Sermon: July 10 2016

Readings

Deuteronomy 30:10-14

Colossians 1:15-20

Luke 10:25-37

One perfectly sensible way to tell the story of social psychology is to begin at the Holocaust. In the wake of what seemed to be unimaginable horror, there was a desperate need to understand how such a thing could have happened, not least so that we might be able to avoid it happening again. And so, the Jewish diaspora, particularly in the United States, took it upon themselves to investigate the issue: thus was born a field obsessed with such dark matters as intergroup conflict, stereotyping, prejudice, ostracism, and dehumanization. The tragedy is that these psychologists have, in the past seventy or so years after the War, found time and time again how terribly commonplace, terribly normal this darkness is among and within us. We are, all of us, prone to inhumanity.

+++

Who is my neighbour? he asks, meaning: whom am I required to love, even as I love myself, that I may inherit everlasting life? Jesus, in this most famous of parables, seems to refuse to answer the question. Instead he speaks of a man, beaten and abandoned, who was helped, not by a priest or a Levite—people with whom this interlocutor would have identified—but by a Samaritan, an outgroup member, as social psychologists would say. The traveller’s own social identity is left ambiguous, but it seems safe to assume that the lawyer would have read him as Jewish: after all, the parable is reminiscent of an old story in the book of Chronicles, in which Samarian warriors released their wounded captives—soldiers from the Kingdom of Judah—having clothed and shod, anointed and fed them, and even returned them home on donkeys to Jericho. This is therefore not a story about who our neighbours are, whom we should love as ourselves, so much as a story about whose neighbours we are, by whom we are loved. In characteristic fashion, Jesus turns the legalistic question on its head.

This reversal casts the Samaritan—the other—in unexpected light. The other is not a threat, not a violent criminal or a vigorous competitor or a voracious consumer of state-funded welfare. Nor is he merely an object of charity, a passive recipient of our magnanimity, our neighbourly love. He is neither to be feared, nor to be pitied. Rather, in this story, he—the other, the Samaritan—is the saviour: the one without whom we would have perished, abandoned by our peers, left to die alone.   

This is not a story about who our neighbours are, but about whose neighbours we are. To be sure, there is a symmetry to the relation of being a neighbour: if A is a neighbour of B, then B must be a neighbour of A. In this sense, the parable of the Good Samaritan is, of course, a perfectly sensible answer to the lawyer’s question. But this flipping on the head of the question is not without its significance. Jesus does not just tell his interlocutor to love the Samaritan: he tells him to be like the Samaritan. Be like the other: the immigrant, the refugee, the ethnic minority, the religious nonconformist, the queer and gender nonconforming. Love, like they love themselves, like you love yourself.

+++

Seventy or so years after the Holocaust, and we don’t know much, but we do know that there is no silver bullet with which to vanquish our deep-seated instincts to favour those we deem to be like us, even to the detriment of those we deem to be unlike us. We live in insecure times, and such insecurity and anxiety has a way of sharpening our boundaries and our claws. In such times, we are prone to build walls, rather than bridges, whatever the Pope might have to say about the matter.

Here, at this University, social psychologists tend to favour what is called the “contact hypothesis”: familiarity with the other, so the research suggests, breeds liking. The well-known problem with this strategy is that the individuals with whom we come into contact and whom we discover we like are often re-categorised, and so prejudices about the group itself remain stubbornly and unrepentantly unfalsified. I cringe whenever someone tells me, under the false assumption that it is a compliment, that they don’t see me as Chinese. The implication is that I’m not like the rest of them, those foreigners, to be kept at arm’s length.

In the wider culture, there is also the move to “not see race”: that is, to behave as though there are no differences between groups of people. As noble as this is, not least as an attempt to reduce stereotyping, it also risks collapsing into the hegemony of the culturally dominant. To ignore difference and otherness is, all too often, to refuse to make space for them, to ignore their needs and preferences and grievancesg and unique contributions to the common good. Thus, so-called “men’s rights” activism against feminism and the #alllivesmatter strategy of denying the systematic bias against Black Americans. When we say that we want us all to share the same values or speak the same language or worship the same God, we usually mean that others should share our values, our language, our God. We want cooperation and unity and friendship and peace, to be sure, but only on our terms. The problem, for Christians, is that the gospel simply does not let us buy peace on the cheap.

+++

In our fervent commitment to the doctrine of the Incarnation, we typically emphasize God’s becoming one of us, like us in every respect. This is, of course, well and good. But given our current social and cultural contexts, Christ is also other. As appropriate as it is for people around the world to depict Christ in creative and contextual ways, we are rightly disturbed by that all too familiar image of the White Jesus, whether in his Aryan form or his American Republican one. Jesus of Nazareth is, in one sense, every man, woman, and child; but, at the same time, is—in scandalous particularity—a Middle Eastern peasant, once a refugee, now in occupied territory, a convicted criminal, a man on death row. It is this poor foreigner on the margins of society who is the image of the invisible God, in whom and for whom and through whom all things were created, in heaven and on earth, in whom all of the fullness of God is pleased to dwell.

