Sunday 15 • 10 Jul 2016

Amos 7:7-17
Colossians 1:1-14
Luke 10:25-37

Rev. Chris Udy

Dr Antonio Damasio is a neuroscientist
who studies the way we make decisions.

He has a theory, based on his work
with patients like Elliott,
who was a successful businessman
until he developed a brain tumour
that required surgery.
When Elliott recovered it became clear
that his emotional connections to the world
had been damaged –
he was still highly intelligent and rational,
but he no longer had any feelings.
When he was faced with choices –
even minor, everyday choices,
like when to make an appointment
or what to eat for lunch,
he couldn’t do it.
Because no one option had a better feeling,
because he didn’t have an emotional response
to any of his choices,
he couldn’t make a decision,
or maintain a relationship,
or even register what he did or didn’t like –
and as a result his businesses failed
and his marriage faded away.
Antonio Damasio believes
we are guided to our decisions,
not primarily by facts or conscious logic,
but by largely unconscious, emotional memories
triggered by visual cues, or smells, or sounds
we might never be aware of,
working preconsciously, or intuitively,
to make us choose one thing –
one product, one partner, one political party over another.

That probably doesn’t surprise us,
especially at the end of an election campaign,
when most of us wonder
why many of our neighbours choose to vote
for people we’re suspicious of,
or policies we don’t understand.
In elections we make decisions
based on loyalty, hope and fear;
trying to avoid a world
where we and those we care about might suffer;
looking for a future that’s secure.

Luke tells the story
of a man who asked Jesus
a political question –
looking for security in his future:
“Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Luke says the man was testing Jesus,
wanting to see whether Jesus belonged to the right party –
whether he was wearing the right coloured tie –
but his question was bigger and deeper
than it appeared.
If eternal life is to be a blessing, not a curse,
it needs to be in a place
where we and those we care about
can prosper, and be safe.
Eternal life in a warzone, or in lawless chaos,
is a definition of hell –
so what must we do, the man was asking,
how can we live –
to make a world with justice, and at peace.

Luke also says the man was a lawyer,
so Jesus asked him what he had read in the Law,
and the man replied
with the stock and standard answer:
“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.”
“You have given the right answer”, Jesus told him
“do this, and you will live.”

That’s the way to make a world worth living in.
That’s the kind of world
you’d want to live in for long time.
A world where the law says
the first and highest value is to love.

But the man wasn’t satisfied.
Luke says he wanted to justify himself.
Maybe he wanted to demonstrate his cleverness;
maybe he was looking for some kind of guarantee,
wanting to prove to himself and those around him
that he deserved a place in that perfect world.
But he’d missed the point,
so instead of asking what love is,
or how he could live in love with God
and with his neighbour as himself,
which would have been excellent questions,
he asked a question of law –
a question of legal definition:
“And who is my neighbour?”

It looks like the man
was trying to limit his exposure.
He was doing his risk assessment,
and making himself a small target
for any potential criticism
about who he’d included in his neighbourhood.
He probably wanted Jesus to say
that his neighbour was the person next door,
or maybe someone from his village.
He probably also wanted Jesus
to give him a definition
like the one Lord Atkin came up with
in a legal case that began
when a woman in Scotland found a dead snail
in her bottle of ginger beer
and sued the ginger beer brewer.
The case went all the way to the House of Lords,
and I’ll be interested to hear what Peter
and our other lawyers say about this,
but apparently, as part of his judgement
Lord Atkin defined the ‘Neighbour Principle’ which says
“The rule that you are to love your neighbour
becomes, in law, you must not injure your neighbour”.
That’s very close
to what most teachers of Torah might have said
to answer the man’s first question.
Their answer would probably have been
“Do not do to someone else
something you would not like them to do to you”.
That’s manageable – it’s realistic, it’s rational,
it’s practical and achievable –
but that’s not what Jesus said
to the man who’d asked him
who was his neighbour.

