Deuteronomy 30:9-14 and Luke 10:25-37
Lord God, Merciful Father, maker of heaven and earth and all that is seen and unseen; may my words be acceptable in your sight and fruitful for those who hear them. Amen.
Now it is commonly thought that this parable is all about doing good works. We have probably all listened to a sermon or two encouraging us to do more good works to do more giving, using the Samaritan as an example of how we should act. But I rather think that somewhat misses the point of the reading and, more dangerously, the point of our faith. I’ve seen believers, very good people, focussing completely on the pastoral side of our faith and practically forgetting God is even a part of the process. I’ve seen believers focussing completely upon the faith side of the story and ignoring the pastoral requirements of our faith. And this is what I am going to talk about today. The lawyer in this reading is an expert on the Torah, the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament and he asks a very powerful question; one that was on the mind of every Jew at that time and, for all we know, every Jew today. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” This is a question designed to either force an answer that can be attacked from many points or an evasion that can also be attacked. The lawyer, being a part of the establishment, which hated our Lord Jesus and was watching everything He did, was trying to ensnare Him. Our Lord Jesus, presumably aware that the man was a lawyer, asks him “what does the law say” and the lawyer gives a brilliant answer. He puts the entire five books of the Pentateuch into a nutshell. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and your neighbour as you love yourself.” Now I say in a nutshell very deliberately, because a nut is a seed and this commandment must be the seed, the basis, of our faith. If your faith is based upon, has grown from, any other motivation, any other seed, then you could be in trouble; it could be you’ve got yourself on a parallel path that is going in the right direction, but the destination is actually a dead end. If your faith is founded upon the drive to make the world a better place or the wish to do good works and not the love of God through our Lord Jesus then you are still more than welcome to be here, but we need to talk. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all strength and with all your mind. The first commandment comes from the book of Deuteronomy 6:5, which, rather cleverly, follows Deuteronomy 6:4, which is the Shema, the prayer every practicing Jew says twice a day, then and now. “Hear O Israel the Lord your God is one Lord”.
So it follows surely that because our God is the only God; then we owe everything we are to Him; to His love, without which we would not have survived; to His act of creation, without which we wouldn’t even be dust; to His sacrifice without which we would never have grown beyond tribalism; to His teachings without which we could never have left the stone age. And so we should, we must, try to love him as unreservedly as we can, as the first commandment tells us to; we owe everything we are and everything we could be to The Lord our God. To doubt that very simple truth is to risk everything. But now we go on to the second commandment, which is from Leviticus 19:18. ‘You have answered correctly says our Lord Jesus, do this and you shall live.’ But the lawyer is a lawyer and according to Luke is seeking to trap our Lord Jesus and asks the question “and who is my neighbour?” This is a loaded question and I wonder if it was prompted by the curing of the Canaanite woman’s daughter in Matthew 15:21-28. The Jewish establishment and indeed the Jewish people had become rather xenophobic. They could not eat with gentiles or go into a gentile’s house. If they touched a gentile, they became ceremonially unclean and may have had to isolate themselves for a number of days. They had been taught not to mix with other nations, despite the Old Testament teaching that God calls all nations unto Himself. The Jews had lost sight of the mission by staring at those parts of scripture, which dictated their behaviour and forgetting those parts of scripture which taught them about God. They had forgotten the love and remembered only what the love should have produced, rather than a fear of being punished. God told Abraham that he would be the father of many nations. In Luke 2:29-32 the Nunc Dimittis (the song of Simeon) tells us that the Messiah was expected to be a light for revelation to the Gentiles. The Jews, God’s chosen people, were the seedbed for the new heaven and the new earth, which would be brought about by the Messiah, the Anointed one. The Jewish people had forgotten that part and remembered only the rules not what the rules were there for, and the leaders of the Jews were only interested in the rules because without the rules what did the Jews need them for? Jesus answers this question with what has become probably the best known of His parables, the parable of the good Samaritan. Our Lord Jesus tells a story of a man, almost certainly a Jew, who goes down from Jerusalem to Jericho. A rough road with many twists and turns. A road that drops almost 4000 feet in 17 miles and passes through a mountainous area, ideal for ambushes and hideouts. And this man ‘falls among thieves’ who beat him almost to death and take everything from him, even the clothes off his back.
