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Fifth Sunday after Pentcost

Sermon for Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Readings: Amos 7:7–17; Colossians 1:1–14 & Luke 10:25–37

My sermon last Sunday was focussed on how we might go about following the instruction from Jesus to love God with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength; which is of course what Jesus calls the “Great and First Commandment”. Today, I will concentrate on the other  significant commandment that Jesus wants us to follow, which is the commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves.

We need to remind ourselves that Jesus was constantly challenging, and being challenged by, the Pharisees and other Jewish religious leaders. The Pharisees in particular, were recognised as the upholders of Jewish law (the Torah), and much of the conflict recorded in the Gospels between Jesus and the Pharisees, was related to the demands the Pharisees placed on the Jewish people to follow, without question, their interpretation of the Torah. 

Jesus often used parables, which were simple stories used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson, as a way of drawing attention to how the Pharisees’ strict interpretation of Torah was often inconsistent, or incompatible, with God’s expectations of human behaviour. The parable of the Good Samaritan, from today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke, is a classic case in point. Jesus uses this specific parable to demonstrate how blindly following the very narrow interpretation of Torah held by the Pharisees can lead to a complete lack of compassion for a fellow human being.

As I have said many times before, we always need to be aware of the context when we are examining Scripture, and there is certainly much context to consider in today’s passage. Firstly, the passage begins with a lawyer standing up to test Jesus. Now we shouldn’t think of the term lawyer here as meaning exactly the same as a lawyer in the twenty-first century. What we are dealing with in this passage is a man who has been trained in the Jewish law; someone who has a good knowledge of the Torah. In an attempt to trip Jesus up, the man asks Jesus a question – what must he do to obtain eternal life – hoping that the answer Jesus gives will be contradictory to the law.

However, Jesus cleverly counters with a question of his own, asking the lawyer what is written in the Torah about it. The man responds with the Two Great Commandments ; “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself”. Jesus congratulates the lawyer on answering correctly, and tells the man that if he does this then he will have eternal life. But now the man asks Jesus a follow up question, once again trying to trap him in an incorrect answer: “And who is my neighbour?”

Knowing what the lawyer is trying to do, Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. The road that Jesus refers to in the parable – from Jerusalem to Jericho – was a notoriously dangerous one, with many people falling victim to robbers and bandits while journeying on it. Since the man at the centre of the story is travelling from Jerusalem, people hearing the story would assume he was Jewish. We hear how the man is attacked by robbers who beat him, strip him naked, and leave him for dead. This wouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who was familiar with that road. 

We then hear that first a priest, and then a Levite, come to the place where the injured man is lying, but both of them cross to the other side of the road without rendering any assistance. According to the Jewish tradition of the day, a priest or Levite were considered to be ritually unclean if they came in contact with a corpse. So Jesus is perhaps drawing on this tradition to explain why neither of the men stop to help.

Jesus explains that the next person to come across the hapless man is a Samaritan. Now remember, Jews and Samaritans hated each other, so for those Jewish people listening to the story to hear that a Samaritan was the only person to stop and provide care for an injured Jewish person, would have been shocking and shameful. It would really have grabbed their attention, and it clearly made the point that Jesus was trying to get across to them, which is that showing compassion for one’s fellow human being is more important than strictly observing a tradition that has been passed down over the centuries. 

In some respects, that’s the situation the Anglican Church finds itself in today, especially in relation to the issue of the blessing of same-sex marriages. This issue has been the cause of great division, not only in the national church, but also within the Diocese of Melbourne, since August 2019 when the Synod of the Diocese of Wangaratta approved a form of service for a church blessing for couples who are married according to the Marriage Act. 

The more conservative elements within both the national church and the Diocese of Melbourne, are opposed to the church authorising any form of blessing for same-sex marriages. Unfortunately, this attitude has resulted in many people (especially those within the LGBTI+ community) deciding to leave the church, at a time when more and more people are declaring themselves “non-religious”. The first tranche of data from the 2021 census, released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics recently, shows that just 44 per cent of Australians now identify as Christian, down from 52 per cent five years earlier and 61 per cent in 2011.

Personally, I would be happy to conduct a service of blessing for the marriage of a same-sex couple, if eventually allowed to do so under the regulations and/or legislation of the Diocese of Melbourne. That being said, I do still uphold the doctrine of the Anglican Church of Australia on marriage, which is that “marriage is an exclusive and lifelong union of a man and a woman”.

I feel disappointed that at times today the church is a bit like the Pharisees; placing more emphasis on maintaining “tradition” or doctrine than on showing compassion for fellow human beings.

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