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.

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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.

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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. 

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