge of trying to embrace and include people wo have often been beaten up, robbed of dignity, denied a place of belonging, prevented from getting where they need to go in life, and abandoned by the side of the road.
As our General Synod faces this important issue, some are prepared to leave if we don’t change it; some are prepared to leave if we do. We are so quick to separate – to put up walls — to find ways to separate and distance ourselves from others who trouble us. It would be nice for a change if, in a crisis, people attempted to move toward each other rather than being quick to create distance and put up more walls and separations. Again, as Rowan Williams said, to consider how we might “muster the courage to speak to someone with whom a conversation would be difficult.”
Jesus asked his followers to consider if there is any real value in loving and caring about people exactly like yourself. That is actually just self-interest. Indeed, maybe our being members of the church isn’t merely about finding friends in people like ourselves, but in about learning how to be with and respect and learn to care about people who are very different than we are. If you truly want to live, this is what you must do.
The lawyer was looking for a formula, a method, a rule, and Jesus gives an indication in his story of how complex and difficult that approach is – both the Levite and the priest would on one hand be bound to help the man, but both could also have made excuses, based on the same law. You can’t make love into a rule or a formula, and you can’t go around expecting you are to be the good Samaritan to everyone in every situation.
The general “rule” is love, but the foundation for this rule is the person of Jesus himself, and it’s not just a matter of trying to figure out what Jesus would do in a given situation, but being involved in a process of “becoming” Christ, which is what our spiritual life is about, and becoming more and more willing and able to act in the “name” or spirit or character of Jesus.
To be a good neighbour is not about involving yourself in everyone else’s problems, or trying to gain recognition as some kind of hero, but simply about being open, in order to allow your journey to be flexible enough that you can deviate from it when God calls you or places some unexpected person or situation in your way. To be a Good Samaritan is also to believe that God will become present in sometimes surprising ways, in people whom you might have considered enemies. We’re all afraid to come out from behind our walls, or out of our houses, because we perceive it to be so dangerous out there. Yet the Gospel reminds us that God is present “out there” often in unexpected forms. In the name of Christ, let us be there also.
The Rev. Grant Rodgers+
RCL-appointed readings :
Amos 7:7-17 This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. And the LORD said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said, “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by; the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.” Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. For thus Amos has said, ‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from his land.'” And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’ “Now therefore hear the word of the LORD. You say, ‘Do not prophesy against Israel, and do not preach against the house of Isaac.” Therefore thus says the LORD: ‘Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city, and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword, and your land shall be parceled out by line; you yourself shall die in an unclean land, and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.'”
82:1 God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment: “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” They have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk around in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken. I say, “You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince.” Rise up, O God, judge the earth; for all the nations belong to you!
Colossians 1:1-14 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God.
In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel that has come to you. Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God. This you learned from Epaphras, our beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf, and he has made known to us your love in the Spirit. For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may 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. May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
Luke 10:25-37 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “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.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”