Sermon: Laugh hard. Run fast. Be kind.

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The Fifth Sunday After Pentecost, 10th of July, 2022

Luke 10:25-37
Colossians 1:1-14

It is hard to preach on a biblical story that has become a cliché. The story known as the ‘Parable of the Good Samaritan’ is possibly the most well-known of all Jesus’ parables, and so the name ‘Samaritan’ no longer means ‘enemy’ as it did for Jesus’ first hearers. In Australia, ‘Samaritan’ can refer to a community service agency that promotes mental health in Western Australia, or to an order of Benedictine sisters, or to an emergency relief agency in NSW. We need to forget all of that before we can even begin to hear this parable as Jesus told it.

Jesus is on the road toward his death. He has ‘set his face to go to Jerusalem,’ and because of this he has been rejected by a village of Samaritans who want nothing to do with a Jew headed to the ‘wrong’ Temple. This makes the disciples James and John so furious that they want to call down fire from heaven on the impious Samaritans, and Jesus rebukes them. (Luke 10:51-56) Before Jesus tells this story even Luke’s Roman readers would have been aware of the division between Jews and Samaritans.

The history of the division went back over seven hundred years. Samaria had been the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel before the Assyrian invasion in the eighth century BC. The Samaritans of Jesus’ day believed themselves to be the descendants of the Jews who had been left behind after the Assyrian deportation, but when the exiles from the southern kingdom of Judah with its capital at Jerusalem returned from Babylon in the sixth century BC, they claimed that the Samaritans were the descendants of the foreigners who had settled on the land after the Jewish population had been removed. We can have some sense of the division between Jews and Samaritans if we think of the present-day division between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians. Does the land belong to the people who have been living there for centuries, or the people whose ancestors were removed from it and who have now ‘returned’? There was no Separation Wall built in the Israel of Jesus’ day, but there might as well have been. As the author of the Gospel according to John explained when telling the story of the woman at the well, ‘Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans’. (John 4:9)

Now, as Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem, he is tested by a lawyer. ‘Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Is this an attack on Jesus or simply the ‘testing’ that anyone learned in the Law could make of a teacher? Jesus does behave like the typical rabbi by answering a question with a question: ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ and the lawyer answers correctly that all the commands of the law can be summed up in: ‘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 yourself.’ Jesus praises him, and the lawyer goes further. Does he suspect that the Jesus who taught, ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you,’ (Luke 6:27-28) is going to expand the category of ‘neighbour’? Or is he expecting that Jesus’ answer will enable him to justify himself because he will be reassured that ‘neighbour’ means only his fellow Jews and maybe the aliens who live in the land? This time Jesus does not answer a question with a question but with a parable.

‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho’. Jesus may be teaching on the road to Jerusalem, but those around him would easily be able to imagine themselves in the position of the traveller who fell into the hands of robbers. As in all good stories, three people now approach the beaten man. The first is a priest, an important clergyperson whose commitment to the Law means that he does not have time for petty matters like saving someone’s life. The second is a Levite, an important layperson who also had religious roles to play in the Temple. Who will the third person, the person who does the right thing, be? It would make sense for it to be an ordinary Jew, someone without special religious responsibilities, someone like Jesus and his disciples. Then the story would be an anticlerical one, and a reminder of how those who spend the most time on the Law can neglect its weightier matters, as the Jesus in Matthew’s gospel accused the Pharisees of neglecting ‘justice and mercy and faith’. (Matthew 23:23) But it is not an ordinary Jew who comes along third and cares for the beaten traveller.

We can tell see how shocking Jesus’ end to the parable is in the way in which the lawyer answers his final question: ‘Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ The lawyer cannot bring himself to say, ‘the Samaritan,’ although that is how Jesus has described him. He says instead, ‘The one who showed him mercy,’ identifying him by his actions rather than his ethnicity. That is how shocking Jesus making a Samaritan the hero and moral exemplar of his story is. Even when the lawyer acknowledges who the neighbour was, he cannot name him.

A painting by Van Gogh of a man in a yellow robe with a red hat putting a half-naked, bandaged, man on a stationary brown donkey.

Vincent van Gogh, ‘The Good Samaritan after Delacroix’ (1890). (c) Public Domain.

