Inauguration of the Uniting in Care Services Board
Sermon preached by Revd Dr Bill Loader,
Principal, Perth Theological Hall
and Associate Professor in New Testament at Murdoch University
Reading: Luke 10:25-37 The Parable of the Good Samaritan
The Parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the most loved and best known of Jesus' parables. Its message endures and is widely acclaimed. In the Uniting Church it has jumped out of its skin and become a seal. Good Samaritan Industries uses a seal, Good Sammy, as its symbol. Seals can be entertaining, balancing balls on their noses and performing tricks. But they also bite.
Today I want to talk about the way in which the Parable bites. In doing so I want to say something about God and Caring, about Government or Community and Caring, and then as two footnotes: something about people cared for and people who do the caring.
The Parable not only illustrates love and compassion. It also has a biting comment about the religious establishment of the day, represented by the priest and the levite who walk by on the other side. Luke has placed the parable in the context of a discussion about God. What is the greatest commandment? What matters most to God? Here was a point of difference. For Jesus the greatest commandments were to love God and love one's neighbour. Those whom he is attacking seem to have been of the view that God's chief concern was himself. Preoccupied with serving him they neglected the poor and the needy. The issue was how one thought about God.
The way we think about God has a lot to do with the way we think about caring. It is easy to hear Jesus' parable as Jesus, the Christian, speaking about the Jews and to launch into Christian self-righteousness and at worst antisemitism. That is a deception. In reality it was Jesus the Jew talking with his fellow Jews. There would have been those who agreed with him. It was an inner Jewish discussion. It is important, however, we that we ask what the discussion means for us in the Christian community. How does our understanding of God affect the way we care?
One fairly common view within the Christian tradition is that God cares for all people, but that one day that will change. It will be too late. God will consign some people to everlasting torment. One day God will write people off, and more than that, subject them to punishment forever with no thought of remedial punishment or rehabilitation. For many this belief about God is not offensive because God is God. God is right and righteous and therefore has the right to write people off who are wrong.
The values implicit in this understanding of God are that it is acceptable to write people off who are wrong, provided I am right or righteous. Violence is acceptable if my cause is right. Research has shown that there is a correlation between this kind of belief and domestic violence. It shows itself sometimes in the way people handle conflict in the Church in interpersonal relations. It also explains why Christian history is filled with so much violence. It is not because Christians departed from their tradition, but because they were inspired by parts of it, the parts which give us a picture of God who in the end ceases to care. It explains why
Christians can support capital punishment. On this view, love is temporary; it is not what ultimately matters, what rules in the end.
All this has the effect of making Jesus an exception in the life of God. Love and compassion as shown in Jesus are an interim phenomenon. Jesus is not really a revelation of what God is like, but of what God is like in the meantime. This kind of thinking about God also affects the way people think about evangelism and caring services. It is hard to put evangelism and caring services together, because people think of evangelism as helping people escape God and of caring as expressing the other side of God. The alternative is to understanding God as always compassionate and to see both evangelism and caring as part of that love. One is caring for people at the level where they make major life decisions about the centre of their life, their god, and the other entails other aspects of the same caring.
Caring is not secondary but always primary, in the beginning and in the end. Such love confronts, challenges, comforts, brings change, and always wills what is good. It never writes anyone off. It never sanctions violation of others, even we believe we are so right and they are so wrong, we are so good and they are so bad.
The second observation I wish to make relates to government and caring. It is easy to see the bite in Jesus' parable as directed towards the religious. But that is to forget that the temple and its rulers were in effect the government of the day. Judea was under the Romans, the prefect, Pontius Pilate, but for matters of daily life, the government was in the hands of the temple. The temple was the bank, the centre for administration.
Jesus had criticism and challenge for those in political leadership in his day. He entered the outer court of the temple and expelled the money changers and those who sold animals and birds for sacrifices. It was not that these were necessarily corrupt in their dealings. They performed a service which was necessary for worshippers. The temple dealt in only one currency and people needed sacrifices to offer. The problem was that the commercial concerns were beginning to crowd out wider concerns. On other occasions Jesus attacked priorities which were leading to neglect and even exploitation of the poor. The temple had become too much dominated by commercial interests.
