Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Trinityadmin | 2 September 2012
“How readest thou?”
“Walk in the Spirit,” St. Paul exhorts us. “Go and do thou likewise,” Jesus says to the lawyer as the conclusion and application of the well-known parable of the Good Samaritan. There is, it seems, a kind of emphasis on acting and doing. And yet, doing is really only the active expression of our thinking. The key question here is captured in our text. It is Jesus’ question. “What is written in the law? How readest thou?”
How do you read? It is really a way of asking how do you think about things. In this case the context is intriguing. The question, asked by the lawyer to tempt Jesus, that is to say, to put Jesus to the test in an attempt to catch him in a contradiction, was “what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus’ response is to ask him about the law. The answer to his question has to do with how the law is understood. In short, our doings have some kind of intimate relation to our thinking and understanding. By law here Jesus refers to the most important part of the Jewish Scriptures, known as the Law or the Torah. It has pride of place in the Jewish understanding in the same way that the Gospel has a kind of primacy in the New Testament and which is signaled in our liturgy. We are immediately thrown into the important questions about how we read and understand the Scriptures.
This is one of the pressing problems of the contemporary Church. What I find important here is that the practical urge and spirit ultimately turns upon our thinking and understanding.
There are already several levels of thinking at work in this remarkable and rich Gospel story. First, the lawyer’s initial question about eternal life is a concern far later than the Law itself. It is really a question that belongs to late Judaism, though the ideas of eternal life are found in the Psalms. In general, though, the strong Jewish emphasis on the objectivity of the Law as eternal and everlasting is in contrast to the fleeting nature of the passing world and of human life. The idea of immortality is, perhaps, implicit in the recognition of the divinely given Law but only becomes explicit, I think, through the later engagement with Greek thought. Yet, here, the lawyer is directed by Jesus to the Law and to its understanding.
In answering by way of questioning, Jesus is not being sophistic – a mere power game with words. Rather he is more like Socrates – asking questions to bring us to the beginnings of an understanding. The point, even in the face of the context of controversy and conflict, is to draw out of the lawyer what is there for him to understand. His response to the question about how he reads the Law is what Christians have come to know as the Summary of the Law. It is a digest of passages, a compilation of certain primary ethical concepts found in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. It is arrived at through the process of the serious and thoughtful reading of the whole of the Torah. That is its beauty and truth. And while it is a summary of the Law of the Old Testament, it is not found as such apart from the Gospels of the New Testament. That is another layer of thinking that we are presented with here. It has to do with how we read and understand the Scriptures.
The lawyer, “wanting to justify himself,” as Luke puts it, which suggests a complete turning of the tables – it is no longer Jesus who is being put to the test but now the lawyer – asks another question, a question which I think we are to read as being intended to get him off the hook and as being sophistic and rhetorical. The question is “and who is my neighbour?” But what the lawyer here takes as being the end of the conversation, by way of a question of rhetorical dismissal, is taken absolutely seriously by Jesus and marks the beginning of something deeper and more profound. He tells the parable of the Good Samaritan (so-called – the word ‘good’ is never used in the story itself by Jesus; it has become part of the interpretation and rightly so).
The parable is itself extremely rich and profound. Far more than a simple exhortation to do-goodism, it opens us out to the deeper logic of the Christian faith itself which is about the word in deed, the word in action, about thinking and doing. Thinking is not merely a reactive activity; there is an intentionality that is presupposed in our doing. The parable opens us out to the meaning of the Christian Faith. How readest thou?
Well, the parable has been read importantly in an allegorical and symbolical fashion, especially by the Fathers of the Church. And, in a way, I think, such a reading – meaning interpretation – helps us with respect to our overall approach and reading of the Scriptures both in terms of thinking about what do we mean by the Scriptures and how did they come to be Scripture; in short, how and what is the Bible? and about how we understand what we read in the Scriptures. These are big, big questions which are really altogether about whether we are serious about God and the idea of Revelation. And that is one of the great questions for our Church and culture.
The allegorical account is one way of reading. It is, I think, an important part of the interpretative approach to the Scriptures – a way to grasp the deeper unity of admittedly diverse and different kinds of literature found in the Hebrew or Jewish Scriptures, what Christians mean by the Old Testament, and the New Testament in its relation to what has preceded it. The simple point is that the establishment of the Canon of Scripture – meaning the texts which are regarded as authoritative for Christians – is more-or-less coincident with the articulation of the central Creedal doctrines of the Christian Faith. The allegorical approach of the Fathers often bears out this creedal point.
The Creeds play an important role in the matter of teaching and understanding. To put it bluntly, Scripture and Creed go together. The Creeds, especially in our classical Anglican understanding, are nothing more than the distillation of the Scriptures. The Creeds arise out of the Scriptures and return us to the Scriptures in a pattern of understanding; in short, of reading the Scriptures.
“A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho.” As any number of commentators point out, Jerusalem represents the Heavenly City while Jericho the city of man, the earthly city. Going from one to the other, as Ambrose and others suggest, is about our common humanity in its self-distancing act from the reality of God himself. The man “fell among thieves” who “stripped him” and “wounded him,” “leaving him half dead.” This is, as the Fathers see it, precisely the human condition. We have lost our way, turning towards Jericho, our backs towards Jerusalem. We are in a mess and the mess is us! That’s the real import of the early Christian message and yet the story is told to bring out the Christian understanding about salvation and human ethical freedom.
The Priest and Levite, sometimes seen as representatives of the Law and the Prophets respectively, see the man wounded and half dead. They pass by. Why? Well in the developed Patristic understanding of this parable it is because they see but can do nothing about what they see. They can name but cannot address the human predicament which is simply about our alienation from God and which extends then to the nature of our engagement with one another. We are half dead in our sins. It is a certain Samaritan – itself a loaded signifier since the Samaritans were outsiders in the Jewish culture – who not only sees but comes and draws near and who is moved simply and profoundly by compassion.
Compassion is the operative word. This is really a parable about the endless patience and forebearance and boundless mercy of God towards us made manifest in Jesus Christ. He sees; he comes near; he binds up and heals, pouring in oil and wine; he carries our wounded humanity on his own beast, his own body, to an inn, itself representative of the Church. The two pence or denarii are variously interpreted; for some they signify the two dominical sacraments of Baptism and Communion. The whole reading is essentially Christocentric.
The Fathers do not agree on all of the details and they don’t need to but the greater point is that the story is seen in largely creedal terms as referring to Creation and the Fall, and to human redemption through Jesus Christ. Far from denying the moral point, this deepens it. The compassion of the Samaritan is the charity of Christ. Only in Christ can we love God and our neighbour. The unity of those loves is found only in Christ and is only possible in us through our union with Christ. In other words, we can really only “go and do likewise” by virtue of Christ being in us and we in him and that is really all about how we read the Word of God in the Scriptures, about how the Creeds shape our understanding of what we read even as they bear witness to the crucial and essential teachings of the Christian faith revealed in the Scriptures. Our actions are about what we believe. We can only act out of what we have been given to see and know.
No story, perhaps, gives fuller expression to this concept and principle. It is really all about how we read and understand. Only so can we act and do; in short, be what we are called to be in Christ.
“How readest thou?”
Fr. David Curry
Christ Church, September 2nd, 2012