In the name of God, Creating, Redeeming, and Giving us Life. Amen.
In recent years a lot of my inspiration for sermons has come from whatever books I’ve been reading. What that means is that while I quietly like to think of myself as someone who reads widely, my inspiration tends to come from the books that I read to my two daughters. Fortunately children’s books are a treasure trove of wisdom.
A particular favourite is this book. The 1980 classic The Paper Bag Princess. The story tells us of Princess Elizabeth who plans to marry Prince Ronald, who she thinks is perfect. However, a dragon arrives who destroys her castle, kidnaps Ronald, and burns all her clothes, so she must look for something to wear. Her only option is a paper bag. Elizabeth follows the dragon and Ronald as she seeks to rescue her fiancé. Elizabeth succeeds in outsmarting the dragon and rescues Ronald, who is ungrateful and tells her to return when she looks more like a princess. Elizabeth responds to this by saying
“Roland…your clothes are really pretty and your hair is very neat. You look like a real prince, but you are a bum.” And the story concludes with the words, “They didn’t get married after all.”
The story is regarded as a children’s classic, because it very cleverly undermines stereotypes. Instead of the time old story of a Prince overcoming challenges in order to rescue a helpless princess who then serves as a trophy for his achievements, this story makes the princess the hero. Her great discovery at the end of the story is that she doesn’t need to be defined by any man at all. That’s a story I am very happy to share with my daughters.
We all hold stereotypes. The word itself comes to us from Greek and literally means a strong or firm impression. We all know the cliché “first impressions last.” While not without its exceptions there is some truth to that statement. Once we form an impression it can be very difficult to assimilate new information about someone that doesn’t fit with that first impression.
Stereotypes are not only limited to individuals but can apply to entire groups. This is where stereotypes become problematic. Unacknowledged stereotypes can lead to prejudice and discrimination.
It is difficult for us to appreciate what a masterful piece of storytelling the Parable of the Good Samaritan is. Firstly because it is probably the single best known bible story ever. In fact it is so well known in the world beyond the church walls that many people aren’t even aware of just where the story comes from. But the second reason we don’t entirely appreciate the story of the Good Samaritan is because it is a story that makes its point through exposing stereotypes. In the first century this story would have been deeply uncomfortable to a Jewish audience. It is not uncomfortable for us because we do not share the stereotypes of Jesus’ time.
When Jesus told this story the first assumption a listener would have made is that the priest would help the injured man. But he doesn’t. Then they hear that a Levite comes past. Again the assumption would be that this good man would surely help. But he passes by as well. Then comes the Samaritan. This time the assumption is that this foreign man will also pass by. A Jewish listener would not expect this person to stop. That is the twist in the tale. The good person is the one who is assumed to be bad.
The parable says far more than, the Samaritan is good and the clergy are bad. Although I accept that particular suggestion is clearly there. The important point is that neighbourly love is intentional. The Samaritan is different from the clergy not because he is kind and they are not. The difference is that for whatever reason when he saw a problem the Samaritan chose to walk towards it, rather than walking away from it. Kindness or mercy, the acts that characterise the Samaritan as the injured man’s neighbour, are intentional acts. Being a neighbour is not about doing no harm to others. The priest and the Levite certainly didn’t make the plight of the injured man worse. They did no harm. Their moral failing was in doing nothing when both had the power to do something.
Now, at this point, you’re probably beginning to wonder if you’re going to hear anything new about this parable. Bear with me, I’m about to go lateral.
I was very lucky three years ago in that after years of imagining just what the world of Jesus was like, I finally got to go to Israel/Palestine. A big part of going to the holy land is having the opportunity to put biblical stories into context. Some of us know how certain biblical images fail to translate to the New Zealand context. A small example of this is the gospel narrative in which Jesus talks about separating sheep and goats. As New Zealanders we have a pretty clear idea of what sheep are all about. And we know that picking out the goats is no challenging task.
