We have just finished walking the Test Way with friends. It is some 44 miles long and starts almost on the Berkshire border and runs down to the Solent. I am glad to have done it for 2 reasons. Firstly, because in a geography exam paper in which I got single figure marks the River Test was almost the only geographical feature I got right. And, secondly, because we lived for 17 years in the Test Valley and the walk has given shape to many parts of the landscape we knew only casually.
It is an irony that we were in the Test Valley for 17 years as we were also in the Arle Valley (which you may know better as the Itchen Valley) for 17 years as well. In all of that time, living with 2 world famous chalk streams, I have never yet lifted a fishing rod! But we have enjoyed the spectacular views, the wild life that throngs the two valleys, and the very special communities that have sprung up alongside the rivers.
So I have been thinking about landscape. Armed with map and compass and, these days, with a GPS as well, we traverse the landscape with some confidence. As we look at the landscape we not only know where we are but, to some measure, we know who we are. Landscape helps to define the people who live on it and the people who pass by. We have lived on the Pilgrims Way and on the Test Way. Both have had an influence on us and on our understanding of who we are.
We are lucky that Hampshire County Council has invested in the setting up of so many walks and trails in the County. They have used waymarks to show the line of the walk. Small round discs tell us in what direction we should go next. Other markers we encounter are boundary markers: they say “Private” or “no entry” or “Fishing beat”. We must not confuse waymarks with boundary markers.
In this service we centre our thoughts both on the presence of Jesus and on the Word of God. The Old Testament reading from Amos is a graphic one – it is a vision of a plumbline. Only a few days ago I was using one when I was trying to put up one of those revolving airers in the garden. In Amos it is a symbol of judgement. When God holds a plumbline to his people he finds that they are not straight. If you build a wall that is not straight there is only one thing to do: pull it down and start again.
But Amos is taken to task by Amaziah, a priest who is either close to the king or actually in his service. Amaziah thinks that Amos is a professional prophet, one who earns his living by speaking a word. A bit like a visiting Vicar. But Amos is having none of that. He is a simple man, a skilled labourer, whom God has called specifically to pass on a message of warning to the nation. And the one person who should have been his supporter and help turns out to be offended by the notion of him proclaiming his message in the Chapel Royal.
The Wadi Quelt, the name for the ancient road from Jerusalem to Jericho is spectacular: it is full of hazards, from sharp bends and sheer drops to a potentially lonely road. The only reason you would use it is if you didn’t want to go by the easier route because you wanted to avoid going through Samaria. Any Jew of Jesus’ day, any Jew today, would avoid going through Samaria. Hostility is too weak a word to describe the attitude that Jews and Samaritans had towards each other.
In the hostile environment of the Wadi Quelt, then, what does the story reveal? The natural allies of the wounded man, the priest and the Levite, are en route to the Temple, and more concerned with being ritually clean when they arrive. It is the hated foreigner who turns out to be a neighbour to the man in need. A neighbour, no longer a foreigner.
I served my curacy in Gateshead. You may not know that Gateshead is the fifth largest Jewish community outside Israel. To meet an orthodox Jew in today’s world is to be back in biblical times – not much has changed. Many Jewish people still wear on their foreheads or their hands a small box in which there is scripture: a constant reminder that they are a covenant people. This is the landscape on which they live and they are constantly reminded of that.
They have some waymarks as they navigate their way through this landscape which is also about the Promised Land. The first waymark, very noticeable in Gateshead, is the Sabbath – the keeping holy and restful of the last day of the week. The second waymark is food – kosher food, food that reflects the instructions of the Old Testament. The third waymark is the Shema, the Jewish daily prayer that places the one God at the centre of their lives. And the final waymark is circumcision, about which the Gospels are silent.
The purpose of the Covenant, spelt out in various references from Genesis 12, 15 and 17, is the creation of a great family or a nation who will play a significant part in partnering God in the reclaiming of his good creation which has been subverted by evil. It is summarised in the New Testament in Nunc Dimittis “A light to lighten the Gentiles”. This is the reason that God established his covenant first of all with Abraham.
