Saturday, 13 July 2013

The Parable of the Showing-Off Lawyer

Sermon for Sunday 14th July, on Luke 10:25-37

Gospel reading:
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “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 neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “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. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

-         If I asked you to illustrate that story, I wonder what scene you would choose to draw? Which scene is the one that you see in your head when someone says the Good Samaritan?

-          The lawyer testing Jesus? The man being beaten up, stripped and robbed? The priest, or levite, passing by on the other side? The Samaritan, washing his wounds? Or taking him to the inn on his own donkey? Or paying the innkeeper to carry on looking after him?

-         A couple of weeks ago I set Noah and Toby making this story in Lego (you can see the results here). They each chose a different scene to build, and got quite into making the details. Noah modeled the traveler being ambushed and beaten up. Toby chose to model the scene in the inn, with the wounded traveler in bed, and the Samaritan paying the innkeeper to look after him.

-         Interestingly, they both omitted entirely in their discussion with me the passing by on the other side, which we often hear and read as the main point of this story. The nasty religious authorities, more concerned with their own safety and purity than with the plight of an injured, or possibly dead, man at the side of the road. And that view of superficially righteous people is a common theme in anti-religious sentiment, its one we recognize from the press, and possibly from our own experience. Some members of many religions do indeed seem more concerned with keeping their faith and their church free from any contamination, than engaging riskily and at a real personal and financial cost with the needs they encounter. That’s why hypocrisy is one of the charges most frequently leveled at the church.

-         But we all know this story so well. We know that as Christians we are meant to see everyone – Muslim or Christian, black or white, etc etc, - as our neighbour. And by and large Christians have indeed taken this story to heart. We don’t need to know someone to feel responsible for helping them. We give to the foodbank, and to Christian Aid. 

-         So I’d like to focus instead on the scene that makes Jesus tell this story. A lawyer is testing Jesus – he wants to see if he will give the right answers, according to the book, on a multiple choice exam in being a good Jewish rabbi. And it was a big book. There weren’t just the Hebrew scriptures to know inside out, but books and books of oral tradition and commentary, learned answers to complicated questions. Being a lawyer then was rather like being a lawyer now – you had to know not just the letter of the law itself, but all the case history and learned opinions.

-         But the big difference was that law was a very major part of religious practice. Law and faith weren’t two different but related things as we now see them – they were very much the same thing. Keeping the law was what it was to be a good Jew, just as it is what it is to be a good Muslim. Christianity is very radically different from this. Christianity is not  and never has been about keeping the law. That is why it was so shocking, and why the scribes, Pharisees and lawyers found Jesus and his followers so scandalous. Even now, it is a shockingly radical approach to religion which some Christians find hard to accept, and try to impose new forms of law – who you can marry, who you can associate with, how much you must give, what sort of language you may and may not use, for example.

-         And yet….when Jesus turns the lawyers question back on him, and asks what he reads in the law, his answer is beautiful. It is aspirational, rather than achievable. It is poetic, rather than legalisitic.
-         He answered, “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 neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

-         And then what happens? The lawyer, wanting to justify himself, asks who qualifies as his neighbour. Wanting to justify himself. When I imagine myself in that lawyers shoes, I can imagine him squirming with embarrassment. He has stood up, in front of his peers, perhaps egged on by them – go on, you ask him! – perhaps trying to impress them. He has asked Jesus a killer question. I don’t need to imagine that – it happens all the time at academic conferences. A cocky Phd student stands up to ask the big shot big name speaker a sneaky, clever-clever question, not because he wants to know the answer, but because he wants everyone to applaud his cleverness and audacity. I’m sure you can all think of similar situations from your own working lives or circles of acquaintance – the person who shouts out clever comments during the pub quiz, perhaps; the relation who quizzes you on your latest holiday rather too loudly and always seems to have done something similar but more impressive just last year.

-         So we can imagine this lawyer looking round his friends and peers quite chuffed with himself – come on! Maybe with whatever the first century equivalent of one of those fist pumping or finger-lickin’ gestures.

-         And then Jesus turns the question on him. And he falls silent for a moment. What do you need to do to be saved? And he looks Jesus in the eye for what can only have been a second, but feels like a lifetime. 

-         And past his learning, past his desire to show off, past his professional mastery of the law, his answer, his deepest desire, surges up in his heart:  and before he knows what he is doing, it comes out of his mouth. 

-         “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 neighbor as yourself”

-         And Jesus holds his gaze a moment longer, and smiles, and nods.

-         And then – just when he is feeling a joy, a hunger, a thirst for holiness, a sense that somehow he has arrived at the place he has long been studying the maps for – 

-         Then. Behind him, someone sniggers. 

-         And he feels embarrassment pour over him, and his face and neck flush hot. What on earth has he just said?

-         And all too human, something I recognize only too well, in his embarrassment and fear that he has revealed something far too personal – he has been caught talking of religion as if he believed it, as if it meant something, he has just been heard by all his professional peers talking poetically of love, for crying out loud! – in his embarrassment, he asks another clever-clever question. ‘And who is my neighbour?’

-         It is his own statement, not Jesus’, that he is arguing with here! He was the one who said ‘love your neighbour as yourself’. And now he feels a fool, and he desperately tries to cover up his embarrassment by pretending his answer was a trap. Ah ha! You just agreed with me: right, can you get out of this one? It’s a classic lawyer technique. It might have worked with his peers. But we all know the story Jesus tells in response. And he tells it without interruptions: we can imagine the little group of lawyers caught up in the story, wondering what the punchline will be. And maybe some of them – they are lawyers after all – trying to second guess the punchline and work out what their next question will be.

-         And we can only imagine the response among the group of lawyers when Jesus tells them ‘Go, and do likewise’, and walks away.

-         Were they all embarrassed? Was there an awkward silence, and then a silent or subdued dispersal? Or did they cover their embarrassment, or their resentment, or the fact that they were moved despite themselves but don’t want to show it, with nervous laughter, or ribald jokes, or rude personal comments about Jesus’ personal hygiene?

-         We don’t know. The gospel moves swiftly on to the next incident, the next town, the next scandalous and outrageous encounter.

-         And we are left, like the lawyers, with a moment where we seemed to glimpse the truth, where our hearts leaped within us, where we longed to love God with all our hearts, soul, strength and mind, and our neighbour as ourselves…

-         …And with the moment after. When the standard set before us seems ridiculously unattainable. When the uncomfortable demands we would have to put on ourselves if we were to take it seriously make us nervously distance ourselves from the story. When we come away from that hot, dusty, rock strewn road, and ask awkward questions about how really, in this day and age, are we meant to help every passing stranger in trouble, and aren’t they likely to be junkies anyway so we might think we are helping but might actually be doing more harm than good, and what are our taxes for?

-         And many of those are good questions. But lets examine ourselves when we ask them, and ask silently, inwardly, honestly – are we asking them partly, at least, because like our lawyer friend we are embarrassed by our emotional response to Jesus, afraid of what our peers might think of us if we take God too seriously, wanting to distance ourselves from the terrifyingly awesome vision of holiness that we sometimes catch a glimpse of? 

-         I don’t think any of us, if we are honest, are actually planning to ‘go and do likewise’ this morning. And we are embarrassed about that. But lets try, try, to think of this not just as the story of the Good Samaritan, but as the story of the pushy and embarrassed lawyer. Because that is our story. And being aware of our own discomfort with the challenge Jesus presents helps keep us honest, and saves us from hypocrisy.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this really inspiring interpretation. I shall carry this in my mind today and try and let it travel to my heart!