Deanery Licensed Ministers: Sermons
Who is my neighbour?
Sermon Preached at St Peter's, Staines, 8/07/2007
Revd Sue Groom, Director of Deanery Licensed Ministers
Jesus has set his face towards Jerusalem, and there is no stopping him. We’ve been travelling, slowly but surely, in that direction. He seems a little distracted these days, but he refuses to be deterred. Wherever we go, he sends people ahead, in pairs, into the villages and towns, to see if there is a warm welcome, friendly faces, and a peaceful place for us to stay the night. Sometimes we are welcome, sometimes we are not. We certainly were not welcome in the Samaritan village we tried a few days ago. We had to walk farther that night before we found any hospitality. James and John were furious. They made it quite obvious why they’re called ‘the Sons of Thunder’. They wanted to call down thunder and lightening, fire from heaven, on the poor place. But Jesus rebuked them. It was almost as if he expected to be rejected.
Day by day there’s a steady stream of earnest young men who come to Jesus and swear their allegiance to him, promising to follow him wherever he goes and whatever happens. But to these keen ones he poses hard questions, ‘Do you really know what it means to follow the Son of Man? Can you follow a homeless wanderer, a despised and rejected saviour?’ He is so serious these days. And more challenging. He sounds more like his cousin, John the Baptist, than like the joyful man who turns water into wine, and parties with all and sundry. He has no time for those young men, who want to ask their parents’ permission, before they come and follow him. Or for those who want to put their affairs in order first. Or just take time to think about it. He is only interested in complete commitment. There’s an urgency and dogged determination about him.
Yet, earlier today he was different. It was when the seventy returned from their mission to the surrounding towns. He sent them to proclaim, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ They returned, overflowing with wonderful stories, about how powerful the name of Jesus is in defeating demons. Jesus himself was full of joy and thanksgiving, positively brimming over with excitement, and praise of his Father. It was as if he suddenly realised that, even though the teachers, authorities and leaders of Israel seem to lack an intimate knowledge of God, at least the ordinary people have experienced his Father at work. They know that the kingdom of God has come near to them.
He had just told the seventy to rejoice, not in what they had done in his name, but that they knew God and were known by him, when that lawyer stood up, and asked what he must do to inherit eternal life. Had he not been listening? Or was he just being awkward? At least he stood up, that showed some mark of respect. And he addressed Jesus as an equal, calling him ‘teacher’.
There’s quite a debate among the rabbis at the moment about this question. Some say you gain eternal life through keeping the law. Somehow I can’t imagine Jesus agreeing with that. He doesn’t always keep to the letter of the law himself, but then he doesn’t speak against it either. He’s a very wise man, thoughtful, intelligent and astute.
Instead of giving him an answer to his question, Jesus asked the lawyer another question, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ That lawyer was quite sharp too. He replied with Jesus’ own summary of the law, ‘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.’ Touché. That was the right answer. ‘Do this, and you will live,’ said Jesus.
Well, that’s a lot easier said than done, isn’t it? To continually love God, and your neighbour, with every fibre of your being. Pretty much impossible I would have thought. At this point in the conversation, I expected the lawyer to walk away, but he didn’t. He was more persistent than that. I suspect he wanted Jesus to tell him precisely how to love God and his neighbour. You know, give him a list of precise rules and regulations he could follow, like those in the Torah. That would make it easier, then he could know how righteous he had been. He could tick the boxes as he fulfilled the requirements on his way to eternal life. But, of course, he didn’t really know Jesus. It wasn’t like that with Jesus. He rarely gave us specific practical guidance on how to follow him. That’s what makes life difficult sometimes, but it’s also what sets us free to live by the Spirit of God.
The lawyer then asked Jesus a second question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ I presume he thought he already knew who God is... The definition of a neighbour is another ongoing debate among the rabbis. They agree that all Jews are our neighbours. Some say that proselytes are. Some even say that those nations we are not presently at war with, are our neighbours. But all rabbis agree that the Gentiles are not our neighbours.
Once again Jesus refused to answer the lawyer’s question, instead he posed another question for him to think about. Only this time he told a story first. He told a story about people coming and going along the road we’re following to Jerusalem. It’s always been a dangerous road, so the story Jesus told about someone being robbed was nothing new. The only new bit was that he said, it was a Samaritan who helped the injured man. That made James and John wake up, I can tell you. A Samaritan they were the ones who rejected Jesus only the other day! But who was the traveller? That’s what I wanted to know. Stripped and beaten unconscious, there was no knowing. A person in need, dead or alive, he could have been anyone, Jew or Gentile.
When he’d finished his story, Jesus asked the lawyer, ‘Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ Well the answer to that one was obvious, it was the Samaritan, ‘the one who had compassion on him and showed him mercy,’ as the lawyer said. Then Jesus told the lawyer, ‘Go and do likewise.’ He didn’t look too happy about that. I don’t think it was the answer he was looking for. Well it’s a lot easier said than done, isn’t it? To show mercy to every person in need. Pretty much impossible I would have thought. At this point in the conversation, I expected the lawyer to walk away and he did...
You know, I’ve been thinking about the Samaritan in that story. He was a despised and rejected outsider. Yet when he saw an example of wounded humanity, he was moved with compassion. At great risk to himself, he stooped down and bound up the wounds. He poured precious oil and wine on them, almost like a libation. Then he raised up and carried humanity to safety, bearing all the costs himself. What amazing love, what gracious action. What more can I say?...
We need more good Samaritans in the church. We need people of deep and searching faith, people who can see the needs of their neighbours, people who are willing to respond to those needs, people who will reach out with pastoral care, people who will celebrate the eucharist in their communities, people who will proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near...
Maybe you can see other ways in which the church can serve your neighbours. Maybe you can identify someone who could serve God in the Deanery of Spelthorne, as a deacon, or priest. If so then please do encourage them to speak to your parish priest. If you would like to know more about what is involved in training to be a Deanery Licensed Minister, then please do speak to me after the service. Don’t pass by on the other side.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Acknowledgements and Bibliography
As with any sermon, various ideas come together over a period of time and it isn't always possible to retrace my steps to every source of inspiration. I am particularly indebted here, however, to Kenneth E Bailey's Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes (Eerdmans, 1983) and Tom Wright's Luke for Everyone (SPCK, 2001, 2004). I will gladly acknowledge any other sources if brought to my attention. Thank you.