The Good Samaritan is what God is like

Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings : In our Gospel (Luke 10:25-37) Jesus poses a number of questions. In our account it was to a lawyer, one schooled in Jewish religious law and its minutiae, one concerned, as were the Pharisees that the individual achieved ‘righteousness’ a perfect relationship with God. Fundamentally, Jesus did not disagree with the lawyer, but realised that in practise things were much more complicated than might appear on the surface. In confronting these issues, he borrowed from a tale in the Babylonian Talmud which reflected on 2 Kings 37 and which went back to the Babylonian Captivity of the 6th century BC. In that story ‘the good rescuer’ was a Babylonian, a pagan and one of the occupying enemy. The fact that this story had been passed down through the centuries indicates precisely what a problem ideas of Jewish purity and their interpretations of the law incurred. What is of ultimate importance in salvation; my own purity, or my outreach to others in which my ‘purity’ may become hopelessly compromised? Jesus, no more than the sages of the past, was willing to let his own people off the hook.

 

The Jerusalem Bible translation softens the lawyer’s intent by its use of ‘disconcert’, whereas the Greek actually says tempt or trap. He is intent on lining Jesus up with sinners, lawbreakers, and on bringing a case against him which will ultimately lead to his death. But Jesus, as we know from Luke 9:53, was already resolutely set on going to Jerusalem and his passion. That passion would be for the salvation of the world, and in this ancient story, reworked by Jesus, I think we find a small passion drama, hints and glimmers of what is to come. First of all I think we cannot possibly assume that travellers, such as temple priests going or returning from their stint of service in the temple, travelled this notorious route between Jerusalem and Jericho alone. There is a community, a community of rejecters involved too. In such cases, the priest and the Levite, (a temple assistant) quite deliberately made decisions against risking ritual contamination and the need for purification this might involve for themselves and their companions. We note that in both cases, they kept well clear of the victim, not even approaching him, a feature so reminiscent of the behaviour of the Jewish hierarchy in our passion gospels, and exploited to the full in John’s gospel. By contrast, the victim is described in graphic detail as stripped, severely beaten and deprived of all his possessions, and finally left as half dead; a set of images of Jesus during his passion. It is then natural that Jesus borrows from the ancient tale, but places a despised Samaritan not a Babylonian as the rescuer/redeemer of the victim. Indeed, he even pays for the man’s lodging, and promises more if necessary to prevent his becoming enslaved for non payment of his debts. Perhaps then we have a short vignette of the atonement here, not just a story with a moral clout, as we traditionally give it in the modern West.

 

This whole question of the value or otherwise of the law and the salvation it may or may not bring; (here always religious law, since there was no distinction for Israel) is raised in our reading from Deuteronomy (30:10-14). On the surface, it all looks so simple – ‘pay up and you will be saved’. Yet Deuteronomy is centuries later than Moses and was the work of the priestly reformers under Josiah, just before the Babylonian invasions, at a time when things had got very slack, and even Passover  – that central and pivotal celebration of the nation’s being – was not being observed. This book then is the King’s reformist policy and a wake up call to his nation. One might see it as a desperate plea, issued more in hope than certainty, a call for clarity and action when things were going very wrong and the writing was on the wall.

 

Such was St Paul’s plight when he wrote from prison in Ephesus to the Christians of Colossae, (Col 1:15-20) up the Meander River, and the home of Philemon and the hapless Onesimus. Clearly is was quite possible that Paul would have been executed at that point, and so, instead of any adherence to the Jewish law, he threw all his hopes on the risen, glorified Christ, reiterating here a hymn he had learnt from a Christian community he knew. Significantly, given the circumstances of his incarceration he defiantly and insistently ascribes the powers that may have brought about his detention, and those under whom he was detained, “Thrones, Dominations, Sovereignties and Powers”, as part of Christ’s creative work and ultimately subject to him. Paul is therefore confident and certain that whatever happens to him personally, Christ’s work of ‘reconciling the universe to God’ will ultimately be achieved. He has this great sense then, not of his own importance, or of his own righteousness or purity, but rather that he, along with all Christians, had irrevocably thrown in their/our lot with Christ – and that is all that matters.

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