‘And who is my neighbour?’
A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley
by Nikolaj Christensen on 14 July 2019
Some of you will know that I was ordained as a deacon two weeks ago in Christ Church Cathedral here in Oxford. Before the ordination I went on a retreat with about thirty other aspiring deacons from Oxfordshire, Berkshire, and Buckinghamshire, where the Bishop of Oxford, Bishop Steven, gave a series of addresses on the letter to the Colossians. We heard the opening lines of this letter as our second Scripture reading this morning, and we’ll be hearing more from it over the coming Sundays. If I manage to say anything profound about that, you’ll now know who to thank.
The word ‘deacon’ means ‘servant’ in New Testament Greek – or in Latin we would use the term ‘minister’. And I don’t know if you noticed but there was a ‘deacon’ mentioned in the reading from Colossians, namely Epaphras, who had been the first to preach the Gospel in that part of the world and had founded multiple congregations, and Paul the Apostle in fact describes himself and Epaphras as fellow deacons. So there’s something for me to live up to!
There was also a sort of deacon mentioned in the Gospel reading we heard, namely the Levite who would have assisted the priest at the worship in the Jewish temple, and who in the parable Jesus told also followed the priest’s example in ignoring the wounded man. Luckily I’ve got a better role model in Andrew!
There are some themes from the opening of Colossians which you might notice being repeated over the coming weeks, and which lead us quite naturally to the point Jesus is making with his parable. Paul talks in the letter about giving thanks to God in our prayers – even practising thankfulness in situations of suffering and persecution – and then letting our gratitude build a desire for knowing God and everything that God has done for us; and then finally reflecting this thankfulness to God and knowledge of God in our lives as being lives full of love: love for God, and love for our fellow human beings. Which is then precisely what is under discussion in Jesus’ conversation with the lawyer in our Gospel reading.
Jesus asks him what the law of Moses says about the way to eternal life, and the lawyer quotes these two commandments: ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart, … soul, …strength, and … mind; and your neighbour as yourself’. Jesus approves: ‘do this; and you will live’.
‘But’, it says, the lawyer wanted to justify himself: Jesus, I think you’ll find I have loved my neighbour. Or who else do I need to love? So Jesus tells him this little story: a man was on his way down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and was robbed and left for dead. A priest notices him but doesn’t get involved – neither does the Levite. And now maybe the lawyer is expecting the next person to pass by to be an educated, respectable Jewish layman such as himself, who’s going to save the day. But Jesus has set a subtle trap for him: it’s one of those despicable Samaritans! And what’s worse: the Samaritan is the one who does the right thing! All along the lawyer has thought he was going to end up as the hero of the story. But now Jesus doesn’t ask the lawyer: which of them treated the robbery victim as a neighbour. No, notice it, he says: ‘Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man …?’ In other words: which of them should the man in the ditch love? The lawyer had asked: who is my neighbour? And Jesus now asks: who is the man in the ditch’s neighbour? In other words: you, sir, are the man in the ditch!Who is your neighbour?
I wonder if you’ve ever been down in a ditch. I’m sure most of us have felt like we’ve let ourselves down from time to time. The error of the lawyer was that he wasn’t even willing to enter into the perspective of someone in need of help. But Jesus’s parable turns his question on its head: our neighbour is not in the first instance the person who can be the object of our good deeds, but the one who will save us when we’ve been left for dead.
It’s so tempting to think of ourselves as the hero when we’re really the man in the ditch. Jesus says: you who think you have it all figured out, you’re the one who needs to be helped by someone who is willing to identify with the outcasts and put his own life on the line for them. And whether or not Jesus saw himself in the role of the Samaritan outcast, that’s certainly how the generations of Christians after him read this story. He is the one who came to save us when we were least able to save ourselves. He practised what he preached.
We might often look at other people as the ones who have the problems, and us as the ones who have the solutions; that’s not really helping as much as it is establishing a pecking order. For me as a deacon, a servant, it could be very tempting to think that I know exactly how I am to serve people and what their needs are – and so to counteract that I try my best to have an attitude of learning and being open to receive from others, across the whole parish.
‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ the man asks. Sorry, it’s already been done. God doesn’t need your good deeds – but maybe your neighbour does, if you can offer them in humility.
‘And who is my neighbour?’ he asks, looking down on everyone to see if anyone is worthy of being loved – but in reality he is the one looking up from the roadside to see if anyone will come to save him.
We are the wounded ones, the ones who need binding up, and the oil and wine of healing that the Samaritan pours out in the parable. Come up to the front later and you can have that wine of healing poured out for you, along with prayer for healing, whether for your body or soul!
We love God not as someone we can do something for, but as someone from whom we have received everything. As Paul reminded the Colossians, we love because of the hope we have; it is knowing God and what he has done that leads us to live ‘lives worthy of the Lord’.
We know we’re in need, we know what has been done for usby God himself, and we’re thankful for it. Only from that springs a true life of service. As St Paul wrote: ‘He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.’