Friday, July 09, 2010

Pentecost +7

Did you hear the one where the lawyer and the priest and the Muslim asylum seeker are walking past a pub?  A hot summer’s night in a rough neighbourhood - the very air smells dangerous and they’re walking back to their cars as quick as they can go.  The asylum seeker is walking back to his taxi.  And each of them sees a man lying in the gutter outside the pub.  You recognise the scene, I’m sure - and the lawyer says to himself: ‘Not me mate, soon as I touch you, you’ll sue me’.  And he crosses the road even though his BMW is parked on this side.  The priest comes past a minute later, muttering to himself because he’s saying his evening prayers under his breath.  And he can’t fail to notice the man lying in the gutter.  So he walks a bit faster, closing his eyes and concentrating on his prayers - remembering of course to say one for misguided souls who abuse the demon drink.

And another minute later the Muslim asylum seeker comes past, having got out of his taxi for the fifth time that day to kneel in the direction of Mecca and pray.  And seeing the man in the gutter, he remembers his friend who was pulled out of the water by a young Aussie sailor more dead than alive after the boat exploded.  And so he checks.  The man’s breathing and yes, he does smell of alcohol and vomit, but by the time he has a drink of coffee from the asylum seeker’s thermos flask and they get him home in the taxi, he manages to stagger to the front door.

It’s clear enough why Jesus tells this uncomfortable little story.  The scribe who comes to question him - an expert in the Torah - is playing the old and deadly game of ‘trap your opponent into contradicting himself’.  A game we mostly nowadays see played out between politicians.  And he says: ‘what is the one thing I have to do to be right with God?’  It’s a variation of the story in Mark’s Gospel where Jesus comes up with the most important commandment of all - in Luke’s version Jesus gets the lawyer himself to give the right answer, the answer that we ourselves repeat every single Sunday which is that there is no distinction between loving God and loving our neighbours.  ‘Do this’, Jesus says to the lawyer, and to us, ‘and you will live’.

Actually, even when we hear this and recognise the importance of it, Christians can and do still get it wrong.  In some Christian traditions it even gets marked wrong - because what saves you is faith in Jesus Christ.  Loving your neighbour as a way of being right with God sounds too much like salvation by “works”.  But Jesus here isn’t talking like a good evangelical Christian, he is talking good Judaism in which the commandments are observed whole, not broken into bits, and he recognises a fundamental connection between loving God and loving our neighbour - that they are one commandment, not two. 

For Christians, the connection between the two commandments has all too often got obscured, or even broken.  Sometimes there seems to be a tension, or even a contradiction, between them - because we think we have to put God first, our first loyalty has to be to what we believe.  And so all too often throughout history Christians have behaved in ways that ignore the rights of others or discriminate against others who we see as having the ‘wrong’ beliefs.  We get a bit closer to the mark when we think, ‘well, I need to love my neighbour because Jesus commands it, so loving my neighbour is a part of loving God’.  But the problem is, when I go through the motions of loving other people as a religious duty, am I really loving them or am I just patronising them?  Am I really treating other people as a means to my own end of making sure that I am OK with God?  And so Christian charity can sometimes come off feeling like condescension or even judgmentalism.

I think the key to recognising how the two commandments become one, is to think about who God is.  And if our idea of God is like a judge or a stern authority figure who keeps a count of all our sins - like an extension of all the power and control that affects our lives in the world around us - then there’s a built-in problem because pleasing a God like that is a completely different thing from behaving towards others with compassion and forgiveness.  There’s a built-in contradiction between the two commandments.  But when we have an image of God whose very being is love -  and whose life is the creative and redeeming outpouring of love - then loving our neighbour is no longer a separate commandment, but an invitation to participate in the life and being of God.  When we have a picture of God whose love and whose power is most fully revealed in the abject figure of a humiliated and crucified slave - then it becomes clear that in the forsaken and the powerless of this earth we encounter the very children of heaven.

