Sermon preached at St James’ Church, Bolton, Bradford on 30 August 2015
Words are strange things aren’t they? Little bundles of sound that are right now leaving my mouth and floating through the air to enter your ears where, hopefully, they have the same meaning for you as they have for me as I’m speaking them. Unfortunately, though, they don’t always do that, do they? Words that are spoken, or written, can mean one thing to the person who speaks or writes them and something entirely different to the person who hears or reads them …
Anyone seen that delightful film ‘Paddington’? Yes? Then you’ll recall the hilarious moment where the little bear from the Andes, still adapting to life in Britain, is about to descend into the London Underground when he suddenly spots a sign saying “Dogs Must Be Carried on the Escalator.” Oh no! He doesn’t have a dog! What is he to do? Well he rushes off and finds one, doesn’t he, so that he will not be breaking the law by going down to the platform empty-handed.
But even when the sense is clear, a word can have different meanings, can’t it? At Crown Court recently, there was a young chap on trial, charged with dangerous driving. ‘Will you tell the Court what gear you were in at the time of the collision?’ asked the barrister. ‘Just the usual,’ said the young man, ‘jeans, trainers and a sweat-shirt’. ‘Gear’, you see, has more than one meaning. And so, of course, do lots of other words.
As some of you know, before I retired (long time ago now) I was a tax specialist – an expert in tax law. Which meant I had to spend a great deal of time ferreting out from tax cases and Hansard and so forth precisely what particular words and phrases used in the various Finance Acts actually meant: what they included … and, usually more to the point, what they didn’t include. The law said something or other was taxable … but what exactly was that something or other? My job was to find out.
One of the more famous tax cases I remember concerned the humble Jaffa cake. Was it cake – as its name suggested – or was it a biscuit? Huge sums of money were at stake. Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs claimed it was a biscuit and so should attract VAT at the standard rate. McVities – who I understand still produce 2,000 Jaffa cakes a minute – argued no, it was indeed a cake and should therefore be zero-rated. The Tribunal who heard the case weighed up the pros and cons. The product’s name was, they thought, neither here nor there. But it was a fact that, if you went shopping for Jaffa cakes, you would find them on the biscuit counter and not on the cake counter. However, a Jaffa cake was, they discovered, made from a thin batter rather than the thicker dough usually used for biscuits; and because of its spongy texture it could be bent, whereas a biscuit was usually crisp and could be snapped. Not only that, but they found that when Jaffa cakes went stale they became hard like a cake rather than going soft like a biscuit. So what were they? All things considered, the Tribunal decided a Jaffa cake was indeed a cake after all. Result … McVities 1, Revenue 0. And it all came down to definition.
Definition and law belong together. Wherever there are laws there are people and things to which the law applies and people and things to which it doesn’t apply. But which are which? You need definitions to decide. And that applied just as much to the Law which God had given the Jews as it did to any other kind of law. God’s law said, for instance, that you mustn’t work on the Sabbath. But what was work? The law itself didn’t say. So the Jews had legal specialists – experts in the law who were known as scribes – who tried to interpret the law and set the definitions. The law was the law and had to be obeyed. If you were a Jew, your relationship with God depended on it. Obey it and God loved you; break it and you were out in the cold … or down in the heat perhaps. But you had to know what the law was if you were going to obey it or break it – and that’s where these lawyers came in. Their business was to tell you. And it was one of those lawyers who popped up in this morning’s reading. He was there in the crowd around Jesus.
Now it says he was wanting to test Jesus but that doesn’t mean we must think of him as a bad man or as someone out to get Jesus. No, not at all. He would have been passionate about the law and it was no doubt his passion that took him to Jesus that day. Knowing that Jesus was claiming to speak on behalf of God himself, he had a very important question to put to him. One to which he genuinely wanted God’s own answer. ‘What,’ he asked Jesus, ‘must I do to inherit eternal life?’ In other words: ‘Which parts of God’s law are so essential that they encompass all the rest of the law and will, if obeyed, unlock the very gate to God’s kingdom?’
‘Well … you tell me,’ says Jesus. ‘You’re the lawyer. What do you think?’
‘Hmn. Well, first must be the command we recite every morning and evening – You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength and mind,’ says the lawyer. ‘And I would add to that the command: Love your neighbour as yourself.’
‘Couldn’t agree more,’ says Jesus. ‘So … why not go and do it?!’
Maybe there was a little laughter from the crowd at this point. They liked to see a lawyer being put in his place, and that’s what Jesus – in the nicest way possible – had just done. The lawyer was beginning to look rather foolish. So ‘seeking to justify himself’ the Bible says … in other words, seeking to show that he wasn’t being quite as stupid as the crowd seemed to think he was … the lawyer whacks the ball back into Jesus’ court with another question – a question of definition. ‘That’s all well and good,’ he says. ‘But who is my neighbour?’
