Periodically, members of the teams competing were asked to vote one of their members off. The host of the programme, in a deliberately supercilious manner, then declared to the departing contestant, “You are the weakest link, goodbye.”
In many different ways, our culture says this to people: “You are the weakest link, goodbye.”
It’s like that in the world of work. In many workplaces, the deadly philosophy of economic rationalism has reduced the value of people to that of mere inputs into the process of production. And for those whose input is not as profitable as the person at the next desk or the next machine: “You are the weakest link, goodbye.”
It’s like that today in politics. There are many politicians on all sides of politics who still follow the destructive policies of the 1980s. They believe in welfare for the rich and free enterprise for the poor. And, for those who happen to fall by the wayside: “You are the weakest link, goodbye.”
Our gospel lesson points us in a radically different direction. It’s a result of a time when a lawyer asked Jesus a lawyer’s question.
It all began innocently enough, even if it became a verbal tennis match. A lawyer asked Jesus, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Realising that a simple, straightforward answer is not always terribly helpful, Jesus replied by asking the lawyer some questions of his own: “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”
The lawyer replied with what was the appropriate Jewish 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.”
There were no surprises there. It was, as I said, the appropriate Jewish answer.
- It was the “mainstream” answer.
- It was the “pukka” answer.
- It was even the “politically correct” answer.
- And, what is more, it was even a good answer.
The lawyer had given a good answer and Jesus affirmed it: “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
But the lawyer felt a bit silly. It may have felt a bit like a rocket scientist being praised for his skill in basic arithmetic. So “to justify himself”, as we’re told by Luke, the lawyer decided to save a bit of face by asking Jesus a lawyer’s question. He asked Jesus to define his terms. He asked for a legal definition, with:
- plenty of scope for interpretation,
- loopholes around every corner,
- sufficient room to wiggle your way out of anything unpleasant.
“And who is my neighbour?” he asked.
Instead of giving a definition, Jesus told a story.
A traveller was attacked by thieves who
- beat him,
- robbed him,
- stripped him, and
- left him by the side of the road - naked, unconscious, and almost dead.
A priest and a Levite each passed by and did nothing.
Just as a note, in those days, priests and Levites did not work full time in their religious duties. These were not people who made religion their life’s work out of a sense of call. They were priests or Levites because they came from families of priests or Levites. They were born to the job. And besides, most priests and Levites spent about one week out of a year at their religious responsibilities. Most of the time, they were businessmen: businessmen whose religious role gave them a bit of added status in their community.
There were plenty of stories in Jesus’ day about priests and Levites failing to do the right thing when it came to the crunch. Priest and Levite stories then were a bit like lawyer jokes or economist jokes today.
What was radical about the story that Jesus told was the person who did come to the rescue: a Samaritan. To be quite honest, Samaritans came off even worse than priests and Levites in people’s attitudes at the time.
- Ethnically, the Samaritans were the descendants of Jews who did not have to go off to Babylon when Jerusalem was conquered five centuries before. They intermarried with other people living in the area.
- Religiously, the Samaritans practised what seemed to be a simplified and old-fashioned form of Judaism.
- Politically, many Samaritans were inclined to collaborate with the Roman colonial government.
For these, and other, reasons, Samaritans were not popular people. By placing a Samaritan in this role in his story, as an example of a good neighbour, Jesus challenged the lawyer at the core of his values. Jesus shocked the lawyer by casting a Samaritan in this role.
A question: If Jesus was telling this story for the first time ... to you ... today ..., whom would he cast as the Samaritan to make this story as shocking for you as it was for the lawyer? ... an Aborigine? ... a Muslim? ... a Jew? ... a Catholic? ... a homosexual? ... a banker? ... a lawyer? ... a trade unionist? ... a greenie? ... an economist? ... a paedophile … or ... someone else entirely?
By making the Samaritan the hero of his story, Jesus profoundly shocked the lawyer. We can only really hear this story as the lawyer heard it if we hear the story with a similar level of shock.
After telling the story, Jesus posed another question to the lawyer: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
It’s sad to say that the lawyer couldn’t even bring himself to say the word “Samaritan”. All he could say was, “The one who showed him mercy.”
Jesus said: “Go and do likewise.”
Game, set, and match.
We live in a culture
- that scorns the weak,
- that discounts the vulnerable,
- that persecutes those who are markedly “different”,
- that declares, to many different people in many different ways, “You are the weakest link, goodbye.”
In our culture and generation, as in every culture and every generation, Jesus presents us with a better alternative. A member of a minority community, despised by his neighbours, goes out of his way to assist one of these “weakest links.” And then,
- sometimes gently, sometimes stridently;
- sometimes softly, sometimes authoritatively;
- sometimes suddenly, sometimes persistently;
- sometimes as a courteous request, sometimes as a Sergeant-Major’s order;
- sometimes when we least expect it, sometimes as obviously as the noses on our faces;