Loving Our Neighbours Well–July 10, 2016

The Parable of the Good Samaritan

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 neighbour 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 neighbour?”  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 neighbour 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.”

Luke 10:25-37, NRSV

The lawyer would have categorized people into the “people I will love” category and the “people I will ignore” category, but Jesus will not have it that way.  It is in the context of a person searching for a loophole, for a way around the established expectation that he himself knows and has just vocalized, that Jesus tells this story – one of the better-known stories in the Bible.  The parable of the Good Samaritan portrays three philosophies of life.  The robber’s philosophy was “What you have is mine, and I will take it.”  The priest and Levite had the philosophy that “What is mine is mine, and I will keep it.” The Samaritan’s philosophy was “What is mine is yours, and I will share it.”  Jesus endorsed the Samaritan’s philosophy and said, “Go and do likewise.”

The way we apply this parable to our lives is a tricky thing.  Taken strictly to the letter, the application would only be in the situation where we come upon injured people by the side of the road.  That person is our neighbour, and that set of circumstances does not come up often, so we – as the lawyer questioning Jesus desires to – we would acquit ourselves of the obligations of loving our neighbours.  So let’s look at each of those worldviews that are highlighted in the parable, and see if the parable doesn’t say something more relevant.

Now there’s no question that the point is that we would offer ourselves in the service of others.  “What is mine is yours, and I will share it.”  This is what Jesus is getting at.  “There is nothing greater in love than that a man should lay down his life for his neighbour.  When a [person] hears a complaining word and struggles against himself, and does not [] begin to complain; when a person bears and injury with patience, and does not look for revenge; that is when a person lays down her life for her neighbour.”  Poemen offers an interpretation of the parable that shows love at work through active passivity toward, or resistance of, the promulgation of evil.  How often do we have opportunity to show the loving attitude of the Holy Spirit by refraining from complaining, or to bear wrong at the hands of others with patience?  This is love.

And consider the insights of St. Augustine of Hippo, who scaled the global repercussions of Jesus’ directive to the level of the street: “All men are to be loved equally.  But since you cannot do good to all, you are to pay special regard to those who, by the accidents of time, or place, or circumstance, are brought into closer connection with you.”  That is, the people you have contact with.  These, then, are our neighbours, to whom we are to show the same loving care that we give ourselves.  They’re the people sitting on either side of you, right now.

John Calvin observed: “Nothing can be plainer than this rule: that our liberty should be used if it conduces to our neighbour’s edification; but if it is not beneficial to our neighbour, it should be abridged.”  Which statement is opened up to us in these words of Anthony of Padua: “See!  The ladder is set up!  Why do you not ascend?  Why do you creep with your hands and feet upon the earth?  Ascend, therefore, because Jacob sees angels ascending and descending by the ladder.  Ascend, O angels, O prelates of the Church, O faithful of Jesus Christ, ascend, I say, to contemplate how gracious the Lord is!  Ascend, to assist; ascend, to consult; for of these things your neighbour stands in need.”  And so we recognize that true love for our neighbour works for aiding them in drawing closer to God.  As the famous atheist magician Penn (of Penn & Teller fame) has pointed out: “How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?  I mean, If I believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that a truck was coming at you and you didn’t believe it, … there’s a certain point where I tackle you, and [everlasting life] is more important than  that.”  If we love our neighbours as we love ourselves, we are compelled to work towards ushering them into the Kingdom of God.

We are also warned that there is a balance to be kept in this, for a person with two needs (perhaps hungering and thirsting, though in our case physical and spiritual) cannot have one without the other, and so St. Augustine of Hippo reminds: “No man has a right to lead such a life of contemplation as to forget in his own ease the service due to his neighbour; nor has any man a right to be so immersed in active life as to neglect the contemplation of God.”  Bernard of Clairvaux offers the framework for these loving efforts on behalf of others: “In order that love for our neighbour be entirely right, God must have His part in it; it is not possible to love our neighbour as we ought to do, except in God.  Now he that does not love God can love nothing in Him.  We must therefore begin by loving God, and so love our neighbour in Him.”  And so the attitude of the Samaritan – that “what is mine is at your disposal” – is commended to us in Jesus’ words, “Go and do likewise.”

