Monday, 11 July 2016

The Good Samaritan, St. Benedict & Being the Neighbour

Trinity 6 - Year C – Eucharist – 10.vii.2016

(Deuteronomy 30.9-14; Colossians 1.1-14; Luke 10.25-37)

Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan is a parable we think we know all too well. A man travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho - downhill all the way - gets set upon by thieves. They rob him, beat him up and leave him for dead. But there are people who can help. The first is a priest, but he thinks the better of it and keeps his distance as he goes past on the other side of the road. A Levite - another servant of the Temple with his part to play in established religion - does the same. But then a Samaritan comes along. Samaritans and Jews didn’t get on. Jews insisted on rituals of purity which Samaritans couldn’t measure up to, and for the Jew worship was to centre on the Temple in Jerusalem in the place where the priest and the Levite served. Samaritans offered worship on Mount Gerizim and had intermarried over the centuries with immigrants of other faiths so that they were shunned by Jews who lived so close to them, but also so separately. But it’s the Samaritan in the story who comes to the help of the victim of the crime. He goes to him in pity; he pours oil and wine onto his wounds as an antiseptic; he bandages him; he puts him on his own horse or donkey and takes him to an inn where he can rest; and he leaves money so that the man can stay there as long as he needs to recover. It’s the Samaritan, of course, who does the right thing.

But think a bit more, and you might ask what you would have done? Bible commentators often say that the priest and the Levite don’t want to approach the man who has been robbed because they are afraid that they will make themselves ritually unclean. They could see he was bleeding - that wouldn’t just mess up their clothes; contact with his blood would require that they went through a ceremony of purification. And if they found he was dead that would make things even more complicated in ritual terms. They wouldn’t be able to do their religious jobs!

An even simpler explanation might be that they were afraid. They didn’t want to be the next unlucky person to get attacked and robbed, so they kept their distance and hurried on as quickly as possible. And the explanation which might ring true today is that they didn’t want to be late for their next commitment. They were busy people and surely someone else would stop and help. Both the priest and the Levite knew the importance of time-management, even in the first century - and clergy who have been anywhere near a Ministerial Development Review in recent years know it even better!

The problem may simply be one of priorities. Not just a matter of what should you do when something looks to need an urgent response, but what should you do when you know there are other things you should be doing as well?... and you’re not going to get them done unless you ignore this one. Time management theory tells you that every task can be categorised in one of four ways: urgent but not important; important but not urgent; neither urgent nor important; and both urgent and important. Just because something looks urgent it doesn’t necessarily need to be done now, because there may be something more important. And when something looks important, it may not need a hasty response but a rather more careful reflective approach. Only if something is both urgent and important do you need to act now. They are the rules. The priest and the Levite know what rules they are working with. And they decide there’s something more important than going to the help of this beaten up victim of crime.

And it’s not just because they are working with their interpretation of Jewish Law…

Tomorrow the Church keeps the Feast of St. Benedict, father of Christian monasticism in Western Europe. Benedict’s great contribution was to work out a Rule - a set of guidelines - which would tell his followers how to live. Chapter 43 is about being late - “Don’t do it!” If you’re late for worship in the Divine Office, you should stand in a special place in church where everyone can see you and know you’re late. You should do penance. Even if there might seem a good reason for being late you need to apologise. And the same goes for meals - don’t improve your punctuality and you lose your wine allowance and have to eat in a separate room.

The thing to know about the Rule of St. Benedict is that it was written as a result of his desire to bring orderliness into the way his brother monks lived, at a time when so many thought they could do whatever they pleased. Benedict wanted to establish what he called “A school for the Lord’s service” - and his purpose was so that those entering into it would find their way to “blessings in eternal life.”

That’s something that we must not miss in today’s Gospel reading. Of all the Gospel writers, only St. Luke tells the story of the Good Samaritan. The story has an introduction which Matthew and Mark also record, but with a twist. In Matthew and Mark’s accounts, Jesus is asked, what is the greatest of the commandments? - and it’s Jesus who sums it up: love God with all your heart, your soul, your mind and your strength - and your neighbour as yourself. But it’s a bit different in Luke. Luke tells us that Jesus was approached by a lawyer who wanted to know what to do in order to inherit eternal life. And Jesus simply turns the question round: what does the religious law tell you? And the lawyer gets the answer right:

‘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 neighbour as yourself.’

In the Prayer Book we call these words the Summary of the Law. It’s everything that’s necessary reduced to just these few words about love - do this and that’s the way to find eternal life. That’s the aim of St. Benedict when he wrote his Rule. It’s the whole point of the Scriptures - to get us into God’s kingdom, to share with him in eternal life.

The problem is that then people get hold of the words that are used and try to make of them what they can. The lawyer who comes to Jesus wants to show that he can win points against him: so, “who is my neighbour?” His question is just what we do when we try to find excuses not to do what we know we really should. We do it when we say “Charity begins at home,” and use that as a reason not to support overseas aid and poverty relief programmes. We do it when we never quite get round to helping with something because there’s always something else needs doing for the family or at work. “Who is my neighbour?” So many of us don’t even see our next-door neighbours for weeks at a time, so it’s not surprising if neighbourliness is in short supply. But the real need is to see myself as the neighbour to whoever may be in need. Ask, “who is my neighbour?” and you can argue yourself out of responsibility for just about anyone. But - in a real way - charity should begin at home, because it needs to start in my heart and overflow to anyone who is in need.

For the priest and the Levite of the parable there were ways to argue that the man left bleeding by the roadside was not a neighbour with needs for them to respond to. Because they don’t see that they should be the neighbour to him. Jesus asks, “Which of the three was the neighbour to the beaten and broken man?” And the lawyer avoids naming the Samaritan. He can only say “the one who showed him mercy.”

Are we people who show mercy? We need to recognise what we seek to avoid; to recognise the need of the person we wish to avoid; the call to us to show courage and take risks. We need to look beyond what we can do without too much trouble, beyond what we can afford or do easily, to recognise what might ask of us some inconvenience. We need to recognise Christ in other people, even in people who are quite different from us.

‘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 neighbour as yourself.’

That’s the right answer, says Jesus. The summary of the Law is simple - to love. And love has no bounds. St. Benedict attempted to set down in writing a Rule for Holy Living, guidelines for anyone whose quest was for eternal life. But it’s only a start, what he called “a school for beginners.” And he summed it up in words we can take to heart: “Prefer nothing to the love of Christ.”

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