Thought for the week - 10 July
"The Lord will again delight in you and make you prosperous, just as he delighted in your fathers, if you obey the Lord your God and keep his commands and decrees that are written in this book of the Law and turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul."
There are those who would make religion a very difficult business indeed, hedged in and surrounded by so many different rules and regulations, creeds and systems of belief and practice. They make a heavy burden of what should be a joy and delight. The writer of the book of Deuteronomy which is set for today's old testament but which is too long to print out, simply says "turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul." He goes on to say:
"Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, "Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?" Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, "Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?" No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it."
God is not that far away. As we turn to obey and serve him with all our heart and all our soul we shall surely find him. But we want to make things complicated. We go in for all sorts of rules and regulations, we have elaborate ceremonies and rituals which perhaps satisfy human longings but which don't necessarily bring us nearer to God. Love God with all your heart and with all your soul is the simple message of Deuteronomy.
The lawyer who comes to question Jesus, to catch him out wants a complicated answer to his question: "What must I do to inherit eternal life?"
"What is written in the Law?" Jesus replied. "How do you read it?"
He answered: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbour as yourself.'" The lawyer is obviously familiar with the book of Deuteronomy since he gives the classic answer. " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbour as yourself.'"
"You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live."
It couldn't be more straightforward. But the lawyer is not satisfied and goes on to ask: "And who is my neighbour." Jesus does not answer directly but replies by telling what has now become one of the world's most famous stories - the parable of the Good Samaritan. But for all it is a story it is a direct answer, whose point is terrifyingly clear.
A man is walking down the lonely road from Jerusalem to Jericho when he falls among thieves who rob him, strip him and leave him for dead. A priest happens to come along, but he does nothing to help the man, instead he leaves him for dead. Presumably because he assumes he is dead. He does not stop to find out. Why not? The priest is probably on his way to Jerusalem to do his duty in the Temple. For him to come into contact with a dead body would leave him ritually unclean and therefore unable to perform his religious duties in the Temple. His duty to his religion get in the way of his duty to his neighbour. But in ignoring his duty to his neighbour, his duty to humanity he is neglecting his duty towards God. Love of God is never to the exclusion of love of neighbour.
A Levite comes along the same way and he too hurries along and ignores the man in time of his deepest need. Why? Presumably his reason is the same as the priest’s. He too is probably on his way to Jerusalem to fulfil his religious duty in the temple, and to come into contact with a dead man would render him also ritually unclean. What had not occurred to either of them was that the man may not have been dead. But they couldn't take their chance - their religious duties were to important.
" 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbour as yourself.'" The two are not alternatives - they go together. Serving God means choosing people. Choosing God means choosing anyone who needs you. The priest and the Levite on the way to Jerusalem thought they were serving God - but clearly they were ignoring God in the person of the man in great need.
There is a sting in the end of the story, as the good religious people go about their way preoccupied with their religious duties, the Samaritan stops and gives the help that is needed. The Samaritan, who has become a byword for compassion, was despised among the Jews. A religious feud going back centuries, fuelled the hatred between Jew and Samaritan.. No love was lost between Jew and Samaritan.
The story was a shocking one. Jesus contrasts the good Jewish priest and Levite with the despised Samaritan. It is, says Jesus, the Samaritan who is fulfilling the Law of God since it is he who is showing care and compassion to the stranger who has fallen among thieves and has been left for dead. The priest and Levite are deluding themselves if they think that they can fulfil their religious duties and yet at the same time ignore the needs of others.
The lawyer may know the answer to his own question: 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbour as yourself.'" But knowing the answer and putting it into practice are not the same thing. And so Jesus concludes his story not by answering the question: who is my neighbour. But be asking another question:
"Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?"
The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him." Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise."