Sunday, 11 July 2010

Trinity 6: The Good Samaritan or the Needy Jew?

Col 1.1-14, Luke 10.23-37

Jesus told a story in today’s Gospel reading, so I shall begin by doing the same.

It is a story from India, about a simple grass cutter called Wali Dad. He was an old man, who had no family and lived by himself in a little hut in the forest. He earned his living by cutting grass for fodder. Each day he earned twopence halfpenny for his labours – not a lot. But actually his life was so simple that he only needed twopence to live on. So all his life he had saved the halfpenny left over in a jar under the floorboards. This went on for years and years. Wali Dad was quite content and wanted for nothing.
One day, he fell to wondering how much money he had in that jar under the floorboards. He pulled it out and counted it – there was a vast pile of halfpenny pieces – a tidy sum. “Good gracious – what on earth shall I do with all this money – I have no need of it!” said Wali Dad.
He thought and thought, then he took the money and went down into the village, where he paid a goldsmith with all the halfpenny pieces to make him a fine gold bracelet. Then he went to a friend of his, a rich merchant, and asked him if, on his travels he had met anyone to whom he could give the bracelet – someone good enough to deserve it. “Why yes, “ said the merchant. “The princess of Khaistan is generous, kind and loving – she would be a worthy recipient.”
So the merchant, on his next journey, took the bracelet, and gave it to the princess, explaining only that it was a gift from someone who loved virtue more than he loved wealth.
The princess was delighted, but also a little worried – how could she repay such kindness? She insisted on giving the merchant twelve bales of silk cloth to take back to the anonymous giver.

When the merchant turned up on Wali Dad’s doorstep with a cartload of silks, the old man was horrified. “I was trying to get rid of my wealth,” he said, “not add to it! What need have I of all this? Who can I give it to? Who else do you know who is good enough to deserve it?”
The merchant thought. “Well, “ he said, “there is a prince in the neighbouring country of Nekabad. People say he is a good man.” “Fine,” said Wali Dad,” Take some of the silk for yourself as payment, and give the rest to him.
The prince of Nekabad was just as overwhelmed as the princess had been when the merchant turned up with the gift, but again, the merchant simply told him that it was from someone who valued virtue more than wealth. But the prince, like the princess, felt that he could not accept this gift without giving something in return. “Fetch twelve of my finest horses,” he said, “and take them back in thanks to the person who gave this.” So off went the merchant – back to Wali Dad with the string of horses…

Now the story, in its original form, goes on for a very long time…and we don’t have time to hear it all, but suffice it to say, as you might predict, the exchange of gifts did not stop there. The prince and princess couldn’t bear to be indebted to the mystery donor, and for every gift given a more lavish one was returned. Soon there were processions of elephants with silver saddles and silk canopies adorned with pearls, and camel trains loaded with precious jewels landing on Wali Dad’s doorstep, but he just sent each one on as before. Eventually the princess’s father decided that whoever was sending these gifts must be in love with his daughter, and surely she could do worse than to marry him, whoever he was. He had the merchant followed all the way to Wali Dad’s hut, and not long after when Wali Dad looked out of his window he was horrified to see a huge wedding procession bearing down on him. He protested that he was far too old for the princess – and I don’t suppose he would have been all that keen on palace life anyway. Fortunately for Wali Dad, though, he knew just the man for the job, and, as you knew would happen all along, the princess married the good and handsome prince of Nekabad, and the two kingdoms were united. And Wali Dad lived out his days, just as he wanted, in simplicity and peace.

Jesus once said that it was more blessed to give than to receive, but it often seems to me that it is a great deal more difficult to receive than to give. Often when we give we aren’t really giving at all, just trying to even up the score between us – like the Prince and Princess in the story. A gift from someone makes us feel we are in their debt – we have to give something back of equal or greater value. We all know how awkward it is at Christmas if we get a splendid Christmas present from someone who we’ve just given a cheap box of chocolates too – or worse still have forgotten completely. The same is true for gifts of time, energy and love too – especially true when they are gifts given in a time of need – money to tide us over, emotional support when we are in pieces. We don’t like people to see us as vulnerable and weak – in need of help. We hang onto our dignity by trying to repay them, even though that is often impossible.

So what has all this to do with the story Jesus told?

The Good Samaritan – it’s a story about how we should help others, whoever they are – isn’t it? Well, no, not quite.
We’ve called it the Good Samaritan – we’ve made the helper the focus of the story – but that’s not how Jesus tells it. He focuses on the victim – the man bleeding and naked by the roadside as the centre of the story. “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho…” begins Jesus. We are supposed to see the story through his eyes – this Jewish man, attacked by robbers on a lonely, dangerous road. It’s not a story about the Samaritan; it’s a story about a very needy, vulnerable, powerless Jew. That’s who Jesus wanted his hearers to identify with. So what do things look like from his perspective?

We may never have been beaten and left for dead, but perhaps we know what it feels like to be made helpless through illness, redundancy, depression or family trouble. The initial problem is bad enough, but often it is the sense of humiliation and indignity that is the last straw. Most people struggle when they find themselves dependent on others. That’s how this beaten-up Jewish man feels; he’s not just hurt, he is also embarrassed at his powerlessness.

When he sees a priest and then a Levite coming towards him it must be a bit of a relief. If anyone had to see him in this state, it is better that it be a Jewish priest or Levite. It is their job to be holy and caring, and they are of his own race and religion. But the priest and the Levite walk on by.
What now? There’s someone else coming – but that’s no good, it’s a Samaritan. He is not only a total stranger; he is the wrong kind of total stranger. Many Jews wouldn’t even have accepted a cup of water from him. He’s the last person this victim would choose to look to for help – surely he will gloat, rub salt in the wounds… But he doesn’t. Instead he cares for the man, and pays for his stay at a nearby inn.

The trigger for this story was the question of a Jewish lawyer “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answers, “love God and your neighbour”. We have tended to assume that loving your neighbour is about imitating the Good Samaritan – helping those less fortunate than yourself. That’s a role most of us like – helping others. We still have the power if we choose that role. But actually, if you read the story Jesus told, rather than the story we would like him to have told, he is setting us a much more difficult challenge. Loving our neighbour – in the context of this story- is about having the humility to see our own neediness and be open to the possibility that our help might come from unlikely sources. It means accepting that sometimes other people have wisdom that we don’t, or strength that we need, that we are the ones who are naked and bleeding by the roadside.

I have heard people say to me, “I’d rather die than accept help from him or her…” - the relative they have fallen out with, the rival who beat them to a job or to the partner they wanted, the person whose lifestyle offends them. It seems extraordinary, but there are people who would rather carry on suffering than put themselves in a dependent position by asking for or accepting help, especially from someone they don’t like or don’t approve of.

My guess would be that the lawyer who asked Jesus the questions that triggered this story was used to striving for power – always trying to win his arguments. He was used to having the answers, having right on his side – or at least sounding as if he did. I suppose that’s fine in a court of law – but it isn’t the way we are called to be in the rest of life, with each other and with God. In our second reading today, Paul gives thanks for the Christians at Colossae because they have “truly comprehended the grace of God”; the grace of God, God’s generous love for them. They have recognised their need for strength, patience, love, forgiveness, wisdom, things they could not have found by their own efforts and it is this which enables them to give to others

“What must I do,” asked the lawyer, “to inherit eternal life?” He expected an answer that demanded something costly or clever from him. Instead Jesus tells a story which is all about receiving, even from those who he might have thought had nothing to give. Only then will he, and we, be able to live the lives – eternal and full – that God wants for us.

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