Sunday, October 14, 2001

"What's Good About The Good News?"
Sermon Preached by
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, October 14, 2001
Text: Luke 10:30-37

Seldom am I upset by something that I read in a newspaper, or in a magazine, or that I hear on television; certainly not upset to the very core of my being, or to the very depths of my heart. But, this past week I was reading an essay that was in none other than the Manchester Guardian, the newspaper of my hometown, in which Polly Toynbee, somebody whom I have read a number of times over the years, wrote a most damning thing about religion, Christianity and faith.

What makes this so important is that it was not a singular moment, but it's something that I am hearing being repeated numerous times by commentators on television, by people in their articles, where they make a wholesale condemnation of religion and of the Christian faith.

Toynbee opened her article with a paragraph in which she wrote these words, and you will see what I mean: "The only good religion is a moribund religion. Only when the faithful are weak are they tolerant and peaceful. The horrible history of Christianity shows that whenever religion grabs temporal power, it turns lethal; that those who believe that their view is the way, the truth and the light will kill to create their heavens on earth if they get the chance. Tolerance only thrives when religion is banished to the private sphere."

Now, as many of you will know who listen regularly, and particularly those who listened on September 16th after the devastating impact of September 11th, I recognize that many of the conflicts that exist in the world are due to conflicts over religion; that religion has been, in many cases, not a sign of peace and tolerance but has been, in fact, a symbol and a sign and a calling card for violence. The history of the world is replete and rebounds with the number of times that we have seen people of faith in conflict with one another. Christian writers such as Jacques Ellul and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were also concerned with this issue.

But there is a huge leap from studying history and recognizing that there have been conflicts from time to time between people of faith, to suggesting somehow that the peaceful, God-fearing, loving Christians and/or people of other faiths are somehow to be made moribund in order that the world might be made tolerant, which is indeed the logic of this article. There is an extreme logical leap from recognizing that there have been incidences of religious intolerance, to suggesting that all religions will eventually turn to kill one another if there is any power or conviction within them.

The line in this article, that "those who believe in the way and the truth and the light will kill to create their heavens on earth if they get a chance" is absolutely false. Sometimes that happens, but it happens because of the wiles and the machinations of people who will use a powerful force like religion for their own good rather than understand that the heart of their faith is one of love and compassion.

Now, I want to suggest today that the Christian faith - and I can only speak of my own - is a faith not of intolerance, but of compassion; that it is not a faith that seeks to exclude people by the proclamation of its gospel but rather, through the proclamation of the gospel, desires to bring all people into the peace of the Kingdom of God.

Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the most magnificent parable of the Good Samaritan. Now this parable of the Good Samaritan, when it was first heard by the people in Palestine 2,000 years ago, was understood to be good news. In fact, the word gospel finds its root in the Greek euangelion, meaning "good news."

For those who wandered the streets of Jerusalem, for those who heard this word proclaimed eventually in Greece, for those who heard the message of the simple gospel of Jesus Christ in Asia Minor, they were overwhelmed by the goodness of this message.

But not only the goodness of the message, but also the goodness of the one who delivered the message, Jesus himself. And so the gospel that he preached and the person who preached it were seen as good news.

My friends, I think we need to reclaim the essence of gospel. We need to reclaim the essence of good news if we are going to address a world that is becoming cynical about matters of faith and wanting to put at the door of people of conviction the hatred that is being carried out by many within the world.

Now this wonderful story about the Good Samaritan, like all the parables, can be interpreted in two basic ways: You can interpret it that this parable tells a single, central message, that there was a man, a lawyer, who comes to Jesus and asks the most profound question of all: "Who is my neighbour?"

Jesus answers him and shows, as the story goes on, that the neighbour is the man called the Samaritan, a foreigner - a simple message.

But there are many other scholars who suggest that parables have different levels of meaning, hidden meanings: that because Jesus had control of the content of the story as he was telling it, not just recounting something that he had seen but telling a story to make a point, that in fact there are levels of meaning within that story that are more complex. I would like to turn to some of those this morning, in order that we might leave this place having been captivated by the good news.

The best way to look at this story is to look at the main protagonists. The first of the protagonists, that we read nothing much about, are the robbers.