Our Lord Jesus tells the story of the Priest and the Levite ‘passing by on the other side’ and many people have tried to work out why they did so. Was the Priest frightened of touching a dead body or getting blood on his hands and becoming unclean? Was the Levite frightened of becoming a victim himself? No. No is the answer to both those questions. They were not real people. They had no motivations or fears, they were a fiction, a part of the story, and they had to pass by on the other side or the story would not have had any point. Every hero needs a villain. Every good guy needs a bad guy, so asking those questions just means we are missing the entire point of the story. We are allowing ourselves to be distracted. There is a danger that we concentrate only on what the Samaritan does and ignore the conversation with the lawyer. If we concentrate also on the conversation, we come to realise that our Lord Jesus is telling the lawyer, and us, that He has come to save all people, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or what football team you support, although I’m not sure about Tottenham supporters. The Samaritan should have been the bad guy in this story, not the priest, not the Levite. But our Lord Jesus was teaching us and the lawyer a lesson by telling this story and making the hero a Samaritan could not have been bettered in getting the point across. Jews and Samaritans were deadly enemies. They hated each other. The Jews hated the Samaritans because they looked upon them as a quite separate group transported into the northern Kingdom by the Assyrians after the ten tribes of Israel had been exiled and dispersed into oblivion and myth. An alien mongrel people who had interbred with the poor Jews left behind and half-heartedly adopted their religion then capitulated to the Greeks in the Maccabean revolt and re-dedicated their temple to Zeus. The Samaritans had carried out acts of terrorism against the Jews, such as scattering bones in the Temple at Jerusalem and massacring pilgrims. The Samaritans hated the Jews because the Jews had destroyed their temple at Gerizim and various other acts such as convincing Pilate to massacre a group of Samaritan fanatics. So here we have a Samaritan helping an injured Jew where other Jews had walked on by. Not only did he treat the wounds of the Jew but he put him on his donkey and walked beside him to the inn. Once at the inn the Samaritan stays up all night nursing the injured Jew and the next morning he gives the innkeeper 2 denarii, which is the equivalent of £200 today, promising to re-imburse the innkeeper for any extra expense incurred when he returns. Our Lord Jesus has told a story. A story that forces the lawyer and us to accept the premise that the Samaritan is the neighbour by virtue of his acts of care.
A story, it could be claimed, that highlights to all those who have ears to hear how our God wants us to show our love for Him; our love for God is shown by how we love other people. The one will inevitably lead to the other. Loving God will automatically enrich your love for those around you. Loving your neighbour will automatically enrich your love for God. When we love our neighbour, we sometimes have to take the initiative. We take the first step and that can be very scary indeed. Only brave people are kind. It takes courage to show kindness to others. To make yourself vulnerable to rejection and ridicule from others. It can take courage to accept the love of another person. Our Lord Jesus gave us this parable to point out that if you want to inherit eternal life then you must follow the commandments in the order they are given. You shall love your God without reservation of any kind as much as you are able. You shall love your neighbour without discrimination as much as you are able. You will have to show love for your neighbour based upon the needs of your neighbour and your ability to fulfil those needs. It is not enough just to see the need. We must do what we can to meet the need. What we do will be dependent upon what we see. What we see will be dependent upon what we are. A selfish person will see a nuisance. A self-absorbed person will see a chance to virtue signal in order to advance their own agenda. A follower of our Lord Jesus will see only what needs to be done and will try to do what they can within their own capabilities, even if it is only holding someone’s hand or giving them a sip of water or quietly praying for them. So it is my belief that our Lord Jesus is not telling us here to be good citizens and go out and do good works. Our Lord Jesus is pointing out that the first commandment is the solid foundation of our faith and not subject to interpretation or alteration and the second commandment is how we live out our faith based upon the first commandment. Faith has to come first. Our good works must be motivated by our love for God, not from our desires and hopes for a better world. Because the only way we will ever achieve that better world is through the teachings and example and leadership of our Lord Jesus with the help and counsel of the Holy Spirit, which we will only receive if we love the Lord our God first. Love God first and love for your neighbour will grow from that love. If all we are interested in is how much good we can do and God comes second then we might as well be social workers. If you love your neighbour without loving God first then it may be that you’re in the wrong place, because without that condition being met, without the love of God coming first then we cease to be a place of worship and we run the risk of becoming nothing more than a very good social club. I don’t for a second think this is the case here, but this reading should be taken as a warning of how easy it is to allow ourselves to become distracted and focus on the wrong things. Be sober, be vigilant, because your enemy is forever prowling around like a lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him strong in the faith. May it ever be so. Amen.