Twenty years ago I spent six months in Saudi Arabia, and one of the things I learnt there was the distinction between sheep and goats is not always as clear as I had assumed. These are sheep and goats mixed together, and frankly they look pretty similar.
This was taken on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.”
This image is the setting for the parable of the Good Samaritan. As you can see, it is a lonely arid place. Certainly if you were assaulted and left for dead out here, you wouldn’t last terribly long.
I can’t help but wonder just where the story came from. I cannot prove this, but my suspicion is that either Jesus knew someone who had experienced being set upon by bandits, something that was very common in that time, or maybe he had been the victim of such an assault.
My reason for suggesting that is twofold. Firstly, there is a realism to this story, which is another way of saying it does not feel like a story that someone simply made up on the spot. Secondly, the motivations behind the teaching of Jesus, to love our neighbour, must have been born of experience. It takes a lot for a person to dare to suggest that someone who is racially, religiously and socially different is actually the exemplar of loving service. If we dare to think that Jesus might have been the man dying in the ditch, the man who is not helped by his own people but rather by a hated foreigner, maybe we can begin to understand his character in a new way.
When I was standing where I took this photo, I was part of a study group. One of the leaders of that group led a short reflection. He spoke of the barrenness of the landscape, how little life there was, that sort of thing. And certainly his words carried a certain resonance.
However, I couldn’t help but think of how beautiful this landscape was, and how surprisingly full of life. All sorts of birds and insects were all over the place. Yes, this is a barren landscape in that it is not particularly hospitable to human life, but there is a living community in that place. Thinking about the command to love our neighbour in this context asks us to think about the value we put on this kind of environment. An environmental reading of the command to love our neighbour encourages us to see even the smallest lifeforms living in such a place as a valuable and important part of creation. When we think of loving our neighbour do we consider sparrows, scorpions and spiders to be our neighbours? Do we care as much for the weeds clinging to these cliffs as we do for other human beings, or do we disregard this place because it is inhospitable to us as a species?
One final reflection on the Good Samaritan story. The setting for this story in the time of Jesus, happens to be the same place where the Israeli government has built a number of illegal Jewish settlements today.
Now when we talk of Jewish settlements we need to be clear what we are talking about. When I think of settlements the picture that comes to my mind is something like a traditional Maori Pa site. It may surprise you that this is not an unfair comparison.
These settlements are similar to Pa sites in that they are fortified and are located in a place of strategic significance, in most cases a hilltop. These settlements are highly defensible.
Another thing I will draw your attention to is that these settlements tend to be quite green, because they have significant access to water. By comparison the Bedouin encampment in the valley below this settlement sources all of its water from a single hose. Palestinian settlements on the West Bank have to store water in tanks because the Israelis only release water to the West Bank two or three days every month. This is the landscape today in which Jesus located the parable of neighbourly love. It would seem that there are still many lessons to be learnt here.
Now it is easy to point out the shortcomings of other people at a distance. In fact it is really safe for us to sit on the other side of the world and talk about the challenges of peace in the Middle East as if we have no problems of our own. But to do so is to avoid the real challenge of the parable. The question we must ask ourselves is the same question raised by the lawyer, “and who is my neighbour?”
Is my neighbour the person in our community who is unable to reasonable accommodation at a reasonable cost? Is my neighbour the victim of one of the recent acts of guns violence in this city? Is my neighbour one of the many animals at the RSPCA needing a home? Perhaps my neighbour is one of the waterways that is increasingly polluted due to unsustainable farming practices? What if I could call the air that we breathe a neighbour as well. If I were to really love the air as my neighbour would I be prepared to use my car less, to save for an electric car instead of another continental?
The call to love our neighbour is a call to participate in the changing of this world for the better. Jesus, who was ever the pragmatist suggested that the way we make change is by starting with those closest to us and to move on from there. The choice to eat less meat, to plant more trees, to drive less often, to fly less often, to volunteer time, to give to charity, to share a meal, to saying thank you at the supermarket checkout are all expressions of loving our neighbour. Jesus was not asking us to do the impossible, but rather to be intentional about doing the good that we can. Amen.