How does a Christian live well?

Frances writes on the readings for this coming weekend:- Our reading from Deuteronomy (30:10-14) is part of the account of Covenant made by Israel with God in Moab. Anyone at all familiar with the doings of the early Israelites will be familiar with this pattern of repeated Covenants – from Sinai on and the need the people had to reaffirm and renew them. Quite clearly, despite all its laws, the nation continually fell by the wayside, and the Books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy; the accumulated work of Hebrew law makers over many hundreds of years, indicate that the people were very good at making laws but continually failed to keep them. Our section reminds the people that the heart of the law is obvious and innate, easy to keep and looks forward to their obedience to it.

When in our gospel Jesus, (Luke 10:25-37) tells the story of ‘The Good Samaritan’, he was not suggesting that the Jewish law was irrelevant, but speaking to its heart as the mosaic Fathers had intended. The account of the priest and the Levite ‘who pass by on the other side’  is his engaging with those schooled in the law as to what one could and could not do without incurring ritual impurity, and indeed, if one did so, was that the thing of ultimate significance ? Sadducees, from whom the elite temple priests came, insisted that contact with a corpse or blood and bodily products was defiling, whereas others argued that it need not be in special circumstances, that is, the needs of the person being served. Levites by the time of Jesus similarly followed a rigid interpretation regarding ritual purity and the touching of possibly dead bodies. What our Samaritan does, and remember Samaritans also followed the Jewish law and faith, though not from Jerusalem, was to interpret them in a different manner; one in which human need superceded the strictest requirements of the law. He does it even at the risk of defiling himself. Our Samaritan was, in response to the needs of another, prepared to risk ritual impurity, and undoubtedly would have fulfilled all that the law demanded later, to put him right before the Lord.

There is something ‘lost in translation’ in the modern telling of the attitude of this man; speaking either of his ‘pity’, or ‘compassion’ which makes him act. In the Greek splagknizomai, the seat of his being refers to a persons liver, lungs, heart, to his very guts, his bowels are wrenched with emotion at the of the plight of this fellow traveller lying stripped, beaten, even dying on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. He does not therefore suffer from some slight sense of responsibility or emotion; the Samaritan is riven to the very core of his being; compelled to act in the defence of the other. We see this in the detail of his care for the injured man, as the Samaritan bandaged his wounds, pouring on healing wine, a disinfectant, and soothing olive oil. He lifted the man onto his own mount and took him to an inn and paid for his stay, even going so far as to promise reparation to the inn keeper for any further expense. Now anyone familiar with the tales of ancient taverns – normally dens of vice hence avoided by Paul – where one’s tab frequently included the services of a prostitute, and where one could generally expect to be grossly over-charged, might well think that our Samaritan was mad, or awash with cash, or simple. We need to think why he behaved with such outrageous generosity.

God-like, he treats this victim with immense and intimate care, pouring his being into the wellbeing of the other. Everything else goes by the board; his care for his own safety, for who knows, the robbers might have been lurking behind a convenient rock. He throws aside temporarily all the many and valued demands of the law, he deliberately takes on the defiled person of the victim, becoming contaminated by his blood, and his befouled person. This man surely is an icon, a true image of Christ, sent by the Father in pity for our fallen state and the victim who willingly takes on our redemption and is killed outside the law, outside Jerusalem. He demonstrates what the law is actually for: to guide our day-to-day actions, but is actually there, as Jesus shows, to be set aside when more pressing needs demand actions which go beyond law.

Our reading from Colossians, (1:15-20), is probably a very early Christian hymn, or ‘creed’ known to the local churches of South Western Turkey. In it Christ is extolled as the image of the unseen God, he is the one whose being holds all creation in being, the perfection of the Father, and the one who reconciles the entire creation with God. The churches of Turkey in Paul’s time were not calling for members to ‘become a bit nicer’ in their relations with one another, they were calling for a shift in personality and being of seismic proportions to be achieved not by their own efforts but by the work of Christ in them. Emulators of the one laid bare for our redemption, they understood that Christ’s gift to us is that we become divine, sharers in God’s nature as he has given himself to us. No following of the rule book can achieve such a scale of transformation, it comes from a psyche made new in God’s image and willing to risk anything, to put aside all that momentarily gives one identity and belonging in the service of others. The fact that we do not always know these others is irrelevant, our calling is to emulate that good but despised man from Samaria who shocked a lawyer rigid, stopping him in his tracks and forcing him to rethink the purposes of the law he thought he knew so well.

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