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Sermon for Proper 10/Ordinary 14 C The Good Samaritan

April 30, 2016

Go and do thou likewise.

Some theology students were asked to prepare a sermon on the Good Samaritan. The sermons were to be videotaped. It was arranged that, in front of the building where the sermons were to be recorded, somebody would lie on the ground by a bench near the entrance. Only one third of the students bothered to stop and ask if there was anything wrong with the person.

What was different about those third? They had been told they could come to the recording at any time. The other two thirds were given strict timetables. It seems that the more busy we are, the less caring we become. Go and do thou likewise???

But it’s not that straightforward. Some of us are busy doing caring jobs or working for charity – if we stop to help one single person then we miss out on helping twenty others.

What would you have done in my shoes, last term? I had five minutes to get to an assembly I was due to take. I had just dismissed my form. A new girl was joining that form. She was brought in. She knew nobody. She did not know where to go.

At the same moment, a girl form told me she was worried because her dad was in intensive care. He had been attacked with baseball bats in a pub the night before. And, outside, I could see a fight starting. Who shall I deal with? We end up doing a calculation.  We can’t be spontaneous any more.

It would be easy to blame those students for not practicing what they preach. It is easy to think of the priest and levite as cruel, uncaring people. That would be a big mistake. They did have genuine reasons for their neglect. They had a service to go to, duties to perform. Like a bishop with a packed cathedral awaiting his arrival for an ordination. Or, ironically, going to a sort of ‘High Priest’s Commission on Problems in Urban Priority Areas’.

Go and do thou likewise??? It was much more straightforward in Jesus’s day. The Leviticus passage we heard sets out simple rules: The poor needn’t starve. Farmers were ordered not to harvest so zealously that fields were threadbare of all crops. Some crops were to be left for the poor to glean. (Yet we argue over EEC food mountains today) Workers were to be paid a fair wage – at the end of each day, not a weekly wage let alone a monthly salary (Yet we argue today about a minimum wage in the European social chapter) The deaf and blind were to be given especial care (Yet we argue about whether we should pay high taxes to fund the ever- increasing demands on the welfare state or whether we should cut taxes so that people can choose to give to charities which will help the disadvantaged)

The Jewish law admonished Jews to care for ‘the stranger within their gates’. Ironically, the Good Samaritan is the ‘stranger within the gates’ who is doing the caring.

Go and do thou likewise??? Not only was the law in Jesus’s day more straightforward. Life was simpler.

You knew about the man who fell down in the street. But you didn’t have a TV set which beamed instant pictures from some disaster in the Third World. But we do.

And how do you calculate this one?: Do you spend an hour helping an old lady off the street, sit with her in the ambulance and while she waits at A & E? Or do you work hard at a job for an hour and earn £6. That £6, given to the Royal Commonwealth Society for the Blind will pay for six cataract operations in a hospital in India. Saving people otherwise doomed to blindness, and so to loss of work, starvation and death. An old lady?  Or six blind people.

Go and do thou likewise??? Maybe there were less risks in Jesus’s day. Yes, the road between Jerusalem and Jericho was risky. In twenty miles, it drops 3,600 feet and winds back on itself. I know, I’ve been there – in a coach. But there’s more guns and knives about now. More drug-crazed people after cash to feed their habit. You see the man lying on the pavement in a dark street. You go up and try to help. He’s been waiting there, acting ill. He springs out at you with a knife and takes your wallet.

Or you see a child, crying, in the street. You offer a hand or a hug, the child might think all adults are to be trusted, and one day accept the wrong hand. Or you might get accused of child abuse.

Or you’re like Chris Gray, the priest in Liverpool stabbed last month because he carried out the gospel injunction to care at any time, night or day. Wouldn’t he have done more good had he turned down that one man and been available to so many more people had he lived?

And helping people can also hinder them. A friend of mine gave a pound coin to every beggar he saw between Christmas Steps and Broadmead. He was fifty quid lighter in half an hour. Seems good doesn’t it. But what if those beggars used their coins towards a bottle of alcohol? And got so drunk that they mugged somebody. Or the alcohol on their breath provided sufficient reason for the night shelter to bar them so they spend the night on the streets. And perhaps one gets knifed in his sleep?

Meanwhile, my friend’s fifty quid could have saved 50 people’s sight in India. My friend would have done well to heed the Didache, an ancient Christian text, which reads: ‘Let thine alms sweat in thy palm until thou knowest to whom thou givest.’ In other words, calculate where best to place your charity.

There’s a Good Samaritan equivalent in Greek literature. Here, instead of a Samaritan, it’s a man from Elboa, in the countryside. The story is told to an urban audience. They would have expected a countryman to be rough and unfriendly. They thought country folk did well for themselves. Avoiding lots of taxes. Luring ships to the coast and plundering the wrecks. In this story, the peasant, from the country, shows generosity to a shipwrecked traveller.

But what interests me is the way the Greek story starts. It starts with an academic discussion about differences between town and country, about the merits of various systems of taxation, about chaos at public meetings. The story-teller believed urban civilisation to be corrupting.

Go and do thou likewise??? In an urban, sophisticated environment. How do you go and do likewise? Do we all pay in to the welfare state? Pay in as much as each can afford? Take out as much as each one needs? Or does that stifle enterprise? So do we reduce taxes? Reduce welfare? Go back to Victorian notions of private charity? Or do we do a bit of both? Support new Labour?

‘Who is my neighbour?’ seems to be asking an academic question. The lawyer’s question sought a definition of ‘limited liability’.

Rembrandt Good SamRembrandt did a painting of the scene. As a counterblast to the Renaissance nude, he painted plain, middle- aged people without clothes. Their forms are lumpy shapes, like sacks of potatoes. And a prominent feature is a dog squatting in the foreground, defecating. It seems to say that caring is a messy business for ordinary people. It’s not straightforward. Our lives are caught up in confusing systems.  In conflicting duties. We have to sort out a mess, a muddle.

Go and do thou likewise. Each one of us has to discern HOW best we can do that. We can’t help EVERY one. We can’t support EVERY charity. We have to pray and then respond according to our particular circumstances. In different ways in a complicated society. For one person it is by simply helping the elderly person who can’t get up the step. For another it is by being a good teacher. Someone will work for charity. Some will be active members of a political party or a regular blood-donor, a visitor to and shopping for a wheelchair-bound person.

Go and do thou likewise. Simply to be Christ to one another . It’s muddled. But there’s one certain thing. The priority is to be the Samaritan. Not to be the priest or the levite. NOT to put churchy, religious things first. But to put people first. We find Christ primarily in other people, not merely in church stuff.

French good samA church in France has a stained-glass window depicting the parable of the Good Samaritan. You can tell who’s the Samaritan. He has a halo. But there’s a surprise. In one panel it’s the victim who has the halo.

St. Augustine tells us that the victim should speak to us of him who fell victim to Pilate and Caiaphas, Who died at their hands just outside Jerusalem. And Wesley has a hymn which calls Jesus the ‘Victim divine’. The equivalent today would be to do a painting with lots of victims: victims in prison camps, victims of muggings, victims of the arms race, victims because of their colour, victims of queer-bashing, economic victims without work, or food, victims of leukemia and arthritis, AIDS. Over each one of them would be a halo. And each of their faces would look like the face of Christ.

Go and do thou likewise.

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