by the Reverend Matt Harbage
Readings: Deuteronomy 30.9-14; Luke 10. 25-37 (The Good Samaritan)
Our Gospel reading today contains a powerful parable and it’s one of my favourite.
When I was a teenager I once knew a Methodist minister. One day I asked him, “Some of these old Bible stories, they must be so familiar to you. Surely they lose their punch over time?”. He replied, “They become more familiar perhaps, but no less challenging.”
I hope the Good Samaritan remains no less challenging to us. A story where the outsider, the one deemed ‘unclean’, the uncultured, the heretic, becomes the hero and offers compassion and mercy.
It challenges us in many ways: To offer hospitality to the stranger in need, and always to have compassion for the person in front of us. And, especially when we consider the story from the point of view of the injured man, we are to sometimes expect help to come from the most unlikely of places. We are all neighbours on this planet.
Then, having given his example of the Good Samaritan, Jesus calls us to “Go and do likewise”. In today’s address I want to zoom out and focus more broadly on this calling towards imitation.
That phrase, ‘go and do likewise’ conceals a hidden depth of meaning. So deep in fact, an author entitled their book with those words of Jesus’ (Spohn, William). At the risk of offering a book review, I want to commend this idea of ‘doing likewise’. Not just to imitate the ‘thinly’ described character of the Good Samaritan, but our calling as Christians is together to imitate Jesus Christ Himself.
Just to be clear, this isn’t about us becoming moral legends. Imitating Christ is about humbly helping one another to reflect God in a world which desperately needs signs of hope and stability. We are disciples after all (or at least considering such an invitation) and our goal is never self-perfection or self-actualisation, so much as self-less giving. As John the Baptist put it, “I must decrease so he, Jesus, can increase.”
This calling to imitation of Jesus is at the very heart of Christian Ethics. We find the Good Life, through imitating faithfully the example of Christ.
Three ethical tools
So let me get concrete and specific. When we approach a difficult ethical choice, there are perhaps three tools we might make use of.
The first is appealing to Law.
The robbers on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem had clearly not been convinced by the Ten Commandments. In Exodus 20 we read, “Thou shalt not steal”. It’s a command. It’s an order. As Christians, we quite rightly want to obey God’s commandments. This is a helpful tool in our toolbox in order to love our neighbour. But there are limits to laws and rules:
For example, the other day I was cycling past Parliament Square and discovered a protest and a counter protest just wrapping up. The issues at stake: abortion and pro life. The rights of a woman over their body. The rights of an unborn child. The question of legislation verses constructive civic and cultural support.
Both sides were appealing to Law. Whether Biblical Laws (‘thou shalt not kill’), or UK State Laws, or EU Directives or International ‘Human Rights’. After speaking to people on both sides of the issue, I cycled away, leaving very aware of the limitation of the appeal to Law alone. Law is a very helpful tool, sustaining civil society but it’s not enough for our ethical decision making.
The second tool we might make use of in our ethical wrestling is Consequence. Going back to the robbers in our parable, I suspect they wouldn’t have robbed the man if they thought the consequences of their actions were too risky. That the reward wouldn’t outweigh the risk.
They certainly did not rate important St Paul’s word of guidance in last week’s Lesson, namely: “you will reap what you sow”. I almost hope they got a taste of their own medicine as they tried carrying the man’s goods back to their den.
Being guided by outcomes, aware that to be ethical is to try to make choices that benefit perhaps the greatest number of people (ultilitarianism) or does the greatest good (however we measure that) over all long term and short term consequences (admittedly an impossible calculation), is nonetheless a useful tool.
For example, optimizing NHS spending and resource distribution is not easy but it has to be done. Such a task is often framed as a cost-benefit analysis.
Putting resource into research to fight the worst cancers and the ones that are most common makes sense, even if that means for some rarer forms of cancer we might not be any further ahead today than some decades ago.
Yet sometimes we must challenge this Consequentialist and seemingly logical way of thinking – something brought home to me a couple of years ago at a previous church. A parishioner’s death meant we lit up the spire purple to raise awareness of pancreatic cancer, an example of an illness where treatment has seen no improvement for 40 years, where research is desperately needed.
So Consequential ethics is limited too. Appealing both to Law and Consequence are valid and vital ways of doing ethical reasoning but both fall short of enabling us to ‘go and do likewise’ in our imitation of Jesus.
So finally, not letting go of Rules and Consequences, we need to turn to Virtue Ethics. This approach, the most powerful and holistic approach to my mind, says, we need Christian practices to help shape our perceptions and character, so that when we are faced with a difficult decision, we will have the skilled intuition to know what God would have us do.
This is not some kind of Situationalist ethic allowing us to do whatever we feel like doing. Rather, our integrity is measured by our faithful imitation of Jesus Christ; and held accountable to the community of faith, to God’s Law and to the consequences of our actions.
This final tool to help us love our neighbour, is perhaps best illustrated by artists like Beatrice Gulliford, our vicar’s wife. As a newly graduated sculptor she spent several years learning her craft. It involved watching great sculptors at work, reading about theory, and most importantly – practical practice herself. Guiding the process were peer support and review by the community of artists.
This is a model of our calling too as the church: We sit at Jesus’ feet, learning from the Gospels and Scriptures. We pray and come around the Eucharist together. We go out to serve and imitate our Lord. We return back to the church community to support one another in our practice.
There are so many ethical issues at stake in our world today and the Church together must decide what faithful improvisation of Jesus means. Last week I spoke of our radical calling to be peacemakers. Can this help practically when faced with knife crime on our streets? How do we critique the UK as they sell arms to conflict zones?
Or, more personally, how do we divide up our time?
What might we do to serve one another here in church?
Offering your time once a month to serve coffee or welcome people at the door is invaluable. I would like to thank everyone who makes St Marks what it is.
In my personal decision making, these tools of Law, Consequences and the pursuit of Christian Virtue I find hugely helpful, even though I get things wrong on a daily basis. But I hope they might offer something to you as we follow Jesus Christ, our Lord, our inspiration and our Life.
So let us go, and do likewise.