It is very easy to stand outside of government and criticise. We need to recognise that government is a management task. It means managing the diverse interests of the community. That includes preserving a balance so that no part of the household is neglected. But it is naive to expect that governments try to force a regime of caring upon the community. At its best that was the agenda of the communist movement and it proved unworkable. Managing the economy means including opportunity for the creation of wealth and economic growth. It includes making a place for greed, not just for noble pursuits of gain.
The belief common to many governments is that if you make space for wealth creation, the whole community will benefit indirectly. The approach has informed Thatcherite Britain, the policies of successive Labour and National governments in New Zealand and is very much the line taken by governments in Australia. Since the demise of communism and the retreat froim socialism, it has monopolised policy. In part it works; there will be a positive effect; there will be a social dividend. But in managing the household governments need to ensure that such wealth creation is not at the expense of other members of the household. Members of the household with least voice, the most disadvantaged, are most likely to suffer. This has been the experience in all the economies mentioned.
It will not do for governments to pass by on the other side, as it were, because they are too preoccupied with wealth creation or meeting the priorities of those with such resources. There are values that cannot be measured in terms of wealth creation. They include the values enshrined in the movement for Reconciliation with Indigenous people in Australia. Jesus, in his day, was very aware of the influence of common prejudices. It would have been striking that the hero of the parable was one of those slurred for his race and religion, a Samaritan. This parable is a powerful political statement, a challenge to fundamental values.
Let me add that even within church communities I find a disturbing lack of caring in relation to the wider community. One popular form of its expression is what I call the anti-tax mentality. We joke about and we believe it. Pay as little tax as you possible can! Governments believe it and feel bound to avoid increase in taxation at all costs if they want to continue in office. The results are disastrous. I believe we need a movement which will reverse this common stance. I look forward to the day when governments and political parties will go to the electorate on a platform of seeking more taxes to be able to exercise more effective care. Our attention ought not to be how little tax can we pay, but how well ithe tax dollar is spent. Too often we conspire with government in undermining the caring sector by our anti-tax stance.
Finally I want to add two footnotes. The first is about people cared for. The person in dialogue with Jesus asks him, 'Who is my neighbour?' Did you notice how Jesus transformed the question? Having told the parable, Jesus asked: 'Which of these people proved neighbour to the man who fell among the bandits?' There is a subtle change here. It shifts the focus from being a neighbour who needs help, the passive model, to being a neighbour who can give help. Human beings are to be seen not primarily as recipients of care, a model which encourages dependency, but as potentially able themselves to give care. This is an approach which affirms the dignity of others.
The second is this. One of the survival skills of the carer is to learn to walk by on the other side. I say this because people have used the parable as a form of oppression: you must do everything; you must always respond to every need! Of course in the parable the situation demanded an immediate response, but to use the parable as a generalising rule for every occasion is a recipe for running carers into the ground. When Jesus was in Capernaum, he was not in Tiberias. When he was caring for someone here, he was not caring someone in another place. We can only ever operate within the human limitations of time and space and energy. One of the hardest things to come to terms with as a carer is the knowledge that you have limitations like this. But within the Christian community we speak about grace. We are not being asked to justify our existence by caring. God is compassionate and that includes compassion for the carer. God knows we have limits. God's grace is the context of our caring. Of course it is possible to use this a rationalisation for not caring, but that is not what we are about. I am speaking of caring with integrity.
The parable addresses us therefore at a number of levels. It challenges us to reflect on our understanding of God. Christianity has given to western society some great blessings, but also some destructive traditions. We need to recognise this and understand that in some of the problems we encounter we are encountering the impact of aspects of our own religious heritage. We need to espouse a critical appreciation of our tradition and affirm what is life giving. The parable also challenges us as a wider community, and as government, not to walk by on the other side, not to allow striving for wealth creation to lead to neglect of those who are
most disadvantaged. We must not leave people to the bandits or lead them to banditry, a common consepquence of social neglect. Finally people cared for are people who can care; they are persons not just recipients. And people who care also need care. The context of it all is caring and compassion. For this is the greatest commandment and the abiding value. Love never ends.
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