At the time of Jesus there were many poor people who were Bedouins, who were roaming the hills around Jerusalem. Many of them lived in poverty and the only way that they were able to sustain themselves was by turning to crime. The road between Jericho and Jerusalem, a dangerous road that I've traveled myself, that drops some 3,400 feet from Jerusalem down to Jericho, is about 18 miles in length. This was a notorious place for robbers to come and to steal and, not only to steal, but to beat people on the side of the road.

Jesus tells us that the man who was eventually beaten was travelling on his own. There was a sense of naïvete about this man, a naïvete suggesting that the world is just a nice place, that I will be safe, that I am on my way to Jerusalem so everything will be okay. There will always be the naïve around. There will always be people who bury their head in the ground and who are not prepared to recognize that in this life and in this world there are people who do violence; that there are people who take life; that there are people who carry out injustice.

Jesus is no Milquetoast prophet. He is not someone who just wants to tell nice little stories or mantras that we can repeat to feel good. He is a man who went right to the heart of the world in which he lived, a world that had violence, a society that was overrun by Romans, a society of zealots who wanted to take life, a society of bandits and robbers on the side of the road.

There is a wonderful passage in the Book of Proverbs that warns us to be careful of such things. It goes as follows: "Do not enter the path of the wicked and do not proceed in the way of evil men. Avoid it. Do not pass by it. Turn away from it and pass on. For they cannot sleep unless they do evil and they are robbed of sleep unless they make someone stumble."

My friends, the warning from Proverbs is manifested in the story of the Good Samaritan: that there are in this world those who lead people astray, who commit violence and do terrible things (Bin Laden is one of them); that there are people who in fact by their very evil cause other people to then turn against the good in cynicism and, once they become cynical, to lead others astray.

There is a wonderful story of Josiah Wedgwood of the famous Wedgwood factory. Josiah Wedgwood was approached one day by a nobleman who wanted a tour of the factory, so Wedgwood decided he would get a fifteen-year-old boy to take the nobleman around. This young, innocent boy took this nobleman around and within a matter of minutes this nobleman was using filthy language, was telling dirty jokes, was extolling all manner of improper things. The young lad, being very impressionable, began to laugh at them. After all, it was a nobleman and he thought he was funny and cute because he made sacred things look profane.

After the tour had been completed, Josiah Wedgwood heard some of the jokes and the language that was coming out of the young boy, the sense of cynicism, the sacrilegious tone. As he was to present the nobleman with one of the most majestic plates that Wedgwood had ever made, he went up to him and, as he was to hand it to him, he dropped it on the ground and it smashed into a hundred pieces.

The nobleman said to him: "Why are you doing such a thing? This is one of the most beautiful things that I have ever seen. You are a foolish man to have done this, Josiah Wedgwood."

Josiah Wedgwood said: "You have done something much worse to something much more valuable, that cannot be replaced. You have taken a young boy's life in his innocence and by what you have done, you have led him astray and his innocence will now be forever gone."

Josiah Wedgwood was making a point and the point is clear: Robbers come along and when they do so they cause life to be made into turmoil and we lose our innocence and there are people in society who are lying on the side of the road because people don't care.

This brings me to the second group, and they are the Levites and the priests. On the surface, I sympathize with the Levites and the priests. After all, they were clergy and the union must stick together!

The priests and the Levites had been given a particular job to do. They were to work within the Temple and make sure that the Temple's sacrifices were presented and the message of the law was to be proclaimed. As good Levites, they understood from the Book of Numbers that if they were to touch a dead body by the side of the road, for seven days they would be ritually impure and would not be allowed to go about their job.

In other words, it is as if I were to do something and for seven days you wouldn't allow me to come into this church or allow me to preach on a Sunday morning. Now, some of you might be relieved by that but for me, it would be a very serious problem.

And so, I sympathize with them at one level. They were simply not cruel. They were just conventional. They were doing their job. The only problem is: Time and time again throughout the Gospel, Jesus makes it abundantly clear that the law, as important as it is, must always come second to compassion; that the laws of God, as important as they are, must always be secondary to the needs of others and our commitment to help them; that our primary focus must be people who are in need.