When we think about this story, Amy-Jill Levine writes:

We should think of ourselves as the person in the ditch and then ask, “Is there anyone, from any group, about whom we’d rather die than acknowledge, ‘She offered help’ or ‘He showed compassion’. More, is there any group whose members might rather die than help us? If so, we know how to find the modern equivalent for the Samaritan.[1]

Brendan Byrne suggests that we should try calling this the parable of the ‘good terrorist’ or the ‘good drug dealer’.[2] I think I can get to the offensiveness of this story if I imagine myself being helped by a neo-Nazi, a white supremacist. Even saying the words ‘good white supremacist’ nauseates me, which means that I can understand why the lawyer questioning Jesus could not bring himself to say that it was ‘the Samaritan’ who was the neighbour.

As radical and offensive as it is, the story of the ‘good enemy’ is not just a parable. Here in Australia various groups of First Nations people cared for lost white people despite them being part of the British invasion and occupation. Samuel Emanuel Cox lived with Indigenous people in Van Diemen’s Land for twenty-three years; the convict William Buckley lived with the Wathaurong of Port Phillip Bay for thirty-two years and had a Wathaurong wife and daughter; James Davis, another escaped convict, lived with the First Nations people around Brisbane for thirteen years. Australians have had examples of ‘good Samaritans’ in our own history.

Looking for other stories of enemies who love like neighbours this week I found the story of the family of Ahmed Khatib, a twelve-year-old Palestinian living in a refugee camp in the West Bank. In November 2005 he was shot by an Israeli soldier who seems to have presumed that the toy gun he was playing with was a real one. He was taken to an Israeli hospital but died there, and his parents donated his organs to four Jewish and two Arab citizens of Israel. His father, Ismael Khatib, said: ‘My son was dead, but six Israelis now have a part of a Palestinian in them, and maybe he is still alive in them.’ His mother, Abla, said that, ‘To give away his organs was a different kind of resistance. Violence against violence is worthless. Maybe this will reach the ears of the whole world so they can distinguish between just and unjust. Maybe the Israelis will think of us differently. Maybe just one Israeli will decide not to shoot.’ To care for an enemy as a neighbour is difficult, and courageous, but it is obviously not impossible.

In today’s reading from the Letter to the Colossians we have a back-the-front agricultural metaphor. Paul writes of the gospel ‘bearing fruit and growing in the whole world’. Usually, plants grow before they bear fruit, not afterwards. But that does not seem to be the way with the fruits that come from the hope in Jesus Christ. Leading lives worthy of the Lord and bearing ‘fruit in every good work’ precedes growth, according to Paul; it does not follow it. Those of us in mainstream churches in Australia may be worrying about the news in the latest census which saw a decline in the numbers of Australians claiming to be Anglican, Catholic, Uniting, Presbyterian and Reformed, Lutheran, Salvation Army, Pentecostal, or members of the Churches of Christ. I think the ‘head office’ of every denomination, with the possible exception of the Eastern Orthodox churches which are growing by a few thousands, will be wondering how they can reverse the decline. Paul would seem to suggest that we focus on bearing the fruit of good works first. Christians are the people who know that we are to love our neighbours as ourselves by showing them mercy. Have other Australians seen us ‘go and do likewise’ at Jesus’ command?

Jesus often made his points in stories; so I do not think he would mind me concluding my point by quoting Doctor Who. As I hope you know, when badly injured the Doctor regenerates rather than dying, and during his most recent regeneration the twelfth version of the Doctor had some words for the thirteenth version who was on their way:

You wait a moment, Doctor. Let’s get it right. I’ve got a few things to say to you. Basic stuff first. Never be cruel, never be cowardly – and never, ever eat pears! Remember, hate is always foolish, and love is always wise. Always try to be nice and never fail to be kind. Oh, and you mustn’t tell anyone your name. No-one would understand it anyway. Except, except, children. Children can hear it. Sometimes – if their hearts are in the right place, and the stars are too. Children can hear your name. But nobody else. Nobody else. Ever. Laugh hard. Run fast. Be kind.

Violence against violence is worthless. Hate is always foolish, and love is always wise. Always try to be nice and never fail to be kind. Who was the neighbour? The one who showed mercy. Let us go and do likewise. Amen.

[1] Quoted in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3, p. 242.

[2] The Hospitality of God, p. 100.

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