A series of essays in the Episcopal Church
Charity versus Obedience
And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you read?” And he 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.” And he said to him, “You have answered right; do this, and you will live.”
But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neigh-bour?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers who stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was; and when he saw him, he had compassion, and went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; then he set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, “Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.” Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbour to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed mercy on him.” And Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
I’d like to start – as so often when preaching on a gospel text – with a passage from Mark, closely resembling the above, but also clearly one or two versions removed from it. Mark xii.28-34:
And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that he is one, and there is no other but he; and to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbour as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
There are two big differences. The first is that in Luke it is the lawyer who comes up with the suggestion of the two great commandments, which isn’t particularly worrying. What is worrying is that what Mark reports as a friendly conversation in Luke has become a hostile one. This is also true of Matthew’s version, though his is simply an edited version of Mark.
Before I go on to discuss that hostility, I would like to comment briefly on the passage in Mark, which to my mind offers us a near perfect definition of what Christianity should be like. Neither of the two commandments are Jesus’ own words: the first quotes Deuteronomy vi.4-5; the second is from the conclusion of Leviticus xix.18 – probably the only text from Leviticus that is at all familiar to churchgoers. In a minute I’ll give you some idea why this is so. Jesus slightly misquotes Deuteronomy. In the original you are required to love God with heart and soul and strength; in all three gospel versions Jesus adds the word ‘mind’, and for me the addition is momentous. I take the two commandments to mean that your highest obligations as a Christian are first of all to truthfulness, and secondly to charity; and to me it is sad that Matthew, when editing Mark, offends against both principles at once. The scribe who in Mark is friendly, and regarded as such by Jesus, is by Matthew made to appear hostile.
But why this need to make the man appear to be an enemy? We get a strong impression from all the gospels that Jesus’ disliked the clergy almost more than anyone else. His ideas were not orthodox, which always has a tendency to raise clerical hackles, but there is more to it than that: there is little doubt that the gospels generally – but particularly Matthew and John – exaggerate this hostility, and the reason for this is something that happened after Jesus’ time. When the Romans first came across Christians, they assumed that Christi-anity was simply a movement within Judaism – which initially it was. The Romans, like the pagan world generally, disliked Judaism for what they saw as its bigotry and intolerance. Pagans took all gods equally seriously, and the more of them there were, the merrier; they detested Jews for their insistence that there was only one God, and that was the one they worshipped: all other gods were idols. The Romans, as the imperial power governing all the nations surrounding the Mediterranean, and a good many more besides, took religion seriously, not because they necessarily accepted the claims of any one of them to be true, but because they knew from experience that religious differences could create huge disorders which were not resolvable by any rational procedure. They solved the problem by having a list of what they called lawful religions: if a religion had existed in a particular locality for a good length of time, then it was lawful; innovations, on the other hand, were always regarded with suspicion.
Thus Judaism, despite what they saw as its bigotry and intolerance was regarded as legitimate. And so at first was Christianity. It was the Jews themselves who denounced Christianity to the Romans as an innovation, which they therefore could and should persecute. That is why the later the gospel, the more fiendishly anti-Jewish is the tone, particularly in the passion narrative. In Mark, our earliest gospel, the Jews are mentioned six times only, five of them in the passion narrative. In John, the latest, they are mentioned fifty-four times, twenty-one of them in the passion narrative. As the epistle of James reminds us: How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire. And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members (James iii.5b-6a). That particular blaze was only finally extinguished by the Nazi Holocaust.
