Artwork: Maximillian Luce, Le bon samaritain, 1896
There is a new movie starring Tom Hanks called, A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood. It tells part of the story of the much-loved children’s entertainer, Mr. Rogers. Fred Rogers was a Christian and a Presbyterian minister - and one who exhibited the fruits of the Spirit listed in our reading from Galatians today. The film focuses on the life-changing effect Mr. Rogers had on a hardened and troubled jounalist. So if Mr. Rogers was a branch grafted into Christ the true vine, the spiritual fruit he bore brought nourishment to others.
I can remember watching his show, Mr. Rogers' Neighbourhood as a child. Whether you’ve seen the new film or not, you might recall Mr. Rogers’ soft and heart-warming invitation: ‘Won’t you be my neighbour?’
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is asked: And who is my neighbour? The question comes from a lawyer who stood up to put Jesus to the test. The lawyer has a very limited idea of neighbourhood. For him, it would seem, his ‘neighbourhood,’ his community, includes only those who are like him in terms of ethnicity and religion.
But the Bible teaches us, first of all, about a community which is human. Beneath all the distinctions of male/female/sexuality, of race/language/culture/ nationality, of status and wealth – beneath all of that – there is the solidarity of being human. We are all of one blood, made in the image of God, formed from the dust of the earth, animated by the breath of God. The Bible also teaches us, early on, about the common brokenness of humanity – that all children of Adam & Eve have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
Friends, if you know yourself to be fundamentally both a human being and a sinner, then you can recognize anyone and everyone as a neighbour. It is when we insist on defining ourselves solely on the basis of skin colour, nationality, political party, or any other superficial thing, that we are blinded to our common humanity. This is the cause of the many deep divisions in our world today: a restricted understanding of neighbourhood.
Friends, our Gospel story for today – the parable of the Good Samaritan – shows us that Jesus wants to bind up the wounds of these divisions. He wants to heal you as an individual so that you can be empowered to go and do likewise in the expansive neighbourhood that is His Kingdom.
Of all the parables that Jesus told, this one is a favourite for many Christians. Something about it touches us in a very deep way. We’re moved by the compassion and mercy of this Good Samaritan towards the wounded stranger. Why is that, do you think? Why does this parable so warm our hearts?
If it were only a moral lesson to go and do likewise, we would be left with a very high standard to meet; and we would be discouraged rather than heartened. But we are commanded to go and do likewise - that’s what Jesus says at the end. Clearly this whole story is about how the Law of God is to be lived out. And the entire Law is summed up in these words: Love the LORD your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind; and love your neighbour as yourself.
The lawyer knows this great commandment, but again, it would seem he is only willing to love those who are like him. He thinks those who are different from him are not his neighbours and so are undeserving of his love. But Jesus calls us to imagine a much bigger, more inclusive neighbourhood and a higher standard of sacrificial, self-giving love. It is only possible to love in this way if we have first received this same kind of love. That’s how the love of God works. We love because He first loved us (1 John 4:19). This parable takes us into the very heart of God. So let us journey there together:
You and I are the man who was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and […] fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. The man is the Old Adam. He stands for all of us in our fallen humanity. Our going down from Jerusalem to Jericho is our fallen condition. Jerusalem is the city of God, His dwelling place, the home of His Word and Commandments. In our fallenness, we go down from there to Jericho - the old bastion of human sin and rebellion.
The robbers who assail us are the works of the flesh we heard about in today’s reading from Galatians. These works of the flesh are like robbers in that they steal our true humanity, strip us of our dignity, and beat up our souls, bodies, relationships, neighbourhoods, and the whole human community. These robbers leave us half-dead.
And friends, as we meditate on this story, it is crucial that we take its meaning personally. Each one of us lies in that ditch, assaulted by the works of the flesh, each in our own way. Only you know this for yourself.
That the priest and Levite pass us by on the other side shows that religion and the Law - our attempts to be good and righteous - are really of no help when we’re lying stranded on the road of life. In our reading from Galatians, Paul says that we cannot overcome the works of the flesh by relying on our own obedience and trying harder to be good. When you’ve been beaten, stripped and left half-dead, you can’t very well expend that extra energy. What we need is a Good Samaritan to come to where we are and have compassion on us.
Elsewhere in the Gospels, that word, compassion, is used only to describe God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ. In our fallen condition, God looked upon us with compassion; and unlike the priest and Levite, He did not keep His distance, but drew near; He was pleased to stoop down to us by becoming incarnate in the womb of the Virgin Mary. Jesus took upon Himself our frail flesh and lived amongst us as one who served; He drew so close to us in our suffering that He took our place on the road. In His Passion, Jesus Himself was stripped and beaten; and rather than being left half-dead, He died for us on the cross. Those works of the flesh did their very worst to Him; and Jesus, as God-in-the-flesh, destroyed them through His death. By His wounds we are healed with the ointment of His very blood.
And so, you see, Jesus Christ is the true and perfect Good Samaritan. And in fact, His enemies called Him just this: a ‘Samaritan,’ which was an extreme racial insult of the time (John 8:48). In those days, the Samaritans were a people despised and rejected by the Judeans – they were certainly not beloved ‘neighbours.’ Jesus was despised and rejected; and yet He is our closest neighbour. He comes to us where we are and has compassion on us. He trades places with us.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. […] God shows His love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:6-8).
Through the compassion, the tender mercy of our God, we are saved by the forgiveness of our sins through the blood of Christ.
And again, I mentioned the importance of making this story personal for you. Only you can meet this Good Samaritan in His love in a way particular to your life story. Today through His Word, Christ comes to you to minister His gifts of healing, and He restores you to new life at His own expense.
Friends, the more we come to receive and appreciate the love of Christ and Him crucified, the more we are transformed and empowered to love others as He first loved us. In this is love, not that we have loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another (1 John 4:10-11).
You see, it’s not just that we are called to imitate the love of Christ - it’s that His love first transforms our hearts, and so we are re-made from the inside-out. Only then can we go and do likewise. Not just our behaviour, but our motivations, perceptions, the way we see other people – all of this is conformed to Christ.
As Paul says in our reading from Galatians, those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. When we see Christ dying for our sins in our place, all of those works of the flesh lose their grip on us, and so our hearts are freed and purified to love God and others more purely. This Law is written on our hearts so that we can walk by the Spirit, as Paul says. Jesus lifts us out of that ditch So that we can continue our journey through life led by the [Holy] Spirit, who is the love of God. By this leading of the Holy Spirit, we may crucify the flesh, grow in holiness, and bear His fruit. Through the Spirit, we grow and blossom in Christian maturity, bearing fruit for the glory of Jesus.
Our reading today from Galatians describes this fruit. This is quite a timely image for us in this month of September, as I know that many of you are harvesting the fruit and vegetables of your own gardens. And as you do this work, the Word of God calls you to do likewise with the fruit of the Spirit in your life. Although there are 9 of them, Paul deliberately uses the singular word ‘fruit’ to describe a set of characteristics that grow together in a Spirit-filled person.
That’s the fruit of the Spirit we are called to yield in our lives. So how does this happen?
In closing, what do we learn about growth from our fruit and vegetable plants? Much the same applies to our life in Christ.
Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Eph. 3:20–21)