In fact, over and over again Jesus makes this case. He does so about the laws of the Sabbath when he said the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. In other words, the very laws that the people are to abide by on the Sabbath are not just so that people can be controlled and manipulated, but that people may worship God, be with their families and experience the love of the world. That's why many of Jesus' miracles are performed on the Sabbath as a sign that compassion and healing are more important than the minute laws.

Now, do not misunderstand me. This is not a condemnation of Judaism. Jesus is not an antinomian turning his back on the law; rather he is simply saying that the law of ministry to people is more important than the minute laws, that the greater law matters.

I have a Jewish friend and the two of us have a little bit of an ongoing discussion where we try to outwit one another. (It's very easy for that person to win, I might add.) He told me a story one day to try and send me a message.

He said: "The story is this: The Pope and the Chief Rabbi in Jerusalem had a meeting. The Pope invited the Chief Rabbi to St. Peter's. When he went to St. Peter's, the Chief Rabbi saw in the corner of the Pope's office a great big telephone." (By the way, this is apocryphal, of course.)

"The Chief Rabbi said: 'Oh, can you tell me what that telephone is for?'

"And so the Pope said: 'Oh, that is my direct line to God. I phone God every day on this phone.'

"And the Chief Rabbi said: 'Really? Can I use it?'

"The Pope says: 'Feel free.'

"So the Rabbi goes over to the corner, picks up the phone and speaks for half-an-hour. When it's all over he's amazed. He says: 'It's fantastic. I talked to God in person. I can't believe this. This is amazing. I wish I had one of these.'

"The Pope smiled and said: 'Well, I know, but you know we just have them in Rome.'

"And so the Chief Rabbi said: 'Well this must have been an expensive call. How much does it cost?'

"The Pope said: 'Well, actually you were on for half-an-hour, so it's $100.'

"The Rabbi said: 'Oh, no problem. I'll pay you $100. This was amazing.'

"A few weeks later there was an invitation for the Pope to go to Jerusalem to visit the Chief Rabbi and the Pope took him up on it. He went in to the office of the Chief Rabbi. Sure enough, in the corner there was a great big telephone. The Pope looked at this telephone and said: 'Aha, so you've finally got one of these yourself.'

"The Chief Rabbi said: 'I certainly did. Would you like to use it?'

"The Pope said: 'I'd love to use it.' So he gets on the phone and he speaks to God for an hour. Finally, afterwards, he came back and said: 'This was amazing, absolutely amazing. The clear sound. It's as good as mine. Now, how much do I owe you for this phone call?'

"The Chief Rabbi said: 'Ten cents.'

"The Pope: 'Ten cents? I spoke to God for an hour.'

"The Rabbi said: 'Yes, but here it's a local and not a long distance call.'"

Isn't that lovely? And so my friend had that smug look all over his face.

Then I whispered to him: "Yes, you're right. The empty tomb is in Jerusalem."

You see, my friends, Jesus was not repudiating the law, he was fulfilling it. He wasn't castigating it, he was simply making it go to its very heart. What the Lord requires of us is to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves. That's what Jesus was trying to say.

This brings me to the Good Samaritan, the final character.

The Good Samaritan, we are told by Luke, had great compassion for the man who was on the side of the road. Some say he took pity on him, some translations say he had sorrow for him. The fact of the matter is, unlike all the others, the Samaritan was moved in his heart to care for the man on the side of the road.

What makes this story so amazing is not only that this Samaritan was there as a foreigner, but also that he was there with compassion and that his compassion was overwhelming. We are told by Jesus that he took two denarii, two silver coins, and gave them to the innkeeper (for those of you who don't know, that was a whole week's wages) to care for a man he had never seen and didn't know and for whom he was not responsible. In other words, the Samaritan, the foreigner in this story, is both in a sense the subject and the object of this story.

The object of the story is the man who was on the side of the road. He was the one who was in need. And you can read this parable and you can say that our neighbour is anyone who is in need, anyone who is on the side of the road who needs our compassion.

But the neighbour is also the Samaritan who cares from the depths of his heart for someone that he finds in need. This, my friends, is good news. This is the power of the Gospel. It is what makes our faith so radical and so magnificent.