He knows (as does everyone else) that ‘a neighbour’ includes one’s family and presumably the people one shares a pew with in the synagogue on Saturday; but who else? It’s not an easy question to answer. The Hebrew word for neighbour, you see, had a wide range of meanings. One of them was ‘friend’, another was ‘workmate’, but yet another was ‘fellow citizen’. So, the scribe is saying to Jesus: ‘When God commands me to love my neighbour, who is it exactly that he’s commanding me to love. Is it just my family and friends? Or does it extend to my workmates whether I’m friends with them or not. Or might it even extend to all other Jews? And if it does extend to all other Jews, is it only ‘good’ Jews or all Jews? It’s an important question, Jesus. I really want to know. Loving can be costly. I don’t want to go spending love on people who don’t fall within the definition. Where do I draw the line? What are the limits? Where are the boundaries?’
So Jesus tells him – and the crowd around him – a story. A parable. You know what a parable is, don’t you It’s just a story; but a story with a twist in the tale. A story that’s designed to make a point and to make it in a memorable and unexpected and even shocking way. So Jesus tells this parable, this story, of a man who sets off from Jerusalem on his donkey to travel the long and winding road to Jericho in the Jordan valley bottom far below. Seventeen rocky and very dangerous miles that – despite the pictures in Bible Stories for children – nobody in their right mind would ever travel on foot. If you valued your life, you went down the Jericho road on a donkey as fast as you possibly could. That’s because it was notorious in Jesus’ day for the bands of robbers that lurked in its nooks and crannies and behind its rock-falls, just waiting to set upon anyone who turned the corner and strayed within their range. And in Jesus’ story it was just such a band that fell upon the man the story seems to be about – beating him up, stripping him of his clothes, stealing his money, his donkey – everything he had – and leaving him there at the roadside, slowly bleeding to death.
By now the crowd are hooked. They’ve heard such tales. They know all about that road. They dread ever having to travel on it themselves. The poor devil! What’s going to happen to him now?
‘Well, what happens,’ says Jesus, ‘is that there’s a clip-clop in the distance, getting closer and closer, and around the corner comes … a priest!’
‘A priest, eh? Well thank goodness for that. Let’s hope he’s in time. Let’s hope he can do something to save the poor guy lying at the roadside.’
‘Alas, no,’ says Jesus … ‘The priest could help but he doesn’t. He takes one look at the dying man, digs his heels in the donkey’s side and gallops off. I mean, who knows? The robbers might still be around! Self-preservation! You’ve got to save your own skin while you’ve got the chance.’
The crowd shake their heads in disgust. ‘Cor. Typical!’ says someone.
‘Ah, but wait,’ says Jesus. ‘There’s someone else coming. Clip-clop. Clip-clop. It’s a Levite on his donkey.’ (You can think of Levites as being like church wardens or readers. They’re not Priests but they’re still very religious and do a lot of stuff in the temple.) So here round the corner comes a Levite.
‘Oh, thank heavens for that. So he stops, does he?’
‘No. Not a bit of it. He takes a look, but then he too takes off in a cloud of dust, galloping down the road after the priest.’
‘Oh, heck. So is that it? Is the man in the gutter doomed to die?’
‘Perhaps. Perhaps not. Can you hear? Clip-clop, clip-clop. There’s someone else coming.’
‘Ah …’ The crowd have got the hang of it now. They can see where this is going. It’s an ‘Englishman, Irishman, Scotsman’ story isn’t it? They’ve had the priest – the religious professional. They’ve had the Levite – the half-and-half. And now they’re expecting the real ordinary bloke, salt of the earth – just like one of themselves, coming round the corner; and at last there’ll be someone to do something for the poor devil lying in the pool of blood with the vultures circling overhead.
‘But no,’ says Jesus, ‘Coming round the corner is a … wait for it … clip-clop, clip-clop … a SAMARITAN!
‘Nooo! Samaritans are the pits. They something you scrape off the bottom of your sandal. The only good Samaritan is a dead Samaritan. What’s a Samaritan doing in the story?’
‘Well,’ says Jesus, ‘this one is coming to do what the priest and Levite failed to do. Having come round the corner he sees the half-dead Jew and in an instant, without a thought for his own safety, he’s off his donkey and running to help him. Moved with compassion, he applies first aid – uses oil and wine to clean and sterilise the wounds – bandages him up (presumably by tearing his turban or some of his own garments into strips) – puts him on his donkey and gets him to the nearest inn on the outskirts of Jericho. Not only that, but he gives the inn-keeper enough money to look after the man for over three weeks. “And don’t worry if it costs more,” he says, “I’ll sort it out when I return.”’