And so the scribe - whose understanding of the two commandments seems to be that they are in opposition to one another - tries to limit his liability.  Notice that his question to Jesus: ‘who is my neighbour?’ - actually means: ‘who isn’t my neighbour?’  What he is really interested in is not how far he can go in extending compassion, but when and where he can stop.  Who can I ignore, what is the very least amount of compassion I can show and still be OK with God?  When you put it like that - then the answer is obvious, isn’t it?

I’ve never been there, but from the pictures I’ve seen the road from Jerusalem to Jericho would have been a very good spot for bandits.  Dropping over 3500 feet in 14 miles as you make your way down into the Jordan valley, this is wild and inhospitable territory, and nobody in their right mind would have walked it by themselves.  It even passes through an unlikely sounding place called the valley of the shadow of death, which presumably in ancient times was as scary as it sounds.  The point is, you’ve got no business being there, travelling this road by yourself is asking for trouble and maybe you have no right to expect anybody else to put themselves out for you when the inevitable happens.  A bit like the sixteen year old boat person who got herself into trouble in the Indian Ocean 4,000 kilometres west of Perth a few weeks ago.  Shouldn’t have been there, what did she expect, did she even have a visa, how much is it costing us and why should we put the lives of our own navy personnel on the line to rescue her?  And if we listen carefully we hear the voice of the scribe in the background asking Jesus: ‘who isn’t my neighbour?’

The Gospel speaks to us, of course, precisely because it isn’t a dead document from the world of 2,000 years ago.  When we call it the Word of God we mean that it is living, that it resonates and finds a living echo in our own lives and in the world we live in, the world of the 21st century.  That’s always my assumption when I sit down to write a sermon, and sometimes I scratch my head, trying to find an illustration from the world of our own experience.  This week, in our own country, in Australia, the voices asking: ‘who isn’t my neighbour?’ got a whole lot louder.  Where, this week, could I find an illustration for the parable of the Good Samaritan?

This week we were assured by our Prime Minister that it is OK to listen first to the voices of our own fears and prejudices.  This week the alternative Prime Minister, the leader of the Opposition, assured us he would physically turn around at sea and refuse assistance to boats carrying asylum seekers.  This week we were invited to put the images of traumatised men, women and children at arm’s length and out of sight by bullying our impoverished neighbour, East Timor, into acting as a prison to detain for us those whose demand on our compassion and humanity terrifies us. 

Make no mistake about it, our fear of asylum seekers is not because we don’t have enough to share, but because the overpowering need of others makes us suddenly, and nervously, aware of the physical blessings and the material wealth that as Australians we have come to take for granted.  Sadly, the more human beings have, the harder it is for us to be generous.  The argument that all asylum seekers, or even that a sizable proportion of them, are really just economic refugees, simply doesn’t wash.  We have no problem accepting 180,000 economic migrants every year.  On the other hand, it was estimated the other day that at current levels it would take twenty years to fill the Melbourne Cricket Ground with the desperate human beings who wash up on our shores - people fleeing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, including wars in which our own troops are fighting, and in one case, a war we helped start.  Applying the language - and the technology - of border protection to the pitiable overloaded boats of frightened people limping up to Ashmore Reef might not be a racist and xenophobic over-reaction if our country was active in the places of this world from which refugees were fleeing, if we were carrying our fair share of the humanitarian task of caring for the forsaken of the earth.  But we are not - our refugee intake of 12,500 people annually represents just 0.6 percent of the numbers in the refugee camps of Pakistan and Iran and India and Chad, for example, in which the millions who have fled conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and Sri Lanka and Sudan live in seemingly inescapable squalor, and we rank 33rd - 33rd! - in the world on a per capita basis for the numbers of refugees we accept.

This week, we were invited by both the Prime Minister and the alternative Prime Minister, to debate the issues.  But actually, the debate is not about asylum seekers.  So long as there are wars, so long as countries, including our own, use military force as a way of solving disputes and propping up alliances, then there will be human flotsam and jetsam to trouble our consciences.  The debate is not about who asylum seekers are, it is about who we are.

Who, Jesus asks us, is your neighbour?