A few years ago I was privileged to hear a speech in my former church by the Supreme Court Justice, the Honourable Frank Iacobucci. Frank is a member of my church in Ottawa and he was speaking to our Men's Fellowship Group.

We all expected him to speak on law, or the Charter of Rights, or life on the Supreme Court, or some decision that he had passed. But he came in and said: [paraphrase] "No, I'll tell you what I want to talk about. I want to talk about the Good Samaritan. The reason I want to talk about the Good Samaritan is that I believe that there is something that is beyond the law; that there is an obligation that we have as human beings and as citizens, and that this obligation is to go beyond what the law says, to go beyond to what God says; that we have an obligation to care for our neighbour in our society, to care for the outcast; and that we have an obligation to make sure that the compassion of God is manifested in our own lives."

Frank said that the law can only take you so far can only tell you what your rights are; can only tell you the type of citizens that we should have. It can only regulate society up to a point, but it is faith that takes you to the point of a Samaritan: To go out there beyond the bounds of even reason, to care generously for people who are in need.

It seems to me, my friends, that the message of that obligation is a message that comes from faith; that this is the heart of what we believe; and that at the heart of what we believe is something that we ourselves must practise in the world in which we live.

A very moving article that I was sent from Time magazine just recently talks about the future of the world with anthrax, bombings and with terrorism. The writer makes the point that one of the things the United States and Canada and the western, affluent world must think about now is who our neighbour is. We have got to address that, once we have got Bin Laden and brought him to justice, once we have been able to stop terrorism at its source.

We have to go beyond that. That's just the law. We need to go deeper. We need to look at the things that create the conditions in parts of the world for young men in particular to feel that they can sacrifice their lives because of a sense of alienation; young men who are manipulated, as by the nobleman in the Wedgwood story, to pervert their lives to take other human lives.

For example (I did not know this), take the country of Pakistan. In 1975, Pakistan had 10 million more people than Mexico, but by the year 2015 it will have 85 million more people than Mexico. In the slums of Karachi and in Kabul (Afghanistan) and elsewhere, there are young people who are living in abject poverty and it's easy for people to come along and manipulate them and cause them to do things in the name of God precisely because they are alienated.

We have to address this issue. Whether it is in the Horn of Africa where there is conflict, whether it is in Southern Africa where there is AIDS and poverty and death, whether it is in the cities of South America where there are peasants living in cardboard shacks, or whether it is in the Middle East where people are manipulated to use violence in the name of God, it seems to me that one of the obligations that we have is to do our best to eradicate the conditions that cause people to turn in alienation to violence. To not give the robbers a chance to pervert young minds with their filthy ideals; because, when they do, the rest of the world then turns on God and on faith and they forget what Jesus said: that the neighbour is the person who is on the side of the road, dying; that the neighbour is the Good Samaritan, the foreigner who is there to help in times of need. Jesus says to these people: "I want you now to go and do likewise."

In one of the most moving of all paintings, from the Rossano collection of the 6th century, there is the depiction of the story of the Good Samaritan. It is the oldest piece of artwork depicting the great parable. In it we find a most amazing sight: The Good Samaritan leaning over the body of the bleeding man is none other than Jesus himself.

For many in the early church, they saw that Good Samaritan as Jesus of Nazareth. They saw the message of the gospel as an incarnate message. This isn't a God who does not care. This is God incarnate, who bends down and picks up that particular broken human being and ensures his healing with wine and with oil.

For those of us who call ourselves by His name, for those who have committed our hearts in faith to His compassion, for those who believe that He is the way, the truth and the life, there is not a shame or an intolerance, there is a profound self-giving, cross-bearing sacrifice for the sake of the world. That is why Jesus said to the teacher of the law when he told him of the Good Samaritan: "I want you to go and do likewise."

Jesus is saying to people who follow him today: "You show my good news. You live this good news. With you I will bend down and pick up the one who is at the side of the road. Are you willing to follow me?"

For Polly Toynbee and others who feel as she does, I want them to hear this word. Amen.


This is a verbatim transcription of the original sermon.