Sunday 11 July 2010

Loving God is not enough

An address given at Templederry, Nenagh and Killodiernan on Sunday 11th July 2010, the 6th after Trinity

Have you ever had your wallet stolen or your bag snatched?
I hope not, but no doubt many of us have at some time or another. If you’re one, you will understand my mixed feelings of foolishness, helplessness and fury when I discovered my wallet had been stolen when I was on holiday recently in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia.

It was upsetting. First I was angry with myself for being so foolish as to let it happen – I had hung my jacket on the back of my chair by the street on a restaurant terrace. The thief just dipped his hand in my pocket - I saw it on security footage later. Then I felt helpless, with no money, no plastic cards and no driving licence, in a foreign country where I couldn’t speak a word of the language. But the restaurant manager, the police and our hotel staff were all very sympathetic and helpful, just as they would be in Ireland if the same thing happened to a visitor here, I’m sure. I still had my passport, and my wife still had her plastic cards so we could continue our holiday. Yet as I began to deal with the hassle of replacing cards and licence my fury with the thief only grew.

… But I wasn’t mugged and left half-dead, like the man the Good Samaritan helped in today’s NT reading. Thank God for that.

I want to reflect a bit on the familiar Good Samaritan story as Luke tells it (10:25-37).
The story was prompted by a lawyer, we’re told – a learned professional man – who asks Jesus ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ – in other words, how must I behave to be worthy of God’s favour. Jesus bounces the question back at him, saying ‘What does God’s law say?’ When the lawyer answers, ‘Love God, and love your neighbour as yourself’, Jesus agrees with him, saying ‘Do this and you will live.’ Remember, both Matthew (22:37-39) and Mark (12:31) tell us Jesus had said as much himself when asked what the greatest commandment was.

But then the lawyer chances his arm again, asking Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ It is in reply to this that Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan. Let me recap.

A man travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho is robbed and left for dead. A priest and a Levite travelling on the same road pass by on the other side, ignoring his plight. (A Levite, by the way, was someone privileged to help the priests in the Temple – a bit like a Diocesan Reader, I suppose!) Then a Samaritan comes along. Unlike the other two, he stops and helps the traveller, treating his wounds, taking him to a safe place, even paying for him to be cared for out of his own pocket. When Jesus asks which of the three was a good neighbour, the lawyer replies, ‘The one who helped’ – the Samaritan. Jesus tells him, ‘Go and do likewise.’
Jews of Jesus’s time understood well enough their obligation to protect and care for their neighbours in need. ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’, is a quotation from the book Leviticus (19:18) – it is a command from God. But many people in Jesus’s time questioned who fell into the category of neighbour, just as we are inclined to do now: surely God did not expect them to love those who were not good people like them, those of different cultures and beliefs, people they did not like, or who did not like them? Perhaps Jesus sensed that the questioning lawyer felt like this.

Jesus’s own view of the matter is quite clear. Through his story Jesus teaches the lawyer - and us - that we must treat every human being as our neighbour and love them as we love ourselves, whoever and whatever they are.

Loving God is not enough; God wants us to love our neighbours too.
No doubt the priest and the Levite both loved God. But for whatever reason neither could bring himself to help the robbed man. Perhaps they feared touching a man who might be dead would make them unclean according to Jewish law, or perhaps they just did not want to get involved. They passed by on the other side - they did not behave like loving neighbours.

God wants us to respond with unconditional love to our neighbours in need.
Even if we feel they have brought their troubles on themselves. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was notoriously dangerous, a mountain road descending 3600 feet from the Judean hills to the bottom of the rift valley, through twisting rocky gorges where brigands lurked. You might say the man who was robbed was reckless, even asking for it by travelling alone on that road. But when he needed help the Samaritan responded.

It is our response to a neighbour's need that counts for God, not who we or they are.
Samaritans were despised and disliked by orthodox Jews. They were heretics who did not follow Jewish law, untrustworthy, outside the pale. We might compare them to Travellers or muslims in our society. Yet it is this despised outsider who shows himself to be a loving neighbour of the traveller who was robbed.

To follow Jesus means we must love our neighbours as ourselves.
And this truth has consequences for us today, which are brought into stark relief by the Great Recession we are living through.

So many neighbours in our own community are falling into need. Unemployment has soared. People on low incomes are falling into debt. Services for the disabled are being cut. Young families are struggling to pay the mortgage on homes worth a fraction of what they paid for them.

Amos in today’s OT reading (7:7-17), fiercely prophesies that God in his wrath will destroy Israel and its royal house - he doesn't hold his punches does he? The reading does not explain why - but Amos in the following passage does. He rails against those ‘that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land’, those who ‘practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat’. Doesn’t it sound familiar? Don’t today’s media commentators sound just like Amos as they assign blame for the economic crash and forecast future disasters to come?

But as Christians we are surely asked to do more than rant at those to blame for robbing the people. Jesus calls us to practical action to relieve our neighbours’ distress to the best of our ability. He calls us to be Good Samaritans - ‘Go and do likewise’, he says to the lawyer. What will I do in response. What will you do?

I shall finish with a prayer:

Loving God,
your Son Jesus Christ taught us
that every person is our neighbour,
to be loved as we love ourselves.
Move our hearts through your Holy Spirit
to be like the Good Samaritan.
Point us to those who are in need.
Show us how we may best help them.
And strengthen our will to do so.
We pray this in Jesus’ name.

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