This sermon is based on Sam Wells’ treatment of the story of the Good Samaritan in A Nazareth Manifesto.
What must I do to inherit eternal life?
The Jews believed that if you kept the law, the whole law, every last instruction, you would have eternal life. And this was all summed up in the Golden Commandment: Love God and love your neighbour.
Yes, but who is my neighbour?
And so Jesus tells a story. We know the story. We know it so well that we think we know what it means. That’s the trouble with stories you have heard so often right from being a child. It’s one of those stories that turns up in all the children’s bibles. It’s a nice story. We are comfortable with it, because it shows a picture of who we would like to be, the person who helps others, who goes out of their way to be kind, the person in control of a difficult situation. Oh yes, I like to be that person!
But it’s Jesus telling the story, so there are layers and layers to it, more meanings than we can imagine. So let’s take another look.
Firstly, it’s a political story. God is always in there, in the politics. My father used to tell me that religion and politics shouldn’t mix, keep God out of politics. And even as a teenager, I felt he was wrong on this. God needs to be in our politics, deep in the mess of it all.
And this story that Jesus tells is about the nation of Israel. Once upon a time it was a great nation, with a great king and a magnificent temple. It was a golden age, and everyone was happy and prosperous. And then the troubles set in. The Assyrians came along and destroyed the northern part of the kingdom. And then the Chaldeans came along and destroyed the southern kingdom, and took those who had been in charge off to Babylon. It was an absolute tragedy – they were taken away from the land, away from the Temple, away from God. “By the waters of Babylon I sat down and wept” says the Psalm. Eventually, around 500BC, they were allowed to return from exile and rebuild Jerusalem. But things were never quite the same again. In more recent centuries, the Greeks had invaded and now the Romans were in charge. What was once a grand nation was subject to foreign powers. Where was their greatness now?
So in Jesus’ story, told to a Jewish lawyer, the man who lay by the side of the road, crushed and beaten and left for dead, is Israel. It is the nation. Jesus is saying – recognise who you are, recognise where you are – in the gutter, in need of help. And the religious leaders are ignoring the problem. They see the injured man, the broken Israel, and they pass by on the other side of the road. But the person who does help Israel is a Samaritan, a despised enemy. The Jews wouldn’t even talk to Samaritans. They would cross the road to avoid them. But he doesn’t pass by. He stops to offer immediate roadside assistance, and then takes the injured man to an inn and provides for his ongoing care and welfare. The Samaritan brings healing and salvation to the injured Israel. The Samaritan is Jesus, but the Jewish leaders do not recognise him or accept the salvation that he brings.
And that’s another layer of meaning in this story – it tells us about who Jesus is. Jesus comes in a form we don’t recognise, in the guise of the person we most hate and despise, and he brings salvation.
So where are we in this story? Like you, I have always been taught that this was a parable about being kind and helpful, but the meaning is deeper than that. In this story, Jesus is NOT telling us to be like the Samaritan, to bind up wounds and make provision to alleviate the misery of others.
Because in this story we are like Israel. We are the man who has been mugged by life, fallen in the gutter with all the other rubbish. We are broken by illness, old age, frailty; we are damaged by abuse, by loss, by all the normal disasters that happen in life; we are hurt by failed relationships, by redundancy, by rejection. Above all, we are wrecked by our own stupidity, our own mistakes, our own failures. We carry the burden of guilt and shame. We carry the weight of our own blindness, the failure to see when we have hurt others, when our complaining has forced others away, when our negativity builds up barriers. That’s who we are. We are in deep trouble.
We are in deep trouble as a nation as we work through the impact of the Brexit vote and the political and economic instability. We are in deep trouble as a church when we fail to proclaim the good news. We are in deep trouble as a community when we see an upsurge of racist behaviour.
What must I do to inherit eternal life?
There is nothing I can DO to inherit eternal life. I can’t earn eternal life by being kind and helpful. All I can do is to acknowledge my own poverty, my own brokenness, my own distress. Eternal life starts here, in the gutter.
And then Jesus comes with oil for my wounds, sustenance for my hunger and thirst, and ongoing care for my soul. Jesus is our salvation. Jesus is the Good Samaritan. Jesus comes to us in ways we don’t expect, challenging our attitudes and prejudices. That moment when you really hate and despise someone for all sorts of good reasons? That’s when Jesus is coming to us. And when Jesus comes, we are healed, we are made whole.
What must I do to inherit eternal life? Receive the salvation that Jesus brings. Turn to him with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind. And then love your neighbour as yourself.