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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Homily on loving God

St Paul makes a dramatic statement in is Letter to the Galatians that he is “dead to the law” and that he has been “crucified with Christ”! But what on earth does he mean by these two startling declarations? (Gal 2:16-21) I think we should start by working out what he means by “the law”. The law for us is the law of the land wherever we happen to live, but clearly St Paul does not mean that he is dead to that kind of law. Indeed he says elsewhere that Christians must respect those in authority (1 Tim 2:1-3). No, as many of you probably know, the Law, when spoken of in the Bible means the Law of God – the things that God expects of those who are truly good human beings. Well we know what that means from the passage where Jesus sums up the law as two things – to love God with all our heart and mind and soul, and to love our neighbour as our self. (Matt 22:36-39)

 

Now this is certainly hard stuff isn’t it? We may well try to love God, but to love God completely, as Jesus suggests, is much more difficult for we have so many other competing interests! I may love God when I say my prayers, or am desperate for help, or very thankful when something good has happened, but a lot of the time my love for God has to compete with lots of other things happening in my life. The idea of loving God completely is  therefore something I aim for, not something I actually achieve.

 

This is even more the case with loving our neighbour, especially when Jesus adds elsewhere that this includes loving our enemies. What would you feel like if someone in your family was killed, maybe by some careless driver in a road accident? I even get angry with people who damage trees, so what I would feel for a fool driver I cannot imagine! I am always impressed by the quiet dignity of someone who says that they will forgive the person who has killed their loved one. But I am not sure whether I would be that good, even though I must admit to being disgusted with people who still rage with hate in such circumstances.

 

So there it is. The Law of God is a wonderful thing to aim for, but it is actually impossible to follow completely, and it is because of this that St Paul says that he is “dead to the law”.  He had thought, along with many other people both in his time and today, that getting to heaven, being accepted by God, was achieved by keeping the law. Taught by Jesus, he had now to die to this old way of thinking – so that is what he means by being dead to the law and crucified with Christ – and, as he says “to live now not with my own life but with the life of Christ who lives in me.”

 

We see now why our other two readings are all about the way God forgives us. (2 Sam 12:7-10.13 and Luke 7:36- 8:3) We have to rely on that forgiveness of God, given us through Jesus, because we cannot, however hard we try, keep God’s law completely. Now some of you may well have heard me go on about this before, and the reason is simple. However many times we hear this message, most of us easily revert to the old way of thinking. When I was a University Chaplain I met many students who came from good Catholic families and really thought of themselves as good people. They had never committed any really big sin, and so deep down they did not think of themselves as sinners.  Then suddenly they faced at University new and far bigger temptations, and they found themselves doing things that they knew, according to what they have been taught, are really big sins. Faced with this, some just gave up on the Church, and some even gave up on God, because they thought that such sin cuts them off from the Church. Somehow they have missed out on the heart of the message of Jesus.

 

Look at it in practice in the Gospel. This woman with a bad name comes into the house and begins to weep and to kiss the feet of Jesus. The Pharisee who is the host is horrified that Jesus is allowing this. How can such a person be accepted by Jesus? But it is the Pharisee that is wrong. He thinks being close to God is all about being a good person, but Jesus turns the whole thing upside down. He says that the more we realise how much God forgives us, the closer we are to God’s love. He says cuttingly to the Pharisee, and to us, “It is the man who is forgiven little who shows little love.”  Ouch!  That’s really hard! 

 

I wonder too if this is also a man/woman thing? I hate to stereotype, but perhaps we men tend to like things to be absolute. We like solutions. Either this person is bad and need punishing or he is good. Women, maybe, are more like God. They prefer to talk things through, to accept that things are less than perfect and get on with life. It was the male apostles who failed Jesus, and needed to learn to be forgiven. The women got the new message and lived it much more easily, and maybe it is still the same today

 

The foolishness of God’s love for us

Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :-It can be no coincidence that Mark (8:27-35) places Jesus’ first prediction of his passion and death at Caesarea Philippi. Built by Herod the Great in honour of Augustus, self-styled ‘saviour’ of the known world, and seat of power of his son Philip Herod, this city reeked power and world wide influence. It is there that Jesus questioned his disciples about his identity, making clear that his power was not like that of worldly rulers. His style clearly shows that he wanted to demonstrate his continuity with the story of God and Israel, his ‘chosen people’, and to insist that he is God’s final word on that long journey of redemption. The upshot of his questioning is that Peter acclaims Jesus as the Christ, the one Israel was awaiting. But it immediately becomes clear that Peter, like so many in Israel, was thinking in worldly terms. This Christ or Messiah should be a warrior leader, strong and backed by a powerful army, powerful enough to throw the Romans out of Palestine. Jesus’ prediction of his terrible and ignominious death smashed through all their worldly fantasies, deliberately setting a completely different pattern of kingship, messiahship, based in the relationship of utter self-giving and impotence which is God’s way of being human in Jesus. God, who is always and entirely creator of the world and its continual sustainer, does not show his authority by throwing his weight around in the manner of earthly rulers, but acts precisely by throwing power aside. God who can truly compel offers humanity the ultimate gift – absolute freedom – in which to choose to accept him or reject the gifts he offers. Perhaps only one so truly divine, so other, so powerful, could act with such folly. Redemption is God’s great throw of the dice for a creation he ultimately trusts to recognise the truth.

Our reading from Second Isaiah(Isa 50:5-9) indicates that this has always been God’s way. Written during the 6th century BC and the Babylonian captivity, it is part of that great collection of Suffering Servant Songs for which this writer is duly famed. In its original meaning the Servant represented the nation personified, as it suffered for the failings, and exile of its wayward people. Christian generations naturally related these pieces of heart rending prose-poetry to the sufferings of Christ in redemption of the world. The best known is of course Isaiah 52-53 which we always read on Good Friday, but the dignity and humility of our passage too stands out as a vivid reminder of that long journey to God which will reach its culmination on Calvary with the crucified Christ. This is the story of God’s revelation to his people, the story of a humanity which finds it near impossible to believe that God could do this for us, and in consequence remains so much in need of Christ’s redemptive action. Our poem wonderfully captures the persistence of the servant with face set like flint, and the need for continual review of the evidence amidst the certainty of God’s vindication of his Beloved.

This I think is the message we can find in James today. (2:14-18) What becomes clear here is that there is no room for armchair Christianity, or perhaps put more prosaically Sunday only Christianity. It simply will not do to turn up on Sunday for the show, the Mass, swallow the sacrament and then leg it until the next time. James is insistent that faith in Jesus is to be made visible and active when the believers’ everyday behaviour shows forth the Christian message by some works of mercy or actions on behalf of others. The previous weeks actions of the people of Germany towards refugees has amply demonstrated that their faith, or at least their Christian heritage, has borne fruit. Perhaps the strong support offered by many British people in condemnation of our government’s refusal of asylum cases is even now demonstrating that a people largely indifferent to ‘politics’ has the capacity to be moved to respond when needs be. We carry within us daily the utter scandal of the cross and celebrate it daily in our Mass, and it must be this that we live by, this that penetrates our souls daily. We cannot afford ever to be comfortable with our faith, for it was forged in the foolishness of God, in the scandal of the cross, for a people he loved way beyond our deserving. If our actions in his name do not grate with the powers that be, then we will have failed to live as his beloved and redeemed children.