Sunday, 10 July 2016

Trinity 7: Let me not be humiliated?

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There’s a story told about an early Christian theologian called Origen. He lived around 200 AD, at a time when the Roman authorities were still persecuting and sometimes killing Christians. His own father had been killed in one wave of persecution, and although Origen felt sad, he also felt proud of his father. Martyrdom seemed like a noble thing – to give your life for your beliefs. Origen was fired up with enthusiasm. He decided he wasn’t going to hide away. He was going to go out there in the streets and declare himself as a Christian and embrace his fate.

Origen’s mother felt differently.

She’d already lost a husband, and she wasn’t about to lose her son if she could help it. But how could she stop him? She hit on a brilliant idea. As he slept, she took away all his clothes. In the morning, he literally didn’t have a thing to wear. It worked. Martyrdom was one thing, but having to run through the streets naked was quite another. Origen stayed at home and wrote theology instead.

Whether that really happened or not we don’t know, but it has a ring of truth about it. Humiliation is a powerful thing. People often cope better with physical pain and danger than with humiliation. If I asked you to tell me your most frightening experience, you probably could, but most people are extremely reluctant to talk about the times when they’ve been made to look a fool.  We’ve all got memories that make us cringe when we recall them… and if you think I’m going to tell you about mine, you can think again.

So perhaps we can empathise with the Psalmist’s desperate prayer in our Psalm today. “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul; my God, I put my trust in you; let me not be humiliated” Ps 25.1

He’s not just afraid of falling on his face while everyone watches, or being the butt of some practical joke, though. He’s talking about the humiliation of being defeated by his enemies. Humiliation has always been a powerful weapon of war  – remember those photos from Abu Ghraib? It often breaks the spirit more quickly than physical pain.

Our Gospel story this morning is about humiliation, though it might not seem like that at first glance.

It all began when a lawyer stood up up to test Jesus. Lawyers then, like now, worked in adversarial ways, debating and disputing.  Like lawyers today, he knows he has to look strong and in control, to believe he’s in the right, so he can convince others of that.  

He poses what he thinks is a challenging question to Jesus. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He wants to test Jesus, to find out what his core beliefs are, to get into a philosophical debate. He knows how to handle that. But Jesus responds to  his question with another question, and the lawyer is forced into giving an anwer a child could have given. “Love the Lord your God…and your neighbour as yourself” was so basic, that it probably felt a bit insulting. So to try to “justify himself”  - to take back the moral and intellectual high ground the lawyer follows up smartish with another question. “Ok then, Mr Clever-Clogs Jesus, answer this one! Who is my neighbour?”

But still Jesus won’t be provoked into arguing back. Instead, he tells a story – the story we call the Good Samaritan.

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho…” We don’t know why. We don’t know who he is. We don’t know what nationality or religion he belongs to. We don’t even know  for sure at the beginning that he is a man – the Greek word is anthropos, which just means “a person, a human being.”  This is everyperson – it could be anyone. It could be you. It could be me. Someone commented to me recently that this person is like a blank canvas. That’s a great way to describe him. Jesus means us to identify with this man. The story’s told from his view point. We aren’t told anything he wouldn’t have known and experienced as this story unfolds.

He’s going down the notoriously dangerous road, about 18 miles long, that winds down from Jerusalem in the hill country, through rocky, deserted wilderness to Jericho, near the Dead Sea. Like many travellers on that road, he’s set upon by robbers, who beat him up and leave him lying by the roadside, naked and half-dead.

Don’t forget that Jesus means the lawyer, and us, to identify with this beaten up victim; so what would we feel in that situation? We’d feel helpless, exposed and probably foolish as well, full of regrets; why hadn’t we taken more precautions?  

But all is not lost. A priest and a Levite come along – our countrymen. Surely they will help. But they don’t even come over to investigate. Why? We aren’t told, because the man lying by the side of the road wouldn’t have known either, and we’re seeing this through his eyes. Maybe they were afraid they would be beaten up too. Maybe they didn’t want to risk the ritual uncleanness they’d contract  from touching a dead body. They both had important religious roles after all. Or maybe they just didn’t care. We can only speculate, because that is all desperate man could have done as he watched them disappear into the distance.

But here comes a third traveller; this would have been good news, except that he’s a Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans, near neighbours in the land we now call Israel,  hated each other, for reasons too complicated to explain. They just did. They had no time or respect for each other. Each believed that the other was just plain wrong, wrong in their beliefs, lifestyle, everything.  

So how might the victim of this mugging feel as he sees the hated Samaritan coming? If you were vulnerable, helpless and naked – especially naked -  who would you least like to see you in that state? Maybe it would be your boss, or a colleague who is always trying to get one up on you, or some relative you don’t get on with, or a member of some group you mistrust, and maybe have cause to mistrust.

The Samaritan is that person. The victim in this story might be half-dead, but he’d rather be completely dead than have this man see him in this miserable state. What is the Samaritan going to do? Gloat? Put the boot in further? Take some photos and post them on Facebook?

But, of course, that’s not what happens. He comes near, says Jesus, and he’s moved with pity, not with triumphalism. To the priest and Levite the man may as well have been a lump of meat. But to the Samaritan he was a real human being. He was prepared to have a real relationship with him, commit time and money to his care, now and in the future. Thank God he came along.

I’ve read and told this story many times. I’ve explored it with countless groups and I’ve discovered that a funny thing tends to happen to us as we think about it.  You’ll remember that I said that Jesus means us to identify with the man who was beaten up, that blank canvas of a man. But my experience is that somehow or other by the end, our attention has always slid away from him. We end up either identifying with the Samaritan, or aspiring to, hoping that we would have helped, or we identify with the priest and Levite, and feel guilty because we fear we wouldn’t have done. Somehow or other, we make it a parable about them, because it’s more comfortable that way. They may respond or not to the needs around them, but at least they are in control, they have a choice. We miss the fact that Jesus’ focus is on the victim, that’s where he wants us to put ourselves in this tale.

“Which of these three was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” he asks. “The one who showed him mercy” says the lawyer – the one who helped him. So who is the neighbour we are commanded to love? It is the one one who helps us. This isn’t a story about loving and helping those in need, or failing to. It is a story about acknowledging our own need, our own humiliation, and accepting help wherever it comes from.
Christians ought to have a head start in understanding this. After all we follow a humiliated leader, one who was himself ridiculed, beaten, and left to die on a cross. Christian faith starts, or should do, with an acknowledgement that we need God, that we need help, that we can’t do it ourselves. But that is as challenging and uncomfortable for us as it was for the lawyer who asked that question.

Perhaps it might help us to remember that  the word “humiliation” shares a root with the word “humus”, that good rich soil which grows the very best crops. Humiliation brings us “down to earth”, but in the end, the earth is the place from which true life grows.

That’s the message the hot-shot lawyer needs to hear. He doesn’t have to be in the right all the time. He doesn’t have to win the argument, to show his strength and competence. In fact, if he is determined to act like that he will never find the life he was asking about at the start.

A few weeks ago Boris Johnson promised people an “Independence Day”, but, whatever we feel about the EU referendum result, there is no such thing. There never has been and there never can be. We can’t be independent, none of us, no matter how strong and clever we are. We need each other, whether we label each other friends or enemies. Everything we do affects others, and everything they do affects us. We have one planet to share. There is no planet B, nowhere we can ultimately separate ourselves from those we find inconvenient or troublesome.

That sometimes feels like bad news, but it is really the best news of all. Eternal life isn’t a trophy to be won and owned independently. It is something we discover springing up in us and around us as we learn to see and accept each other  – friend or foe – as human beings made and loved by God.


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