Sermon on Colossians and the Good Samaritan from Rev’d Ian Tattum

The word ‘toleration’ is an interesting one. To some people it might mean something close to benign indifference: as long as they don’t bother me too much, I wont bother them either. Others would want to take things a bit further and want to know what the people one was tolerating thought and believed and how they behaved and be content to actually spend time with them.

A third type of toleration is a bit harder, and one which a lot of us worry is being made even harder in our social media world of ideologically driven clans and tribes: being patient and respectful towards people we really don’t agree with. That often happens within our own families and with friends –with those closest to us who dissent from our most precious opinions and values.

With this in mind we might understand how, troubling as it might be, in the medieval world, when the churches got increasingly worried about dissenting theological views and religious practices, the word ‘toleration’ was used to mean the time you had to change your mind, or at least keep silent, before the Inquisition came to call.

We all know that language shifts through time and due to context, and the same is true of the word ‘love’ – which I think of as a kinship word to ‘toleration’ – I will come back to that. In Western cultures, thanks to art and poetry, it is quite hard to think of the idea of love without connecting it with strong emotion and affection and, I would suggest, even bias.  Love is associated particularly strongly with our individual desires and passions. So, shifting to a biblical perspective from our own might not be easy. Jesus’ famous story of the courageous and risk-taking Samaritan was told as part of a theological debate about two very big questions. What is the most spiritually important value to practice and develop? And what shape does love take?

An expert on the Jewish law asked a mischievous question that he knew the answer to already. He very respectfully called Jesus ‘teacher’, but his tone, Luke implies, is that of someone trying to catch the country bumpkin, self-appointed prophet, out.

He asks Jesus: ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus responds by asking him what the law; the tradition, says. And the lawyer, as our translation calls him, replies with those very familiar words:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with your mind, and your neighbour as yourself.

It is only when he then throws at Jesus a supplementary question, which looks very much like the sort of question we have all surely come across, which is more about deflecting or demonstrating cleverness.

Ah, but who is my neighbour?

It looks as if he was seeking a semantic argument. But that is not what he gets.

I would suggest that he gets much more than he bargains for, because Jesus does not tell a story which just defines what a neighbour is, but one that addresses the much weightier unspoken question.

How do I love God with all my heart, and with all my soul, and with all my strength, and my neighbour as myself?

What we often take to be two separate things in a list – loving God and our neighbour – turn out to be a series of spiritual practices tethered together. Loving God seriously, with passion and effort, is manifested by the Samaritan’s behaviour on the road between Jerusalem and Damascus, when he comes across that traveller and stranger who is lying half dead by the side of the road.

In the parable, Jesus says nothing about the motivation of the priest and the Levite who shuffled by on the other side of the road. Theologians have speculated that it might have been because they didn’t want to be contaminated by touching a dead body, following conventional purity laws of the time, or that they were afraid that the bandits might be lurking nearby ready to ambush them.

But nothing about such things is said. All we see is the reaction and action of the Samaritan.

He is moved to pity and just goes to the injured man’s help, and takes responsibility for his care, and pays the cost.

And in a final flourish, Jesus asks another question of his questioner, and one which turns his original question on its head: not who is my neighbour, but which one of the three passers-by was the neighbour to the injured man.

The answer the lawyer gives digs down even beneath issues of social identity. The neighbour is not the Samaritan, but … the one who ‘showed mercy’.

The fascinating philosopher Gillian Rose, in her book Love’s Work, argued that love is always a form of mercy, which is not a cold acceptance like the type of toleration I mentioned earlier, but a flamboyant, risk-taking movement of the heart, which leads to commitment and – unfashionable word alert – sacrifice. Like the Samaritan in the parable.

There is a danger that we read the story of the victim of violent robbery as reducing the Gospel to an instruction to be kind, or as providing a terrifyingly challenging new ethic of risk-taking benevolence.

For Jesus, as we discover in St Luke and elsewhere, the message is: God is a God of mercy and compassion, of risking-taking and sacrifice, for us and the whole Cosmos – the Greek word usually translated as ‘the World’.

A substantial part of the message of this famous parable is that to gain eternal life, to love God, with all your heart, with all your strength, is to be so swept up by God’s mercy that you naturally want to share it. We express this whenever we pray the Lord’s prayer, where our trust in God to forgive us is linked inextricably with our intention to show similar mercy to others.

The growth in the Church that St Paul praises in his letter to the Colossians – our first reading this morning – seems to be down, not to any cunning missionary strategy, but to lives which reflect belief in a God who delights in forgiveness, love and mercy.

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