But, as I hinted early on, the trouble is that you can get confusion between waymarks that point out the path, and boundary markers which tell you who the land belongs to. The Jewish waymarks could all too easily become boundary markers, identifying who was “in” and who was “out” if you lost sight of the purpose of the covenant. If it was not “for the world” you could end up with priests who were more concerned with purity than sustaining the wounded.
If you look in Luke’s Gospel at the passage that comes immediately before the parable of the Good Samaritan you will find that it is the passage in which Jesus sends out 70 disciples. What is their task? Their task is to go out and preach that the kingdom of God has arrived. It connects with the parable because the Jewish Bible Scholar is really asking Jesus “What does the Kingdom of God look like?”
So, as Tom Wright explains, he is not a lawyer in the sense that we use the word. He is someone who is skilled in interpreting scripture, in saying how the scripture applies to life in his day. So, he wants to be clear about what Jesus is saying. “Which Jewish people are my neighbours?” is the question that he is asking Jesus. He wants definition. He needs to narrow down the identification of neighbour to make it work. In modern parlance he wants to get a handle on it.
The story that Jesus tells is credible enough. His listeners will recognise the pilgrim returning home, perhaps. There is certainly every chance of attack and robbery. Listeners will even sympathise with the priest and the Levite en route to the Temple. They can’t touch a body that has been blooded without becoming unclean. It all makes sense. Except that the obvious people to be neighbours to the wounded man turn out not to be – just as Amaziah is not a support to Amos.
No! The telling moment is when a Samaritan appears – the very person the wounded man has tried to avoid by travelling on this road. What a huge irony! This man, who has no point of contact with the wounded man except a shared humanity, becomes a neighbour to the wounded man. He meets his immediate need and he sets him up for recovery. The reply of Jesus in his story to the question “and who is my neighbour” is “who CAN be a neighbour to you”. As we read in the Epistle to Ephesus, God is in the business of breaking down the walls that separate us.
So we imagine that we are sitting here this morning listening to Jesus – and we ask the question “Who is my neighbour?” What do we do about his reply? Firstly, of course, we have to think if there is any situation in our lives where we are passing by someone lying wounded in the road. If there is someone with whom we have fallen out, someone we regard as alien, or someone whose humanity we do not recognise because something else gets in the way. We are to love our neighbour as ourselves – and that means everyone else.
Then we have to reflect on what this story has to say to the local church. Recently I heard about a church where one of the congregation has apparently defrauded some of the other members. How can he resume fellowship with the rest of the church? Its really difficult. So how do we handle it? We pretend nothing is wrong, we exclude him. We leave him lying wounded in the road – along with the rest of the congregation who are lying wounded.
Then there is the wider church. The question for all of us as Christians of whatever place or denomination is this: what are we going to do with the understanding that God has given us through Jesus? Are we going to let waymarks become boundary markers and freeze people out? Are we going to use our understanding of Jesus to rescue the wounded or do we keep it to ourselves? Do we go out into the world or do we spend all of our time worrying about the future of the church?
We have a choice. We can be part of the answer to what is wrong with our world. We can be covenant people, we can partner God in his work of rescuing our world. Or we can become part of the problem as were the priest and the Levite, or the priest at Bethel. It is a stark choice: either part of the solution or part of the problem. Where do you see yourself in the story of the Good Samaritan?
First Reading Amos 7.7-17
7This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb-line, with a plumb-line in his hand. 8And the LORD said to me, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘A plumb-line.’ Then the Lord said,
‘See, I am setting a plumb-line
in the midst of my people Israel;
I will never again pass them by;
9the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate,
and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste,
and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.’
10Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, ‘Amos has conspired against you in the very centre of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. 11For thus Amos has said,
“Jeroboam shall die by the sword,
and Israel must go into exile
away from his land.”’
12And Amaziah said to Amos, ‘O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; 13but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.’
14Then Amos answered Amaziah, ‘I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycomore trees, 15and the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.”
16‘Now therefore hear the word of the LORD.
You say, “Do not prophesy against Israel,
and do not preach against the house of Isaac.”
17Therefore, thus says the LORD:
“Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city,
and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword,
and your land shall be parcelled out by line;
you yourself shall die in an unclean land,
and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.”’
25A lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 26He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ 27He answered, ‘You shall 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 your neighbour as yourself.’ 28And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’
29But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ 30Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” 36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ 37He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.‘ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’