Preached at Christ The King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Crown Village of Ralston, AB, The Eighth Sunday After Pentecost, 14 July, 2013.
Lectionary Texts For Proper 10, Yr C: Deuteronomy 30:9-14, Psalm 25:1-10, Colossians 1:1-14, Luke 10:25-37
I am almost finished my tour here at Suffield. This is my penultimate sermon here. Next Sunday's will be the last one and then I will be going on hiatus as a weekly preacher while I pursue two years of graduate studies. God willing I will still preach from time to time.
Our gospel reading today, the parable of the Good Samaritan, is Jesus' answer to the question of "who is my neighbour?". The questioner is a pious man who, we sense, is hoping to find reasonable limits on his religious obligation to be concerned with the welfare of others. The parable, the story of a religious outsider who helps a helpless stranger at cost to himself when religious insiders would not bother, seems to say that there are no limits on our obligation to be concerned with the welfare of others. In response to the pious man's question of "who is my neighbour", Jesus' answer is "everyone".
Like many of Jesus' parables which place ethical demands on his followers, this parable asks a lot of us. The Samaritan becomes involved in the life of the stricken man, paying a price in terms of time, convenience, personal goods and money. Regarding the latter, he doesn't even put limits on his risk, simply telling the innkeeper that on his return he will "repay whatever more you spend". While the Good Samaritan story is often mentioned in first aid courses I have taken, the price of concern for others here is considerably more than applying bandages or doing CPR while someone calls 911. The parable hints at a depth of love and self-giving that does not become fully visible to his followers until Jesus goes to the cross.
"A man was going down to Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers". Like the pious man who asks Jesus "who is my neighbour", I find myself hoping that God will allow me reasonable limits on my charity. As long as the parable is about a single body, about one person lying stricken, I can imagine myself rising to the challenge. One person seems doable. I could see myself stopping to help one person, especially if it was an unusual, even shocking occasion, like an accident on the side of a lonely prairie road. But what if the sight of that stricken person wasn't that unusual? What if the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was infested with robbers, and it was an everyday occurrence to find their victims? What if the road was strewn with bodies?
In the opening of his book Exclusion and Embrace, Croatian born theologian Miroslav Volf asks this very question. Exclusion is Volf's word for the human capacity, seemingly innate, to switch off our concern for others and even to seek to harm them because of their difference from us. Volf's own experience of wars in the former Yugoslavia allowed him to see this tendency and its extremes, such as ethnic cleansing, first hand. Ethnic cleansing for Volf is an extreme version of the human tendency to practice exclusion, where "Like the robbers in the story of the Good Samaritan we strip, beat, and dump people somewhere outside our proper space half dead." It is also possible, and indeed more common, argues Volf, for us to practice exclusion by abandonment, excluding others by placing them beyond the reasonable limits of our concern, so that "Like the priest and the Levite ... we simply cross to the other side and pass by, minding our own business".
For Volf as a theologian, exclusion is not simply a human tendency or practice that is to be lamented, avoided, and legislated against. Rather, it is part of our sinful state, meaning the distortion of God's creation and intention for the world. Because sin leads us to see the world in a self-based way, as a ceaseless competition "in a world of scarce resources and contested power", we default to a position where the best we can hope for is that we and those like us come out of this competition on top. This stance leads us to dehumanize others, not in the sense that we would willfully harm others, but in the sense that we can manage to ignore them, and see the suffering of others as the normal state of affairs. As Volf puts it, "I reason: the road from Jerusalem to Jericho will always be littered by people beaten and left half-dead; I can pass - I must pass - by each without much concern."
The opposite of exclusion in Volf's book is what he calls embrace. He defines embrace as the willingness to meet the stranger and to be open to the needs of the stranger without insisting that he or she be like us. This tendency does not come naturally to we who are so thoroughly implicated and grounded in the world of sin and exclusion. Embrace is practiced literally by the Samaritan, who is often depicted in art as physically lifting the beaten man from the ground and placing him on his donkey (or whatever animal it was). Embrace is a stance that is only possible to us because of the self-giving, what Volf calls the self-donation, of Christ. It is only the self-giving of Christ on the cross as the culmination and embodiment of his life, character, and teaching, that breaks the rule of exclusion and allows us to see another way, which the gospels call the kingdom of God.
Left to ourselves, we will not rise to meet the ethical demand of this parable, despite Jesus' final words to his questioner, "Go and do likewise". As Volf would say, we are too deeply implicated in the system of exclusion to successfully meet that challenge. The parable only works if it is seen as an opening, as a partial breaking through of God's kingdom. The key, I think, is Jesus' explanation of the Samaritan's motives that he is "filled with pity". The emotion of pity is often given in the gospels as the motive for Jesus' actions (eg Mk 1:41, Lk 7:11-17. Pity is the dynamic of embrace. It allows us to meet the stranger and to have some glimpse of their condition, some empathic connection that is not exclusion (defined as domination, the desire to remake the stranger into our own image, or destruction, the desire to remove the stranger through violence or neglect). Pity and self-giving are the powers displayed on the cross, for all our sakes. They are intrinsic to the mind of Christ which Paul exhorts us to take on and be transformed by. It is a tall order, to be willing to look on the stranger, to approach them, even embrace them and take on the dirt and blood that might come with the embrace. But that is our calling as followers of Jesus, and it is what he gives us the power to do, however reluctantly, for have we not already stepped into that kingdom ruled by embrace rather than exclusion? As we heard Paul say in our second lesson, "He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins" (Col 1:13-14). Amen.