The crowd are silent. Stunned. Speechless. Jesus turns to the lawyer. ‘So,’ he says, ‘the question I want to ask you is not whether the man who fell among thieves falls within the legal definition of “neighbour” for any of those who encountered him on the Jericho road; but which of those who encountered him on that road him showed a true spirit of neighbourliness towards him?’
There can, of course, be only one answer and the lawyer gives it. ‘The one who showed him mercy,’ he says, grudgingly. He cannot even bring himself to utter the word ‘Samaritan’.
‘Yes,’ says Jesus. ‘So now you go and do the same.’
Notice that Jesus never spells out for the lawyer who a ‘neighbour’ is. He never actually answers the lawyer’s question. Nor will he answer our question today if we’re asking him whether, for example, those refugees and asylum seekers stacked up now in ‘the Jungle’ in Calais and longing to get into Britain, are our ‘neighbours’. And that’s for the very good reason that the question is unanswerable, and should never be asked. It should never be asked because love doesn’t define neighbours, it discovers them. If you are looking for limits before you start to show love, you have no love in your heart to show and it’s impossible for you to love your neighbour anyway. If you do have love in your heart, it will show you who your neighbours are without your ever having to define them. That’s why one newspaper got it absolutely right when it said this last week that Britain doesn’t have a problem with immigrants, it has a problem with compassion. The Samaritan was ‘moved with compassion’ and that’s what caused him to recognise the injured Jew as his neighbour.
Now I suppose we could leave it there. We’ve discovered the point of Jesus’ parable. That love discovers neighbours; it doesn’t define them. That they’re just there – the people, whoever they are, who fall within the circle of mercy and compassion that is created by our love. That the bigger our love, the wider the circle and the more ‘neighbours’ we shall find it to include.
But I cannot leave it there without pointing out something that you may not yet have realised. That on a very deep and meaningful and personal level, this story is actually about Jesus himself … and us. A great many of Jesus’ stories are.
In the Gospel of John – chapter 8 – the religious leaders come to Jesus and set about insulting him in the worst way they know how. ‘Are you not a Samaritan,’ they say, ‘and demon-possessed?’
‘No, I am not demon-possessed,’ Jesus replies. But please note, he doesn’t say, ‘I am not a Samaritan.’ Why? Because he’s happy to be called a Samaritan. He’s happy to be the Good Samaritan. He’s happy to be the one who – though despised and rejected of men – becomes their saviour and the saviour of all the world.
And we, of course – you and I – each one of us – is the man at the roadside. We have all fallen among thieves. We have all been robbed of the riches that were our birth-right as children of God. We have all been beaten up by the circumstances and traumas of our lives. We have all been left for dead at one time or another. And indeed there are perhaps those of you here who are feeling half-dead and abandoned even now.
Not that you’re going to let anyone see it, of course. No more than I am. Because we cover up, don’t we? It’s what we do – we’re British. Stiff upper lip and all that. Laugh and the world laughs with you. Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and smile, smile, smile. Put on a brave face. Big boys don’t cry.
But none of it fools Jesus, thank God. He is on his donkey – he likes riding donkeys – and he’s coming down your Jericho road and mine; just as he has been for the last two thousand years. He is the Good Samaritan after all – so where else would he be. He’s looking for beaten up people like you and me. And when he sees us, he stops and moved with compassion* he comes to us. He comes to us this morning. This is a healing service and, if we are willing, Jesus will come to us right here, in this place, to bind up our wounds; to put us on his donkey; and to carry us to safety. His love is so great that the circle of his mercy and compassion is without limit, so there is no-one here who is not his neighbour. And he loves his neighbour. He loves you. The only question is: Will you let him be your good Samaritan this morning?
In a moment we’re going to play some gentle music and I’m going to invite you to come to the Communion rail here, if you wish to do so, and receive an anointing with oil – just as the man at the roadside was anointed with oil by the good Samaritan. You can come for yourself or for another. It’s all very simple … just come, be anointed, go back, and pray. But before we do that, let me pray for all of us …
Lord Jesus, Good Samaritan to us all. Draw close to each one of us now in your mercy and compassion. Stoop to bind up our wounds of body, mind and spirit. Heal us by your grace; and to take us to the inn of your abiding presence where we can find comfort, sustenance, shelter and peace, and be made whole again. For your kingdom’s sake. Amen.
* The Greek verb for ‘to be moved with compassion’ is splagchnizomai and, apart from here, is only ever used of Jesus himself in the Gospels.