15th Sunday in Ordinary Time
This Sunday there will I expect be many folk in pews and pulpits trying to make sense of the violence in America; particularly where in Dallas a peaceful protest against violence turned into chaos, violence and death. Can the scriptures speak to us against that grim context?
This morning we read our way to the gospel through the Old Testament and the tough and relentless voice of Amos. It is quite startling to read Amos; to hear how uncompromising he is; and to hear how the religious authorities tried to shut him up, and failed. They found him an uncomfortable presence and they hated what he had to say. At the heart of who Amos is, is that image of the plumb line, a measure of straightness – of what is true and what is not. To have that sense of the plumb line held against our lives, against who we are and what we are not, is uncomfortable.
A few hundred years after Amos another member of the establishment tests Jesus with a plumb line question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus asks him what the Jewish tradition prescribes and he comes back with the proper ‘ten out of ten’ plumb line answer:
"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."
When told to do just that, the lawyer “wanting to justify himself” asks the question that prompts the parable with which we are all so familiar but which forces us to discover that the plumb line of God’s love is not always as we have imagined.
The story has a context: Jesus is journeying to Jerusalem through Samaria and the region and its people, the Samaritans, have a family history and feud between them and the Jews. In a word: the Jews think the Samaritans are wrong; the Samaritans think the Jews are wrong; and neither will have anything to do with the other. So with that in the back of our minds we have this story of a Jewish man who got into trouble and was not helped by either of his Jewish neighbours, either the priest or the Levite. So happens that it is the Samaritan who helps this Jew who has got into trouble: and in this story boundaries have been crossed; generations of feuds have been set aside; all the luggage and prejudice of the past have been stepped over. All this is accomplished when this one (fictional) Samaritan responds to raw human need and recognises in this bloodied and ruined man someone whom he chooses to help regardless of everything else.
We know this story as the parable of the ‘Good Samaritan’ and the phrase is a cliché in our everyday language; we use it as a standard term for somebody who helps another in distress. It has long ago lost any sense of shock, of contradiction or of an oxymoron. We don’t hear it as first century Jews would have heard it. For centuries before Jesus the tension between Samaritans and Jews had existed and the idea of a ‘good Samaritan’ was no cliché but a challenge, a provocation, a paradox, an oxymoron – there could be no such thing as a ‘good’ Samaritan!
So how do we read this parable? The story presumes that compassionate help is the correct response and it has traditionally been read as modelling moral behaviour – giving us an example on how we are to behave. But, set that against the plumb-line image in Amos, it forces me to think more deeply, more critically. The parable is not about how to behave; it is not about being kind or even good. It is about the person I am or am becoming; it is about how I see the world. This parable is not an example but a challenge to make us think long and hard about our “social prejudices,…cultural assumptions and … even (our) most sacred religious traditions.”
We are like that lawyer who asks “Who is my neighbour” and then find that the boundaries we have set ourselves or simply accepted over time and habit are really irrelevant in the great purpose of God and that we are being called into a deeper understanding, a deeper connection that will change everything we have previously thought we understood as given and settled.
This is not an abstract proposition but a life-giving realization – and we only have to look at the terrible news of killings of black people by police in the USA this week and those terrible murders of white police officers by a sniper in Dallas – to see the consequences of the limits and boundaries we surround ourselves with. We have to think again.
That is why we are here. We are here to be changed. A Jewish mystic said this about prayer:
“Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods.” (Abraham Heschel, 1907-1972).