What of the story itself, that of the good Samaritan? As with quite a few of Jesus’ parables, it probably refers to something that actually happened. Have you ever noticed how many of the longer parables are about people who act contrary to expectation? There is in Matthew the story of the eccentric vineyard owner who hired some workers for twelve hours, some for nine, some for six, some for three, and even some for just one hour; and at the end of the day paid them all the same. Next day no doubt he couldn’t understand why he found it difficult to get anyone to work for him earlier than three in the afternoon. In Luke we have four stories of that kind: there is the steward who, being sacked simply on suspicion of corrupt practices, decides that his best prospect for the future is to engage in corrupt practices; there is the judge who, notorious for ignoring anyone’s plea for justice without a hefty backhander, suddenly and unaccountably rights the wrongs of a poor widow who can’t offer him a bean. We can almost hear the pub-talk afterwards: “You know why that was! She just pestered him to death.” There is the story of the prodigal son; any right-thinking person feels the complaint of the elder son is fully justi-fied; but Jesus intends our sympathies to go with the scape-grace. So in this case also, it is quite likely Jesus is referring to something that actually happened and has been talked about.
Mentioning the road from Jerusalem to Jericho is a significant detail. If you lived in the north of the country, in Galilee for instance, and were travelling to Jerusalem for one of the major festivals, you didn’t normally go through Samaria; you went round on the other side of the Jordan and crossed back again opposite Jericho. This was the accepted route to Jerusalem at all times, but particularly at festivals. And if you wanted to participate in a festival, it was of the utmost importance that you should be clean. Here we come up against Leviticus again, in its more usual guise of regulations about those details of religion which are of importance to the tradition-minded, but to the rest of us – as also to Jesus himself – have little moral significance, therefore little significance of any kind. The tone is set in Leviticus x.10: “You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean; and you are to teach the people of Israel all the statutes which the LORD has spoken by Moses.” There are exactly a hundred and twenty instances of the word ‘clean’ in the Bible; forty four of them appear in Leviticus, which is only twenty seven chapters long.
A man lying in a ditch, having been done over by a band of thugs, bleeding all over the place, perhaps dead – but you mustn’t get too000 near to find out, because he might actually be dead – such a man is bound to be unclean; if you want to participate in the temple fesitivities you must absolutely keep away. Which is why the priest and the Levite acted as they did, which is why any right-thinking Jew on his way to the temple would have acted in just the same way. A Samaritan, of course, didn’t have to bother.
There are two points being made by the story, one relating to religion as a whole, the other particular to the situation. The general point first. The Bible is a very good book, and the values it implies very necessary to our world; this simple story of the Good Samaritan is a powerful example of that. But it is not a perfect book; it can be misused and often is. You cannot simply say, “This is what the Bible tells us to do, so this is what in all circumstances and without argument we have to do.” The Pharisees of Jesus day took that view on observance of the Sabbath – with rather nasty consequences. Mark again – chapter iii: And he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. And they watched him, to see whether he would heal him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. Of what, you ask? Why, of breaking the biblical rules regarding the sabbath. And he did break them and heal the man; and the consequence was: The Pharisees went out, and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. In other words, the clergy were so outraged by what strikes most of us as simple and necessary charity that they approached the politicians to see whether they couldn’t put a stop to him. Religion, which ought to be the basis of morality, has a dreadful tendency to move in this kind of direction; the watchword in the mouth of the clergy of Jesus’ day, as it is increasingly in ours, is ‘obedience’; Jesus’ message is that the watchword should always be ‘charity’, and the rules often may, and often should, be set aside in favour of it. “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath” (Mark ii.27)
There are some fascinating details in the story itself. We are told that the lawyer asks the question, “Who is my neighbour?” to ‘justify’ himself. He thought the conversation so far had made him look a simpleton. Like any academic, he takes refuge in definitions: “But what do we mean by ‘neighbour?’” Nowadays the question would be raised in a debate in the Synod, discussed by the House of Bishops, who would then issue a forty-page report, which would be read by very few and ignored by everyone. The question would be considered settled, with no practical implications for anybody, that last bit being the whole point of the exercise. In the case of the story, the last thing the lawyer expected to hear was a bit of practical advice. What he got was not a disquisition on the possible meanings of the word ‘neighbour’ but an example of neighbourly conduct with the suggestion that that’s how he too should be behaving. And that’s what religion should be about: not obedience, which proved to be the downfall of the priest and Levite; but charity, which the Samaritan – just because ritual obedience had no part in his thinking – was free to supply.
Statistics courtesy of