Saturday, July 14, 2007

Pentecost 7

In the movie, Chocolat, Vianne, a half-Mayan chocolatier trying to settle amongst a suspicious group of locals in a French village in the xenophobic 1950s, tries to befriend an even more unwanted group of new arrivals, so-called river rats who arrive on a dilapidated barge.  The river rats are a disreputable-looking lot, floating vagrants who become the focus in this little village of fear and hostility.  Vianne, her chocolate shop only just beginning to turn a profit, is warned off by the river-rats themselves, ‘be careful’, they tell her – ‘if you make friends with us, you make enemies with the whole village’ – ‘oh well’, she says, ‘is that a promise?’

For those who haven’t seen it – Chocolat begins in Lent, when the villagers are resigning themselves to six weeks of rigid discipline and self-denial when Vianne, a gypsy-like free spirit, breezes into town and has the audacity to open up a chocolate shop.  Not just any chocolate, of course, Vianne’s aphrodisiac Mayan recipes add a little something, take away a few inhibitions and create an infectious outbreak of joy that even the village’s stony-faced mayor and self-appointed moral authority can’t quench.  The mayor’s program of religious ascetism is no match for Vianne’s pagan concoction of unconditional acceptance, skilful listening and chocolate to die for – one by one the villagers succumb to temptation and by film’s end on Easter morning the real miracle of new life is the transformation of the villagers themselves.  It’s a movie that, on one level, is about the breaking down of boundaries and prejudices that imprison people – on another level a must-see reflection on the tension between what religion is actually supposed to be about – and what it all too often is.

Which, I take it, is what Jesus is also on about in our Gospel reading this morning.  Jesus finds himself into a conversation with a lawyer – by which Luke means a religious professional, someone skilled in arguing the finer points of the law of Moses – and the conversation they have is just the sort of typical question-and-answer game that Jewish rabbis loved to play with one another – a not-unfriendly verbal exchange along the lines of ‘in 20 words or less, sum up the first 5 books of the Bible’.  Mark’s gospel has a similar sort of encounter but there it’s Jesus who comes up with this two-part summary - in Luke’s version that we heard today, it’s his sparring partner.  Whoever it was who first thought of it, the point is that it’s inconveniently not at all Christian, but thoroughly Jewish, and in both Mark’s and Luke’s version of the story Jesus and the scribe are in full agreement.  In fact we see a very similar summary in the writings of rabbi Hillel, one of Jesus’ near contemporaries.  ‘What must I do to be saved?’ – and like the good Jewish rabbi that he was, Jesus directs his questioner straight back to the Jewish scriptures, the double-barrelled great commandment that we recite every week in the liturgy which is the great Jewish commandment of Deuteronomy 6.5, the Shema, and the radical message of Leviticus chapter 19, to love your neighbour as yourself.  This is the genius of Judaism, the understanding that it’s our relationship with God that forms the foundation for our relationships with other people; because God called us out of slavery as aliens in Egypt there is an indelible connection between God’s holiness and our holiness – and in this chapter of Leviticus the list of neighbours we’re commanded to love as ourselves includes widows, both the poor and the rich, and most remarkably of all, even resident aliens.  So far, so orthodox. 

But there is a problem, or at least for many religious communities there is a tension when we try to live out the double-barrelled commandment in practice.  Maybe that’s because in practice, it’s not so easy to put aside our own religious conditioning.  Where does your first loyalty lie?  If loving others falls into line behind loving God, then worshipping God in the ‘right’ way, observing the religious as well as the social and cultural rules of our faith as part of the duty we owe to God can lead us pretty easily into behaviour toward other people that is judgemental, excluding and not at all loving.  History, as well as current events, shows us that very clearly, that devout people trying to do what they think God requires have been a cause of a great deal of suffering – in Australia, that has led in recent years to a significant number of people rejecting all religion as part of the problem, not part of the solution.  This is the tension in the movie, Chocolatwhere hard and fast religiousity has created a situation where people are miserable, imprisoned by prejudice and missing out on life.  A more subtle tension is perhaps where we do try to take seriously the command to love those around us, even the different and the unattractive and the dangerous, but we do it self-consciously as a religious duty – ‘well, I’m not sure if I really like you, but I love you in Jesus’ – which leaves open the possibility that I don’t really love you at all, I’m just going through the motions to keep on good terms with God.  That’s an inauthentic way of living.  I have the feeling that at the bottom of the tension is the need, first and foremost, to hold together the whole structure of who we are as a community, as a religious group – the more different you are from us, the more you seem to threaten our own view of reality, the more anxious that makes us, and that makes it harder to reconcile loving you with loving God.

So, what really causes that tension is the image we have of God.  If we see God as an authoritarian figure, a sort of powerful controller of the universe who inspires worship tinged with a healthy dose of fear and trembling – then we’re also going to have an authoritarian view of our relationships with other people, and that actually isn’t consistent with genuine love.  But when we start to see the nature of God as being poured out in love for what God has created – that’s an anti-hierarchical picture of God, which means that loving other people becomes not a religious duty but an invitation to take part in God’s own life.  It becomes a natural extension of responding in love to the God who is poured out in love for us.

But I’m getting ahead of the action because the lawyer’s second question, I think, reflects that tension between the two halves of the great commandment.  Well, teacher, where’s all this going to stop?  You’ve got to have some clear boundaries, surely?  Who is and who isn’t my neighbour?  It’s a vexed question for this religious professional because right alongside the commandment in Leviticus to love the resident alien as yourself is the command to remain separate as God’s holy people.  How much mixing with undesirables and foreigners before we start muddying the waters, losing our God-given identity?  And so Jesus answers with a parable, the one we probably all love best of all Jesus’ stories, the parable of the Good Samaritan.

It’s about basic humanity, isn’t it?  To Jewish listeners the failure of the priest and Levite to help the wounded man may well have been understandable on ritual grounds – touching blood – or even worse, the possibility that the man might be dead – would make them ritually unclean and unable to complete the religious observances.  So this goes right to the heart of the tension I was just talking about – when does our concern for correct religious observance lead us not toward people – and by extension, toward God – but in the opposite direction?  The fact that it’s the despised Samaritan who shows practical concern forces the lawyer to make the grudging admission that being a neighbour cuts across all our categories, that whether or not somebody is my neighbour simply depends on whether I recognise their need and their humanity.  Jesus here is being typically subversive, which is to say he subtly undermines the lawyer’s cultural and religious expectations to make a point about what God is like – if the God of Israel turns out to be like this disreputable Samaritan then what does it mean for us to be holy, as God is holy? 

This is a live issue for us, living as we do in a society that has become anxious and intolerant of religious and ethnic difference – so what’s the good news in this story?  I think it’s that God does draw us in, in spite of ourselves, and the way God does that is with a carrot, not a stick.  Like Vianne, who breaks through the villagers’ walls of self-righteous hostility not by arguing the point but by mixing mugs of hot chocolate and sitting down to listen – God works in us by getting us to notice what brings joy, what gives life and laughter, what creates connections where none existed. 

Listen.  A certain person is mugged and left on the footpath on the way to Carousel – for an hour or more well-dressed passers-by pretend not to notice because they assume he’s drunk and don’t want to get involved – eventually a young Muslim woman in a hijab stops and helps him up and gives him some money for a taxi.  How might that change things for us?