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The 5th Sunday after Pentecost; Luke 10:25–37

It happens like clockwork; every 3 years, on the first or second Sunday of July, the Parable of the Good Samaritan rolls around once again as the Gospel. And just as regularly perhaps 9 out of 10 preachers in the land will do their best to hammer out some kind of a new take on this overly familiar story, failing to note that it is not about doing, doing more, or doing better good works to “inherit eternal life” (aka getting into heaven), and ending up exhorting their listeners to do just that – good works, more of them, or better ones – to get to heaven. Let me see if I can’t do something better, or if not better, at least different.

Let’s look at the Gospel in some detail.

The lawyer (this would be someone learned in Torah, religious law) starts out hoping to trick (that’s a better translation than “test”) Jesus, that trouble-making rabbi. Let’s see if Jesus singles out one law as more important than the others, which any right-thinking Jew knew were all equally important. And so he asks, what must he to do to have eternal life. Jesus flips it back; you’re the lawyer, you tell me! The lawyer quotes the two great commandments, the summary of all the law and the prophets; love God, and love neighbour. Jesus agrees, this is the supreme obligation for a Jew; do this and one has eternal life.

The lawyer however can’t leave well enough alone, and asks the fatal question, “Who is my neighbour?” We don’t know what answer he was expecting, but likely something based on geographic proximity – within a two minute walk, or the next three houses in any direction – whatever he expected, certainly it wasn’t what he got. He got a story!

A traveller, a Jewish man, on the road to Jericho from Jerusalem is beaten up by robbers, all his belongings including clothes taken, and left near death at the side of the road. Probably not all that uncommon an occurrence for a lone traveller on that stretch of road, and so perhaps not that uncommon a story, at least at the beginning.

We’re not told how long he lay there, but in time, one at a time come two stock characters, a priest and then a Levite, both of them the most upstanding of upstanding Jewish religious establishment figures. Neither of them had any excuse for not knowing their obligations towards a fellow Jew – and as the guy in the ditch was naked, his Jewishness could have been easily noted. But, it could have been his nakedness, which was shameful for him and to anyone seeing it, or maybe they thought the robbers were still around, or they were tired, or late getting home, whatever, they simply went by – staying far away from the guy in the ditch on the other side.

Enter the Samaritan. This is not the next character the listeners would have expected in this story. An ordinary Jewish person perhaps, a Jewish criminal, even a despised Roman tax-collector would have been more acceptable than a Samaritan. After all, Samaritans were heretics, Jews in descent, who deliberately took themselves outside the Jewish covenant with God. On the other hand, Samaritans firmly believed that it was they who were steadfast in the faith as handed down by Moses after the Exodus, whereas Jews had returned from the Babylonian exile with heretically perverted religious understanding and practices. To say that these two descendants of Abraham hated and despised each other is to put it very mildly.

And yet it is the Samaritan who saw the Jew in the ditch, and was moved with compassion – our text says “pity” but most recent translators agree that “compassion” is a better choice, for reasons I’ll get to in a bit. The Samaritan cleans and binds the wounds of the victim, loads him onto his own beast of burden, and takes him to an inn, pays for accommodation, and nurses him through the night. And then he prepays about 2 days wages to the innkeeper, to keep caring for the victim for as long as necessary, and promises to pay any more owing when he returns from his business.

Which of these three, the priest, the Levite, or the Samaritan was a neighbour to the man who was robbed, asks Jesus. The Samaritan, the lawyer admits, probably reluctantly, as Samaritans are unlikely to qualify as neighbours in his thought system. And those listening probably also agree it was the Samaritan who was neighbourly, but not liking it very much, and probably muttering that Jesus had set up a very unrealistic scenario.

“Go and do likewise”, says Jesus, to those around him, and, presumably to us. But what is it we are to do?

Let’s agree to start that the parable itself is not about what one must do to inherit eternal life, that has been answered already by the lawyer – love God and love neighbour – and declared correct by Jesus. The parable is about the definition of “neighbour”. And having arrived at a definition, at least by analogy, Jesus wants his followers to act in like way to their neighbours – neighbour being any other human being with a need that one can help, no matter how unappetizing that person is by profession, personal habits, national origin, social group, religious creed, etc.

Here it comes, you are thinking, the thing he told us he wouldn’t do! The exhortation to do good works for our neighbours, as defined above, because that shows love of neighbour, and love of neighbour is needed to inherit eternal life. Same old, same old sermon on the Good Samaritan. Well … not quite!
Indeed, good works are in bad odour in the economy of salvation; as St. Paul insists,

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. [Ephesians 2:8-9]

And yet, taking today’s Gospel seriously, that grace which saves us by faith has as it’s chief commandments a love of God and a love of neighbour, and that love of neighbour is specifically shown by what we do for them if they are in need, that is, good works! There seems to be a dilemma here, but one that I think can be resolved by looking at not so much what we do for others, neighbours, but why we do it.

Just recently I found on our book table downstairs an early Louise Penny novel in the Inspector Gamache series that I had not read. In it I came across the previously unknown to me concept of the “near enemy”. This comes out of Buddhist thought, and suggests that many human virtues have both far and near enemies; thus for example the virtue “love” has the far enemy of “hate”, and those two are easily distinguished, but love also has the near enemy of selfish love. Needy, possessive dependency, or co-dependency, can look and feel a lot like love, when really it corrodes it.

Relevant to our discussion is the near enemy of compassion. The far, and easily distinguished enemy is cruelty, but the near enemy of compassion is “pity”. Remember, I earlier noted that the better translation of what the Samaritan felt for the guy in the ditch was compassion, not pity. To quote Louise Penny (in Myrna’s voice, the bookseller former psychotherapist), “Compassion involves empathy. You see the stricken person as an equal. Pity doesn’t. If you pity someone you feel superior.” Compassion says, “Your pain is my pain, let us work together to reduce both our pain”; pity says “Oh, that poor person. I feel sorry for people like that. It is my duty to rescue them.” Pity sees those less fortunate as different from us, objects to be worked on; compassion sees them intimately related, identical in humanity, equals to be worked with. C.S. Lewis, in “The Screwtape Letters” writes of a person motivated by pity, “She’s the sort of woman who lives for others – you can tell the others by their hunted expression.” Don’t be that woman!

Let me get at this one other way. From almost the beginning of creation we are told that humanity is created in the image and likeness of God. Then, in another parable, that of the Great Judgement, we hear Jesus describing the basis on which a final separation of humanity into those saved and those damned will be made;

Come, … inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. … Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these …, you did it to me. … Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. [Matthew 25 – selected]

There you have it; Jesus in effect tells us our right motivation for having compassion, not pity, for anyone who needs our help is that we see them as himself, as Christ in God, as a suffering human person made in the image of God. Love of God and love of neighbour are effectively the same thing.

Once you get your head around that, the notion of good works to earn salvation simply stops making sense. If God has already ensured our salvation through the once and for all work of Jesus Christ, nothing we can do will change that. But once we accept that, anything we do for any neighbour (as defined by Jesus in the parable of the Good Samaritan) is a simple expression of our love for neighbour, and our love for God, and for Jesus Christ, who after all said “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”

Oh yes, I’m supposed to end with an exhortation. So, love God, love your neighbour. If you’ve been listening, you know how that works.

Copyright ©2019 by Gerry Mueller