What, then, of that attitude of the priest and Levite in Jesus’ story: “What is mine is mine, and I will keep it”?  Catherine of Siena asked: “Against whom does pride bring forth evils?  Against the neighbour, through love of one’s own reputation; whence comes hatred of the neighbour, reputing one’s self to be greater than he; and in this way is injury done to him.”  We are faced with many opportunities to go the way of pride, or the way of humility – to keep what is ours to ourselves, or otherwise.  Which is the way of love for neighbours as for ourselves?

Against this attitude, insular and isolating, St. Francis of Assissi wrote that “Blessed is that brother who would love his brother as much when he is ill and not able to assist him as he loves him when he is well and able to assist him.  Blessed is the brother who would love and fear his brother as much when he is far from him as he would when with him, and who would not say anything about him behind his back that he could not with charity say in his presence.”  The rallying cry, to this wrong way of thinking, is found in the words “What will I get out of it?”  Jesus challenges us, and St. Francis really echoes His challenge, to think – instead – in terms of “What can I put in?”

Sermon prepared already, I woke up this morning to an article that will be in an upcoming Anglican Journal that describes a presentation given to our national church’s General Synod, which is in session now, by a man who was a Fort Mac evacuee.

He said: “I have never seen in my life such an outpouring of the Holy Spirit… Everything that I had considered important ceased to matter.  I had not job.  I had no house.  I had no property.  Everything I thought up to that point was important was not… at any given time, your neighbour’s sound asleep.  In the day, the night – it doesn’t matter… There were people literally with their backyards on fire trying to break into their neighbour’s house while their kids were sitting in their vehicle.  That is the kind of love and grace that – I can’t even put it into words.”  He said: “The miracle was that everybody stopped asking, ‘What can I get out of this?’ ‘What’s in this for me?’ and said, ‘What can I do for my neighbour?’”

And so the challenge is really to stop thinking of what’s mine – privilege, resource, right – as my own, but only as mine for a time.  How, then, can I dispose of it in a way that brings honour to God, who gave it to me, rather than to build up my own name, in prideful rebellion against Him?  Jesus, then, will not have His followers live by such terms as the priest and Levite in His parable.  What is mine is not mine; I will not keep it.

How, then, can we guard ourselves against the third way of thinking that we see portrayed in Jesus’ parable – the way of thinking that the robber embraces, “What’s yours is mine, and I will take it”?  None of us would condone such an attitude with regard to the property of others, would we?  But how easily people rob one another of dignity!  How easily people devalue one another and tear each other down!  And sometimes we even do so under the guise of being helpful!  Hugh of St. Victor warns us: “Look … into yourself as well when you have to correct another, and acknowledge that you also are a sinner and subject to frailty, lest you also be grievously tempted, if your admonition proceeds more from irritation than from compassion.  Let the correction be prompted by love for the persons and hatred of all vices.  And let this love of the neighbour and hatred of all that is wrong always be maintained, so that we may be sever with error but at the same time have a tender compassion for the weakness of human nature.”  “There may be found some who rebuke the failings of their neighbours rather in the bitterness of hatred than out of charity, and not so much with a view to correct them as to give vent to the bad feeling they have in their hearts.  This is certainly not according to God’s will, as it is prompted by revenge rather than by a love of discipline.”

And so we have many examples of how we might love our neighbours as ourselves, which range far beyond the instance of coming upon a wounded traveler by the side of the road.  To refrain from spreading evil speech; to share salvation in Christ along with care for physical needs; to keep God first and above all else; to keep away from the selfishness of pride, greed, and self-centredness; to give away rather than to gain; to respect the dignity of others and not to degrade them in our own eyes or the eyes of others.  To love our neighbours as ourselves is not a matter of who our neighbours are, but of the attitude in each of our hearts.  In a world where the events of this past week in Baghdad and Dallas (to name only two) are more and more commonplace, such radical love for our neighbours is desperately needed.  Would you bow your heads with me as I pray John Calvin’s words:

“Grant, Almighty God, that as you have adopted us for this end, that we may show brotherly kindness one toward another, and labour for our mutual benefit – O grant that we may prove by the whole tenor of our life, that we have not been called in vain by you, but that we may so live in harmony with each other, that integrity and innocence may prevail among us.  May we so strive to benefit one another that your name may be thus glorified by us, until having at length finished our course, we reach the goal which you have set before us, that having at last gone through all the evils of this life, we may come to that blessed rest which has been prepared for us in heaven by Christ our Lord.  Amen.”

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