March 2017 From the Minister’s Radio
The Sunday Worship service these days is rarely a church congregation and their poor minister made famous for 45 minutes. The services are mainly a cut and paste job often with choral societies whipping through hymns as if they were racing. It all lacks something.
But last Sunday (5th Feb) I heard a service that was truly wonderful, the sermon was just beginning as I came back from the dog walk and it was the parable of the Good Samaritan. We heard the story many times and I have preached on it quite a few times over the years. What made Luke chapter ten notable on Sunday was the ease with which the preacher moved from text to comparison with the modern day. Now I move between text and comparison but it was his identification of our fears which grabbed my attention. We all know the story but how closely have you looked at it. Well the preacher had.
“It’s a nice, transparent fable about being kind to mugging victims, yes? Don’t walk by on the other side; do pick people up and look after them. No, it isn’t. It’s an offence to common-sense and conventional wisdom, that’s what it is. A deliberate provocation. Look at the context. Everyone knew before Jesus even opened his mouth that you were supposed to be good to your neighbour. It said so in the Jewish law. The perfectly sensible follow-up question, was: okay, who is my neighbour, then?”
We often thought a neighbour is the one who did the good deed and left it at that. But when the people heard Samaritan as the hero think who is the last person you would want at such a time. You do that and you will understand. Those people thought ‘Samaritans are not like us, they do their religion all wrong’. It was a view that didn’t trouble them. But the ‘wrong hero in their book was about to steal the show.
“Not, for you, the good Samaritan, but the good homophobe. The good racist. The good drug dealer. The good terrorist. The good Brexiteer – or the good Remainer, just as easily, because when it came to offence, Jesus was an equal-opportunity messiah. The priest and the Levite, meanwhile, are not caricatures of selfishness and indifference. They’re obeying the religious law, which says, no exceptions, that contact with blood, such as the poor muggee has all over him, is polluting and will stop them carrying out the duties the community depends on them doing. They’re the reasonable, virtuous, well-intentioned boundary-preservers here, who know you’ve got to draw a line somewhere.
So here’s the story. The victim lies groaning in the alley, and whoever it is that you instinctively trust in the world walks on by without stopping, for the best of reasons; and the only person who helps, who pulls up in his ratty car with the ISIS flag on it, or the vile bumper sticker, or the wraps of heroin strewn on the back seat, is the one in whom you least want to recognise yourself. But those are the choices. Those are the possible answers to Jesus’ perennial question, who are you in this story? You could be the victim, but that’s too easy. You could be the priest or the Levite, secure in their righteousness: but the image of their virtue’s limitations is the blood unstaunched, still pooling on the road. Or you could be driving to A & E as the agent of God’s unreasonable compassion, His insanely large definition of what a neighbour is, but only on condition that you step outside your sensible zones of good and bad, and onto God’s map of the world, where none of us are reliably virtuous, but even villains suddenly do saintly things. The first hearer of the story, back in the Bible, doesn’t even want to say the word ‘Samaritan’. He just mumbles ‘the one who helped’. Tell me honestly, how surprised are you that this storyteller ends up getting crucified?”
Now I share this plagiarism (mine not his) because I wouldn’t preach it as my own but for three reasons. 1) Its great material, 2) At this time of defence and exclusion the question who is our neighbour is keen and real, 3) As lent comes into view do not sit thinking ‘nothing new, heard it all before, it even bores me’. Look closer, look for today’s context. Hear what Christ is saying to you.
The service was a celebration of storytelling and the preacher was not a cleric but a writer, Francis Spufford who recently won the Costa First Novel Award. It was a reminder to me that there is a wealth of material in the familiar.
We just need to look deeper.