The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity


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Almighty and merciful God, of whose only gift it cometh…
Galatians 3:16-22
Luke 10:13b-37

The parable of the Good Samaritan falls into that dangerous category of easily adopted caricature (cf The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity) which tempts us to identify wholly with one of the characters; and who would not choose to be the Samaritan? There we are, walking down the road behind the priest and the Levite who cross over to the other side while we keep fearlessly on, not crossing, bent on helping the stranger who is yet our own brother. To imagine the enormity of this generosity we might want to imagine stopping our car to help a tattoo-covered victim who might yet possess a knife, a drug addict, a beggar or an immigrant. Yet as a culture we tend to shy away from what we call “getting involved”: we prefer to drive past criminal incidents and even serious accidents in case we are called upon to give evidence; we allow appalling public behaviour in case the perpetrators turn nasty on us; we are reluctant to help disabled people, we tell ourselves, in case this embarrasses them. We are the culture that sees nothing, hears nothing and tells nothing. If matters had turned out slightly differently in Western Europe we would have turned a blind eye to Jewish persecution. In that light, it is best to be realistic about our individual and corporate behaviour. During the first years of the 21st Century the United Kingdom has been almost hysterically anti foreigner, lumping together criminals, impoverished immigrants, asylum seekers, war victims and workers from European Union countries into a vast melting pot of the despised and hated; and we now live in constant ear-shot of a violently irrational and nasty sneer whose shorthand name is “Brussels.” Collectively, as a culture, the only reason for which we might cross the street to the Samaritan would be to kick him; and most of us would stand by at the other side of the street watching the kicking and saying nothing. An acid test of our good Samaritanism might be to ask how often we have had the courage at a dinner or a party to stop a racist in his (it usually is his) tracks by saying that his language is unacceptable to a Christian. Let us be clear, the parable of the Good Samaritan does not say: that we are to tolerate Samaritans or speak well of them; that they are to be accorded publicly acknowledged civil rights by the authorities; that we are to follow a ‘politically correct’ course of action to avoid the public utterance of unacceptable intolerance. It says that we have to go out of our way to help the most despised and rejected people in our communities. Having considered all these factors carefully, it might now be time to choose our role in the parable. Sadly, I fear, most of us will find that we are priests or Levites.

Yet we need not be so frightened in our ambitions to do good. The Gospel begins with Jesus welcoming back his unlikely band of preachers from their first missionary journey, thanking God for what they have done; and if they could do it in an atmosphere of uncertainty, how much easier is it for us as children of the Resurrection to bear public witness to God. Jesus then goes on to explain in the clearest possible terms that loving God and our neighbour are inseparable. It follows that if we do not love our neighbour we do not love God; we do not therefore have the option of loving God but choosing who is our neighbour.

Under the dispensation Jesus was describing, however, the choice was not so clear cut. Faithfulness to God was defined by adherence to the law which included detailed injunctions on what was clean and unclean, acceptable and unacceptable. What was revolutionary about Jesus was that he elevated love above the law. In Galatians Paul makes rather an intellectual mess of this (though of course we do not know the precise nature of his tangles with his conservative opponents) but the main point he is trying to make is that the Law, for all its virtues, is imperfect and that it has been superseded by the New Covenant established by Jesus. His ‘logic’ is that the first covenant with Abraham preceded his circumcision which signalled the birth of the Law.

The distinction between love and the Law brings us full circle. In the early 21st Century we have used the civil law to try to regulate the inflow of people from other countries and there may well be perfectly good and prudent reasons for doing this but if we are to act in good faith we must not do the right thing for the wrong reason. Advancing a law on limits to immigration to protect stability and assist the assimilation process is quite a different matter from proposing the same law because we think that immigration threatens our level of income and wealth. To an extent we hardly notice because it is so ingrained, the radical call of Christianity has been seriously toned down by civil laws enacted by a nominally Christian society. The Parable is more than a personal challenge, it also has an important civic dimension because what inhibited the priest and the Levite was not a personal disinclination to help the injured man but a legal and social climate which made it impossible for them to imagine providing assistance. We are in danger of a similar deadening of our moral sense.

Starting Points for Sermons and Discussions:

  1. What do you think of the proposition that religion and politics should not mix?
  2. What is the civic duty of a Christian?
  3. Is it sustainable to love a Samaritan but hate Samaritans?
  4. Who are you in the parable of the Good Samaritan?
  5. Recount the essence of the parable in a modern setting.

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