|©Steve Adams, Eastern Daily Press|
8th July 2016
As I was preparing for this week’s sermon, I read this quote and found myself really thinking about it. “Sometimes, the lessons you think you already know are precisely the ones you still need to learn.”
Today, our Gospel reading is an incredibly familiar one – a man travels a dangerous road, gets beaten, robbed and left for dead. Two people (who should be willing to help him) pass by on the other side ignoring him while the third (who is the last person who would be expected to help) is the one who actually does. Therefore, we should all be like the Good Samaritan and help others, lesson over, we get it, the end. Right? Well….sort of. It would be really easy to dismiss this particular parable simply because we know it so well. But the beauty of the Bible is that there is always something more we can glean, even from the most familiar passages. So, if we can, let’s try to put to one side what we already know about this section of scripture and see if – together – we can in fact glean something new.
Let’s start by looking at the context of where and why Jesus spoke this parable: This story comes about because a lawyer is trying to test Jesus. He wants to know how he can inherit eternal life, the ultimate “prize” for any person of faith; the golden ticket. Instead of immediately answering his question, Jesus asks the lawyer what he already knows and believes. The lawyer replies with some famous words from the Hebrew scriptures: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. And love your neighbour as yourself.” You see, the lawyer already knows the answer to his own question, quite simply put: love God, love people. But lawyers by their very nature are masters of the craft of words, they make a living from teasing out every last hint of meaning in a word, in a guideline, a statute, a law. So for this lawyer, the simple fact of “the greatest commandment” isn’t enough – he wants to tease out every ounce of meaning from it. So while he can’t argue with being asked to love either God or neighbour, there might just be a grey area – who exactly is my neighbour? Is it the person who lives geographically next door? Is it the people in my community? The people who are just like me? Who must I include in this designation? And, by association, if I understand who I must include, then who am I allowed to exclude? Who is not my neighbour?
Jesus, as is so often the case, understands precisely what the lawyer is asking, and more than likely, he also understands exactly what is going on in the lawyer’s heart. He knows who the lawyer already considers to be his “neighbour” and who he does not. Jesus could have chosen to get into a legal discussion, he could have swapped arguments with the lawyer and they could have sat there all day arguing their way through every possible interpretation of the law until one or the other of them “won” their “case”. But clearly, Jesus understood that the path of wisdom is never to get into an argument with a lawyer!
So instead, he chose to tell the story of The Good Samaritan. Now, the story itself is now a very familiar one to us, but the social and ethnic elements around it are perhaps less familiar. At that time, the Jews believed that they were God’s chosen people. They believed they had the Hebrew law on their side, the purity of their racial lines and the integrity and history of their culture to prove it. In their minds, they were basically the top dogs on the religious and cultural heap. The Samaritans were a somewhat “diluted” version of the Jews. They lived in what had been the Northern Kingdom of Israel, located in between Galilee in the north and Judea in the South. Their ethnic and racial heritage was part Jewish and part pagan. To use a contemporary term, they were a “mixed race” people. Even though they were essentially racial “cousins” of the Jews, sharing many aspects of their heritage and faith, there were deep divisions between the two peoples. In fact, the divisions were so deep that if the Jews needed to travel, they refused to even enter Samaritan territory but preferred to take a massive detour all around the area and the feeling was entirely mutual.
So this makes it all the more extraordinary that at the moment this story is told, Jesus is choosing to travel through and not around Samaritan territory. He is refusing to uphold the geographic barriers that have become part and parcel of the Jewish/Samaritan division. And when he tells the story to a Jewish audience of a Samaritan who is good, he is not just telling a story about being good and kind and loving towards those who need help (although of course those elements are there), he is also challenging a deep social, ethnic and cultural division that has become racism. Two people who, geographically, live as neighbours have, socially and culturally become completely and utterly divided from one another and Jesus is challenging them to find a way to heal that division through and as part of their faith.
Well, so what? This isn’t relevant to us is it? A vast majority of the Samaritans are long gone, rendered virtually extinct by time and history. So the divide of two people’s who lived next and among one another is basically irrelevant to us…isn’t it?
Recent Newspaper Headlines and Tweets:
“Anti-Polish cards in Huntingdon after EU Referendum. Cards containing the words, ‘No more Polish vermin’ have been distributed to homes and schools.”
“My Facebook feed includes one black friend who was told to ‘pack her bags and go home’ five times in 25 minutes.”
“This evening, my daughter left work in Birmingham and saw a group of lads corner a Muslim girl shouting, ‘Get out, we voted leave.’”
“My mum works at a primary school, a Latvian parent turned up on Friday morning to drop off her kid in tears saying, ‘they don’t want me here.’”
“Last night a Sikh radiographer colleague of mine was told by a patient, ‘shouldn’t you be on a plane back to Pakistan? We voted you out.’”
“While I was campaigning, I was speaking to a black woman. A white man walked past and called her the N word.”
“Shop owner describes arson attack at Easter European store in Magdalen Street, Norwich.”
“Been standing here five minutes. Three different people have shouted, ‘send them home.’”
“On Friday morning, I posted a tweet about the Conservative party. Then I got a reply saying I should pack my bags and go home – I was born in Caerphilly in Wales.”
“The National Police Chiefs’ Council said there had been a 57% rise in reports to a hate crime reporting website between Thursday and Sunday compared with the previous month.”
“What is happening to our country? We will look back at this time as a dark time in the UK. I feel we have gone tumbling backwards in history.”
Who is my neighbour? Who must I include in the requirement to love my neighbour and, therefore, can I exclude? The tragic reality is that the result of the vote to leave the European Union has unleashed a wave of racism and hate crime in our country. And there are people throughout the UK, even those who were born here and those whose ethnic heritage is not even part of the EU who now feel unwelcome, vulnerable, and afraid. Many are the targets of racist attacks in a way that has not been seen for a long time. And at this precise moment in time, I’m not particularly interested in how each one of us voted or in the reasons why, that’s a conversation for another time. What I am interested in, is what we – every single one of us – are going to do next. No matter what political positions each one of us hold, we have a Christian imperative to love our neighbours, and where we see a neighbour in need, to put aside our own concerns, our own fears, our own busyness and make a conscious choice to help. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. Who is my neighbour? Your neighbour is the person who needs your help.
Ok, but what can we do about it? Where can we possibly start to even try to help? This is a good place to begin:
“An American named Allison, who lives in the UK, has started a campaign urging people to wear a safety pin on their clothes to show their opposition to racism and let anyone suffering abuse know that the wearer is on their side.”
The wearing of a simple, unadorned safety pin, visibly pinned to our clothing represents a willingness to stand up and be counted. To silently say, “Not in my name.” I am a safe person, if you feel afraid, come and sit next to me, come and tell me you need help, understand that you are my neighbour.
This safety pin campaign has gained so much strength that this week, the national Methodist Conference has, “unanimously passed a resolution calling for respect and tolerance in our national life…” and has “encouraged Methodist people to join the campaign to wear an empty safety pin as a badge encouraging solidarity against racism.” The Conference has also called on Methodist people to write to their MP’s asking them to “challenge racism and discrimination.”
Now I’m not Methodist, but the Methodist’s are most definitely “my neighbours” and I think this is a very good idea and one that we as Anglicans should also encourage and support. So today, when you come to the altar for communion, you will find that our verger will be holding a basket of empty safety pins and I would like to encourage every person here to take one and to wear it. And heaven forbid, if you encounter or witness any act of racism in the coming days or weeks, stand up for your neighbours and be willing to help them. Because this forms a key part of the Greatest Commandment and Jesus himself taught that this is precisely what we, as Christians, should be willing to do. Amen.