July 14, 2013

Jericho Road 1

Sermon for Trinity 6. Yr. C. ( Luke 10, 25-37)

When a preacher stands up here on a Sunday morning, you have certain expectations of what will happen. If I were to start performing a pop song, or a magic trick, or threw a football into the congregation, you might think it was something to do with the sermon, but if I carried on without making a serious point, you’d be confused; and if I started to wash my hair or clean my teeth, you would not only be confused, you’d be embarrassed, and a lot of you would think “She’s lost the plot! She obviously doesn’t know where she is!”

But I do know where I am. I’m on the Jericho road – and so are you!

We all operate for most of our life with a set of expectations about what will happen, what will be said and done, and how other people will behave. These expectations are based on clues given by place, dress, tradition, conventions, stereotypes and our previous experience. Life would be pretty impossible if we couldn’t operate that way, if we had to make decisions from scratch about how cope with all the different experiences that face us every day as with live in our families and in the world.

But those expectations don’t operate on the Jericho road.

They don’t operate because the Jericho road exists in the world of the parable – and the parable faces its hearers with a situation which turns all their previous expectations upside down.

Some Biblical scholars have made it their life’s work to try to find the authentic words of Jesus: those words which Jesus actually spoke, rather than those which were put into his mouth by the preachers and teachers of the Early Church. Most of the arguments and dialogue with his opponents, like the conversations with which Luke surrounds the parable of the Good Samaritan are thought not to be authentic, but the additions of the gospel writers. But the parables themselves, with their subversive reversal of expectations, are judged to be the authentic voice of Jesus, a voice which proclaims the values of the Kingdom, and in doing so redraws the map of the social and religious world in which we operate.

And the Jericho road is one of the most important places on that map.

The Jericho road is a dangerous place and a frightening place. On the Jericho road there are no rules, no boundaries and our stereotypes have no foundation. On the Jericho road, everything is turned upside down. And this is because, on the Jericho road, we meet God, and we must operate by God’s values and according to God’s expectations.

JERICHO Road 2The lawyer who asked Jesus questions about how to inherit eternal life thought he knew how to travel the Jericho road. He thought it was a matter of following the religious rules and knowing all the right definitions. But those rules and those definitions prevented him from actually encountering God. The parable, which was Jesus’ answer to his questions, broke through all those neat definitions of a ‘neighbour’ that centuries of rabbinic refinement had constructed, definitions that excluded anyone who wasn’t Jewish, anyone who didn’t keep a host of nit-picking rules, anyone who wasn’t conventionally religious.

The parable overturned the expectation that the first duty of a religious functionary was to keep himself pure and undamaged for the performance of religious rites. The parable reversed the stereotype of the Samaritan as one who would react to an injured Jew with hostility. For in the parable, the Samaritan plays the role of God, and as God, he reacts to the situation with compassion.

‘Compassion’ in English is a fairly bland word. But as used of God, it has an enormous depth of meaning. God in the Old Testament is a God of ‘hesed’ a Hebrew word for which there is no adequate English translation. As well as compassion it includes love, kindness, faithfulness, tenderness, consistency, pity, dependability and humanity. But above all it involves a passion that our nice English translations fail to convey. When God looks down on wayward humanity, when the Samaritan sees the wounded man on the Jericho road they are filled with an emotion that is gut-wrenching in its intensity. It is an emotion that knows no boundaries of race, tribe, religion, gender or status. It is an emotion which puts human need first, and an emotion that demands action.

And the parable of the Good Samaritan tells us that, if we want to experience eternal life, we ordinary people must feel as God feels, and act as God acts, whenever we find ourselves on the Jericho road.

One of the problems with parables is that we tend to take them too literally. So we apply the teaching about helping our neighbour only in situations of physical danger, we update the parable in terms of mugging and road accidents, we change the good Samaritan into a person of another race, or class – or the supporter of a rival football team. Of course, we might find ourselves on the Jericho road on a real road, as we drive along or walk to school. But it won’t necessarily be so. We could find ourselves on the Jericho road anywhere, at any time, in any situation when we are faced with a decision that calls upon us to show God’s compassion to our fellow human beings.

For the Jericho road runs through our daily lives, through our homes and our schools and our workplaces. We are on the Jericho road whenever we have to choose to act, or stand by and do nothing, to say something or keep silent; whenever we vote, whenever we have to respond to a planning application that might affect our comfort or the value of our property, and whenever we shop and have to make decisions about whether to go for the fairly traded or environmentally friendly option or for the cheapest and most easily available one. In all these situations we are asked by Jesus’ parable to recognise that people we have never met, people who are totally unlike ourselves, people in need are our neighbours in the Kingdom of God.

The Jericho road runs straight through the Church, and we are on it whenever we are tempted to become a tribal church, accepting only ‘people like us’ into membership, instead of being the holy and catholic church that we proclaim ourselves to be in the creed. It is a major tragedy that so often we in the church fail to recognise that we are on the Jericho road when we make our decisions about how our church life is to be organised – and that so often we become the priest or the Levite, and walk by on the other side.

We who call ourselves Christians are always on the Jericho road. And our God of compassion is constantly giving us fresh opportunities to be the good Samaritan, to become a neighbour to the one who fell among thieves. For Jesus came to teach us that eternal life is not something you earn by obeying the rules, or living a cosy life of being nice to the deserving poor. Eternal life is something we live, day by day, as we take decisions and act on them.

Jesus invites us, every moment of our lives, to set out on the dangerous and difficult journey on the road to Jericho. He asks us to be at home in a different world, in a world turned upside down, where a Samaritan knows more about the God of Israel than a priest and a top religious lawyer. He invites us into a world where religion is about what we do every day of the week, not about what we do on Sundays.

He invites us to leave the safety of Jerusalem and travel the Jericho road, so that we may meet, in the guise of the Good Samaritan, our God of passionate compassion. And he promises us that, if we do, there on the Jericho road we will find ourselves inheritors of eternal life.


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