Asking the Right Question

Asking the Right Question 14th July 2019 Madingley

Amos 7:7-17 Colossians 1:1-14 Luke 10:25-37

I wonder how many people here this morning remember World Refugee Year? It was exactly 60 years ago, and was an attempt by the UN to draw attention to the millions of people who were still in temporary settlements after being made homeless during the Second World War, and all the conflicts which followed it. Why do I remember it, and why is it relevant today? 

It was the first time I was called upon to read a lesson at the full school assembly of my high school, and the text was, you’ve guessed it, the Good Samaritan. Our headmistress obviously viewed it as being a siren call to all of us gels to recognize our responsibility towards the more unfortunate people in the wider world. And that is the usual interpretation of this parable. By now you are expecting a “but.” That all has to do with whether the lawyer asked the right question, and precisely what the answer to that question was.

This lawyer, a man well-versed in Jewish religious law, approaches Jesus and asks a question on a very difficult subject on which no-one else had anything satisfactory to say: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And it is clear what his motivation was; he wanted to test, or to tempt Jesus. To do what? Say something stupid? Or blasphemous? 

As is so often the case in the Gospels, Jesus doesn’t rush into giving a devastatingly intellectual or deeply spiritual answer, [or both at once], but tosses the ball right back into the lawyer’s court. “What is written in the Law?” Of course the lawyer is on safe ground here, and he immediately quotes a combination of verses from Deuteronomy and Leviticus which were in common usage. “Well, there you are,” says Jesus, “Do this and you will live.”

However, there is a huge gulf between the lawyer’s understanding of these words, and that of Jesus. As far as the Jewish religious law was concerned, there are 613 commandments which reveal the prescribed way of showing love towards God. What constituted our “neighbour” was more difficult to define, and there was continuing endless debate going on by rabbis as to who had to be included, and who could justifiably be excluded from that category.

“Here we have a perfect illustration of the difference between the ethics of the Law, and the ethics of love. The lawyer thought that eternal life was to be gained by meticulous observation of the rules. For Jesus, the love for God and our neighbour is the life of the Kingdom of God which he had been proclaiming and had now arrived. The lawyer wants his duties defined thoroughly; Jesus refuses to set any limits on love. Religion to one is a set of restrictive regulations; to the other it is a boundless series of opportunities.” Caird.

This approach was not what the lawyer had been looking for; he expected to receive a complicated answer. Surely this straight-forward one cannot be all that God expects us to do? It’s far too simple. Instead of appearing clever and wise in front of other people, he obviously feels that he has been made to look stupid and lacking in religious depth. So he asks a follow-up question to try to justify himself. He wants Jesus to acknowledge how good he really is, and to openly admire him. And he’s certainly not prepared to let Jesus off the hook. So he takes a typically lawyerly approach, and asks for a definition of a particular word. Maybe this time Jesus will stumble, make a mistake, and admit that this sort of thing is best left to the lawyers of the world.

Again, Jesus gives no direct answer. Instead, as he often does, he tells a story. It’s about a situation which would have been familiar to all his listeners, using as it does the well-worn route of all travellers on the steep and dangerous road between Jerusalem and Jericho. In amongst the limestone rocks hid gangs of Bedouin, whose attacks on travellers were all too common. The victim in this story is a man rich enough that even his clothes were worth taking, so the haul must have been a good one.

We need to understand that there was nothing unusual in the reaction of the priest and the Levite. They had no good reason to intervene according to current thinking, and several reasons why they definitely should not get involved. It was thought that if misfortune befell you, it was a sign of God’s displeasure, his punishment for sins you had committed, so to interfere by offering aid to the injured would be to risk incurring God’s anger against the helper. It is an important detail in the story that we are told that the injured man lay there half dead. The priest and the Levite would not have been able to tell without touching him whether he was alive or dead. It weighed more heavily with them that he might be dead and therefore to touch him would defile them and make them ritually unclean, than to think that maybe here was a man who might still be alive and in need of help. They must have felt that theology and religious law were both on their side in passing by on the other side.

However, as we well know, along comes a Samaritan. An objectionable, unmentionable, heretical, untouchable man, with whom the Jews would have no dealings. [Woman at well of Samaria.]And we know how the story progresses from there. At the end, it is Jesus’ turn to ask an awkward question of the lawyer: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The lawyer is forced to consider whether this semi-pagan Samaritan whom he would have loathed and despised, might know more about the love of God and who was his neighbour, than a devout Jew preoccupied with obeying all the rules of the law.

We can imagine the lawyer squirming until he has to state what is unavoidable and blindingly obvious; the Samaritan was the good neighbour. But have you noticed the subtle change between the questions? The lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbour?” In other words, who of all the people out there do I have to treat with love and respect? Jesus asks at the end of his parable, “Who acted in a neighbourly fashion?” He shows us that the real point is, to whom can I bea neighbour? The answer is, to anyone whose need constitutes a claim on my love.

This Samaritan sets a wonderful example not only in the fact that he rescued the seriously injured traveller, but in the way that he handled the care and provision in the days that followed. This is not a man expecting thanks or praise for what he has done; there is a quiet, self-effacing aura about him. For those following the religious rules and regulations, there was the danger of having a tick-box approach: this person deserves my help because he falls into this particular category, and I can claim that I have done my duty there. And with all such neighbourly help and service there is always the possibility that a certain degree of patronage and condescension can creep in; even a sense of pride and complacency about being such a kind and helpful person. 

But the Samaritan knew that it was highly unlikely that he would be thanked for his intervention; more likely he would be rebuked for contaminating a good Jew by touching him. So his aid was not given with a view to receiving praise. Rather, it was the recognition of another’s need, without any consideration of how it might affect he himself. That is what it is to bea neighbour.