This strange man, through whom God reconciles all things, makes peace with his blood, and calls us—not least in our dying, in the waters of baptism; and our offering ourselves to be broken and spilt, in the eucharist—(calls us) to do the same.

Who is my neighbour? we ask. And what we are told is that Christ is our neighbour, and therefore our call is not just to be nice to those different from us, but to see Christ in them, and to love them accordingly: in the other, the very Christ who saves us, even from ourselves, our prejudices, our insecurities and anxieties, the wounds of our privilege: the callouses on our hearts, the scales in our eyes, our limbs withered with inaction and apathy. What we are told is to see, in the other: Christ, who holds us all, together. Come, let us go and do likewise.      

Sermon: July 14th 2013

Readings

Amos 7:7-17

Psalm 82

Deuteronomy 30:9-14

Colossians 1:1-14

Luke 10:25-37

 

Give justice to the weak and the orphan;

   maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. 

Rescue the weak and the needy;

   deliver them from the hand of the wicked.

Words from the 82nd Psalm.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

Who is my neighbour?

By which he means:

whom must I love?

whom must I love to inherit eternal life,

as if this inheritance depended on so fragile, on so inconsistent a thing as our ability to love.

The great twentieth-century German theologian Karl Barth once remarked that British theology was incurably Pelagian, referring to that great fourth-century heretic allegedly born in the British Isles. Never mind what Pelagius really thought or said; his name is now synonymous with the idea that to be saved, we must first be good, and being good is a matter of pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps in order to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.

Our contemporary intuitions about the parable of the Good Samaritan are, as Karl Barth would say, incurably Pelagian. Clearly, it seems to us, Jesus’s response to the lawyer specifies the condition of salvation. What should he do to inherit eternal life? Love everyone, even the Samaritan. The power of the punchline is in its surprising rigour, the terrible difficulty of qualifying for life in God’s kingdom. Go and do likewise, says Jesus: I dare you to try.

 +++

This is, of course, heretical nonsense. And yet, and yet, heresy aside, this is a morally interesting reading of Luke’s gospel. It is, among other things, a liberalizing force that continues to compel us to widen our circle of empathy to those traditionally considered other, outsiders, even outcasts. We are to love strangers; even more than that, we are to love those whom we are told are our enemies; we are—as the Psalmist says—to “give justice to the weak and the orphan” and “maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute”, even when they are from a different religion, a different cultural background, a different psychological disposition, even when they share different beliefs and values and preferences. Looking back at the history of this country, we can—British Christians—be proud of the part we played in the expansion of moral inclusion: in the abolition of slavery, the decriminalization of homosexuality, the education of children from the lower classes, and the promotion of religious freedom for non-Christians. We can and should also be ashamed of the many times we have fallen short of this call, times when others have had to rescue the weak and needy from our wicked hands. Perhaps most importantly, we can and should and must bear this reading of this parable in mind looking forward, as we continue to engage with issues of immigration and religious pluralism and socioeconomic inequality and gender and sexuality. Whom are we to love? Our neighbours, Christian or otherwise, poor and rich, women and men, gay and straight, politically liberal and conservative, culturally alien and familiar.

It is a morally exemplary ideal, and yet we—like Pelagius—have things the wrong way around. The logic of salvation—of life, eternal and abundant—is precisely not that it is conditional upon our successfully loving everyone, beyond familial and familiar borders, across lines of ethnicity and enmity. Rather, as our spiritual fathers and mothers knew, the freedom to love beyond our nature is the consequence of salvation, not its causal antecedent. And so to ancient eyes, from Irenaeus to Clement, Origen to Augustine, it is not the Good Samaritan that we are meant to identify with, but the traveller on the road to Jericho. Far from being equipped with steed and ointment, we are abandoned empty-handed, unable to move for ourselves. Far from being generous and kind, we are at the mercy of the improbable kindness and generosity of passers-by. We are, according this oft-forgotten reading of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, neighbours to Christ who binds our wounds and saves us, bringing us to safety at great price. To the lawyer’s question—Who is my neighbour?—Jesus tells a parable in which we are his neighbour, whom he loves as himself.

 +++

Who is my neighbour?

By which he really means:

how am I to be saved?
how am I to obtain this new kind of life?

On this ancient interpretation, life is given, not earned; the wayfarer does nothing but receive the generous intervention of one from whom he is meant to be estranged. It is, that is to say, the diametric opposite of the Pelagian view. The gospel of self-sufficiency and individualistic independence is, whatever its merits, not the gospel handed down to us from the apostles. Jesus’s answer to his interlocutor’s real question—What must I do to inherit eternal life?—is to tell him how a good stranger pulls us out of death and darkness, who bears our burdens and loves us with reckless abandon. What must we do to inherit eternal life? Nothing. It is only upon hearing this good news that the next question can be asked: whom must we love? Everyone.

Now, go and do likewise.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.