St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls — 9:00 am
Amos 7:7-17 Psalm 82 Colossians 1:1-14 Luke 10:25-37
(c) 2007 William S. J. Moorhead
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
There was a letter to editor in The Living Church magazine a few weeks ago. I won’t name the correspondent, and it’s not my purpose to seem to be beating up on this person, who is clearly very serious and committed. But I think the letter raises an important issue about our Christian life:
“In response to [a previous letter to the editor], the MDGs [Millennium Development Goals] may be good secular goals, but they are not the work of the Church. The Church’s mission is to bring people to Jesus the Christ, for only in him can we find salvation. If some readers have forgotten the mission of the Church, they should read scripture and the writings of the patristic fathers. As the body of Christ, we are not here to fulfill a secular agenda. We may reflect Christ’s great love for us, shown by his death, passion, and resurrection, by doing good works, acting as responsible stewards of the earth, but MDGs should not be construed as our mission.”
Well, I certainly support the admonition to read scripture, though I’m not sure to what extent scripture would actually substantiate this correspondent’s point. Nor am I sure that the patristic fathers would buy this writer’s argument. The distinction between the “religious” and the “secular” that the writer seems to be drawing is very much taken for granted in the post-Enlightenment West, but it was not the assumption of the scriptures, or the Fathers, or most of Christian history, or for that matter of many other faith traditions still today (for example, Islam). The issue of “religion” I think is much more problematic than we recognize, and especially for us as Christians.
In the Gospel today we hear the parable of the Good Samaritan — well known to all of us, and perhaps one of our favorites. An aspect of the story that typically gets bit of our attention is the first part, about the passing-by of the priest and the Levite. Those who like to point out the hypocrisy of much “organized religion” particularly enjoy taking a shot here, of course. And God knows there is plenty to shoot at, both then and now. And sometimes we may feel a little discomfort, even guilt, when we are presented in this story by official religious leaders who encounter obvious human need and “pass by on the other side.” We are ashamed of their indifference or their cowardice, ashamed of our own indifference or cowardice in the face of those who are in need of our help.
But the priest and the Levite are important characters in Jesus’ story. Commentators on this parable have observed that we may rush to judgment too soon upon the priest and the Levite. We must remember that in the Judaism of Jesus’ day, while the Temple in Jerusalem was yet standing, priests and Levites had clearly defined and very important religious functions and duties. They were the leaders and assistants at the official offering of worship to the Lord God of hosts by the chosen People Israel. By law and custom, men of the tribe of Levi, whether of the priestly clans or the lesser ministerial families, were exempt from many of the day-to-day duties and hassles of the rest of the people. They had Religious Commitments. And things they were religiously forbidden to do, like, for instance, touch a dead body (or a body that looked like it might be dead, or like it might soon be dead), because contact with a dead body made you ritually unclean (according to the Law of Moses; it’s in the 19th chapter of Numbers, if you like to look up stuff like that!). The period of purification from this ritual uncleanness was seven days, during which you couldn’t go into the Temple. So for a priest or a Levite, their ability to fulfill their religious commitments was on the line here. As they passed by on the other side they may have been motivated by indifference or by cowardice, but they may also have passed by very regretfully, wishing they could help but mindful of their Sacred Office and their Religious Responsibilities to God and the whole People of Israel.
We so instinctively think of “religion” as something apart from, removed from, the ordinary realities of human existence—art and literature, politics and economics, the simple needs of human beings in trouble. The priest and the Levite had “religious obligations,” and so they passed by on the other side. Too bad about that mugging victim; but they must go and be about God’s business. Jesus is putting it to us: Just what do you think your “religious obligation” is? What is “God’s business”? Religion is not some nice, tidy, antiseptic, lofty, ethereal realm untouched by the blood, sweat, and tears of human life. Genuine religion, or, better put, a life faithful to God, includes everything that has to do with being a human being. Some things are to be affirmed and celebrated; others to be purged and healed; but all human life belongs to God and is therefore, ultimately, “religious.” The Samaritan—the half-pagan heretic Samaritan—understood what his “religious obligation” was, though Jesus doesn’t portray him as thinking of it as a matter of “religious” obligation, simply as human obligation. And Jesus’ point is, there isn’t really any difference! The righteous, orthodox priest and Levite had no idea what “being religious” is really all about. They, and many of us too, have the idea that the purpose of life has to do with “being religious.” On the contrary, from God’s point of view, the purpose of “religion” must be to enable us to have and to share fullness of life.
And so to the Millennium Development Goals, to which the church — the Episcopal Church, and the Diocese of Iowa, and we hope every congregation — is committed. Obviously these are but one set of goals among the immense multitude of human needs around the world, but they are a good and worthy and pressing set of goals to which a wide variety of people and groups and organizations and nations are pledging themselves. They are certainly not the church’s only work, but to think they are not part of the church’s work is to miss the point of this parable, to miss the point of the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25, indeed to miss the point of the gospel of Jesus Christ. For Jesus, and Jesus’ Father, are not really that concerned about “religion” at all.
The lawyer in the Gospel today asked Jesus the right question, but he didn’t even understand what his own question meant. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Life—full, free, authentic, eternal life—life given, life shared, life affirmed, life enabled—is what God made us for.