Samaritans

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Readings Luke 10:25-37

Sermon – Rev. Kate McFarlane

I admit my heart sank when I looked at today’s readings and saw the Good Samaritan. If I had a pound for every assembly, family service or toddler group I have been to on that theme, I would be considerably more wealthy than I am.

The story’s a cliché now, isn’t it, so well known that even Microsoft capitalises the ‘Good’ along with the ‘Samaritan’ when you type it in. We all know the plot; we’ve all been told a bald ‘message’; see the unlikely person as your neighbour; it’s your Christian duty to help someone in need. We’ve been there, heard it all before, got the t-shirt.

Of course, it’s wrong to mock though. What do you think of first when you hear the term ‘Samaritans’? To the Jews of Jesus’ day it meant a loathed enemy, geographical neighbours, but distinctly bad-tempered ones, who shared a mutual hatred.

Just before this story Jesus gets the rough side of Samaritan prejudice. He enters a village and they ‘would not receive him’. They send him packing.

James and John are so furious with the ‘godless’ Samaritans they want to ‘command down fire from heaven to consume them’. Funnily enough Jesus doesn’t agree, but he cuts his losses and leaves nevertheless.

So how wonderful that when we hear the word, we think first, not of an enemy but, probably, of the organisation ‘The Samaritans’, that invaluable phone line, and lifeline, of support for people who have no other hope left. Gosh, if that’s how we understand ‘Samaritans’ now, haven’t we absorbed the message of this gospel wonderfully and completely? Surely, I thought, there’s nothing more to say on the subject?

Then I opened my newspaper; ‘When is a Good Samaritan not a Good Samaritan?’ began an article entitled ‘Are only certain kinds of people deemed worthy of our compassion?’ It told a shocking story. In Denmark, Lise Ramslog, a 70 year old, was charged with ‘people smuggling’ after giving a lift to the Swedish border to two young immigrant couples with a small child and a new-born baby. She was fined 25,000 Danish Krone, £3,000.

In Italy, a number of people are currently charged with ‘assisting in illegal immigration’ after rescuing migrants in distress in the Mediterranean. These include Miguel Rolland, a Spanish firefighter who took 20 days of his annual leave to help people at risk of drowning. He faces up to 20 years in prison.

In America four members of a humanitarian group were convicted of ‘abandoning personal property’ in a wildlife refuge,  after they left water jugs in the desert to help migrants. A colleague commented ‘If giving water to someone dying of thirst is illegal, what humanity is left in the law of this country?’

Clearly these laws are intended to deter immigration. Offering help is seen as encouraging people to cross a nation’s borders, but if this were me or you, would the slim chance that someone might give you a jug of water, or a boat might rescue you, when yours capsizes, really be the factor, the determining reason, that made you decide you were willing to leave your own home, family, friends, language, country?

Would other factors not be significantly greater in your decision making, especially when it is also widely known that thousands of people, including children, have drowned in the Med or died crossing the US border?

Did you see last month the devastating photo of Oscar Martinez from El Salvador, with his 23 month-old daughter, Angie Valeria, lying dead in the waters of the Rio Grande, the child tucked inside his t-shirt, her arm around her father’s neck? May they rest in peace and may their wife and mother, Tania, be given strength to bear it.

Yet the laws I describe would have us believe that the actions of Good Samaritans are no different from those of people traffickers and human smugglers.

The author of my newspaper article commented that the crime of these ‘Samaritans’ was to ‘help the wrong kind of human beings – those wearing the wrong colour skin, believing in the wrong God, possessing the wrong passport or no passport at all…an obscene moral standard that would be unacceptable in any other context.’

So much for us not needing to read the story of the Good Samaritan again! So much for us having, long ago, heard its message and absorbed its meaning into our collective bloodstream!

But can we, at least, take comfort from the fact that none of these cases refer to the UK, and we have not been personally responsible for these prejudicial actions. I fear not… because immigration has become a bitterly divisive issue for this country.

Of course, it is a complex problem demanding difficult decisions, so it should require us to address the causes of immigration, seeking a wise, humane and honest response to the poverty, conflicts and environmental crises from which people are fleeing.

Instead our media and politicians inflame the issue. Negative reporting against immigrants has, surely, played a large part in the rise in hate incidents recorded in Britain; just over ¾ of these are racially motivated, and last year saw the highest ever level of incidents.

And can we really claim the moral high ground when it comes to our attitudes? What have we, personally, thought, said or done either to increase or to counter this prejudice, this dehumanisation?… Or has silence been our one response?

If, in the 21st century version of Jesus’ ancient parable, the Good Samaritan is to be taken to court by the lawyer and punished with fines or imprisonment, we need to, have to, tell this story afresh, and to tell it attentively, just as Luke tells it.

Go back to the beginning – what are we commanded? To love the Lord our God with all our heart, and with all our strength and with all our mind, and our neighbour as ourself.

Note that ‘and’. Other gospels divide the commandment saying; first love Go, second, love your neighbour, but Luke says ‘and’. He wants us to understand that there is no separation between loving God and loving others. To love God is to show love to our neighbour; the one flows from the other or our claim to love God has no substance whatsoever. It should be as natural a process as a living tree bearing its fruit.

The lawyer whose question triggered the parable wants to limit this, because it scares him. It’s too open, too broad. It lets in too many people. He wants Jesus to tell him there are some people he must love and others he can ignore. Jesus will not play that game, but we play it if we carefully separate people in need into refugees, economic migrants, asylum seekers, illegal immigrants. And when we do we miss the whole point – God’s love is for all people, and those who love God must be ready to love all God’s people. We are all neighbours now, one to another.

Of course, we never know what the lawyer does next. ‘Go and do likewise’ says Jesus. Does the lawyer learn from and imitate the Good Samaritan, who shows such love for his enemy, or does he remain trapped in the old divisions of society and religion?

As so often in the Gospels I think we are not told what happened next because that is for us to decide, for us to choose how to live it out in our own lives. When we hear the parable of the Good Samaritan, yet again, today, we hear Jesus speak to us but in a new context and with a fresh urgency; ‘Who was a neighbour to the man?….. Go and do likewise.’

Icon of “The Good Samaritan” by Dmitry Shkolnik

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