Instead he told the story we know well,
about a man attacked and robbed
on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho.
The Priest and the Levite in the story,
who saw the man,
but did nothing to help him,
were justified by the law:
they did nothing to harm the man –
nothing to injure him –
they simply passed him by.
They could even have argued
that passing by was the proper thing to do.
They didn’t know what was wrong with the man;
they didn’t know if the robbers were still around;
and if the man was sick,
or if he died while they were with him
Torah said that would have made them unclean.
For a Priest, or for a Levite – a religious lawyer –
that would have left them
unable to work until they’d been purified,
so you could argue – at law –
that they were right –
and Jesus doesn’t criticise or condemn them.
But then a Samaritan comes along –
and we can modernise him in all sorts of ways:
a refugee, a Muslim,
someone who voted for Pauline Hanson …
and when he saw the man on the road
he felt compassion.
The Greek word (σπλαγχνίζομαι)
means his inner parts were moved.
We might now say he saw himself in the bashed-up man
and his mirror neurons fired –
but however we describe it,
it was an emotional response,
and that feeling,
rather than any logical process,
led him to do whatever he could –
and more than could be expected -
for someone who, in other circumstances,
he might not have welcomed to live next door.

When he finished the story
Jesus asked the man in the crowd
“Which of these three, do you think,
was a neighbour
to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
And the lawyer replied
“The one who showed him mercy.”

The way to eternal life, according to Jesus –
the way to a life worth living,
and the way to a world
we’d want to live in for a very long time
is by letting love, not legalities,
move us to action.
The way to a life worth living
is by feeling things deeply,
even uncomfortably and inconveniently,
and letting that compassion guide our responses.
Life doesn’t come from limiting our liabilities,
or minimizing our risks,
or doing nothing;
a life lived fully is open and positive,
generous and compassionate and human.

One of the frustrating things
about reading the Bible in Church
is that almost always,
when Jesus has had a conversation
or told a parable,
the focus of the story moves on
and we rarely discover what happened
to the people he encountered.
In the passage we read today
Jesus told the man who’d asked the question
to go and do likewise –
but there’s no way we can discover
whether the man who wanted his neighbour defined
learned how to live with mercy.
Unfortunately, if Antonio Demasio is right,
legal arguments probably don’t change how people feel,
and although this is a persuasive parable,
the Good Samaritan doesn’t tell us
how to help a hard heart be more tender.
The teaching in the parable is quite clear:
our neighbour can be anyone
in whom we also see ourselves;
anyone with whom we identify, or sympathise –
and maybe that’s what
loving my neighbour as myself ultimately means –
but what if I can’t see someone as my neighbour?
What if fear, or greed, or prejudice
stops me from seeing
that the person I’m looking at
is just like me?

It looks like Jesus told parables
because there’s something in a story
that makes a space
for some humanity to grow.
When someone tells us a story
we pause for a moment,
we try to imagine the scene –
the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, for example –
and we use our own experience,
our memories, our emotions,
to fill in the gaps between words.
If the story is well told
we’re drawn into it – it absorbs us.
Things we already know are reinforced,
and we give the story-teller time and trust
to take us into something we don’t know.
In the story Jesus told
the Priest and the Levite were true to form,
they did what everyone thought they’d do –
but the Samaritan man came with a twist.
Everyone expected Samaritans
to keep to themselves;
that’s what they’d been doing for 400 years –
and in the passage we read the week before last,
Luke includes mention of a Samaritan village
that turned Jesus away
because he was headed to Jerusalem.
So a Samaritan man who felt compassion
for a Jewish man on the road from Jerusalem –
that was a surprise,
and in that surprising insight –
in that moment of fresh vision –
a space for humanity and mercy grew.

Sadly, much of the time
we’re pressured to focus on our business
and to mask the way we feel.
We’re told that stories are a waste of time,
that vulnerability is risky,
and that tenderness can’t be trusted –
so, instead of living with love,
we distance ourselves from our neighbours,
and we try to turn God
into an idea, or rules and laws –
but Antonio Demasio tells us
that our emotions are our compass and our guide
to a life worth living
and a world worth living in,
and Jesus tells us stories
designed to transform and surprise –
so maybe we need to hear and tell more stories
and to let both the joy and the sadness
of other peoples’ lives
move us to the compassion and mercy we need
to inherit eternal life.