Being a good neighbour: Jesus, the lawyer and the Good Samaritan
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Taken from Loretta Minghella’s sermon in Cambridge, Easter Term, 2013.
Based on Isaiah 40: 1-5 and Luke 10: 25-37
Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
As an undergraduate, I read Law here at Cambridge. I was clear in my own mind that I wanted to become a lawyer and stay in private practice until the end of my days.
As you’ll have realised, that’s not what’s happened in the end, because I now run Christian Aid, responsible for its work across 45 countries of the world to tackle the symptoms and causes of poverty.
The straight path I thought I was on has been disrupted many times – a long story for another time - but in the end, the straight path I thought I was on has been most seriously disrupted by love.
I find that other lawyers have suffered similar disruptions before me. That’s what happened to the lawyer we hear about in Luke’s gospel as he put his hopeful question to Jesus.
Like any self-respecting lawyer, he wanted to know what would make for a straight path, what the rules were: Teacher, what do I have to do to inherit eternal life?
And what do we hear? That it’s all about love – love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength - and your neighbour as yourself.
The straight path is simply a path of love. And once we allow ourselves to be guided by love, the path is, in lay terms, anything but straight.
That indeed was the experience of the Good Samaritan. Minding his own business, seeking only to go from A to B, he comes across the victim of a mugging on the other side of a rather dodgy stretch of road.
And unlike the other passers-by, he stops. He goes out of his way to help. He accompanies the injured person until he knows he is out of danger.
The lawyer who asked Jesus the questions in Luke’s gospel is implicitly too narrow minded about his obligation, seeking we are told, to justify himself.
We, too, can get ourselves in a moral mess, if we judge our own behaviour solely by the question of what the law or the legal system requires.
In my work at Christian Aid, I’m acutely aware of the shortcomings of the law and the legal system in many developing countries across the world.
To understand just how far the path of love may take you beyond what the law requires, let me take you to Haiti, and to meet Prospery Raymond, the country manager of our programme there.
On the last day of my visit to Haiti in 2011, he took me to where the Christian Aid office had stood, until the day of the earthquake the year before. We stood in front of a large pile of rubble, the dimensions of an office building still just discernible.
When the earthquake struck he was trapped by falling masonry in his office on the ground floor. The first floor collapsed into the ground floor and much of the ground floor collapsed into the ground.
Prospery himself was rescued by a group of young boys after an hour and a half, during which time he said he learned the true meaning of the words, 'heart in your mouth', because his heartbeat was so loud that it appeared to be coming from just below his tongue.
Then he set about rescuing Evelyn, a staffer from our Dutch sister agency with whom we shared office space. She was by this time trapped below ground, with only a small opening through which they could see that she was very seriously hurt.
After seven hours or so, they brought her out by her broken shoulders and Prospery carried her to the hospital. A short walk in normal circumstances, he found there was no straight path. Only a circuitous route, stepping over the dead and walking around the dying.
Every so often, he’d put her down for a rest, and people would die round them, and he’d pick her up and start again.
And having got her to the hospital he turned round and thought to himself, ‘Look what has happened to my country. It’s time to mount the Christian Aid relief effort.’ And that’s what he did next.
The straight path we are called to is a simple one. A path of love.
Prospery went so far beyond his legal obligations that day in a way which continues to inspire us across the Christian Aid family.
It is hard to imagine what life would be like not only in Haiti but in many other countries in which we work, if Christian Aid and other NGO staff and supporters did only the legal minimum.
Much closer to home, the boundary between law and love has been under intense public scrutiny in the debate around tax dodging.
Multinationals like Google, Amazon and Starbucks have been much in the news, drawing opprobrium for the tiny contribution they make to the corporation tax raised in the UK, relative to their turnover here.
The Public Accounts Committee have recently pointed to the way some multinationals use complex international group structures, often involving subsidiaries in tax havens and expressly designed in what seem to most people to be highly artificial ways, to reduce their tax bills significantly and, apparently, lawfully.
That matters to Christian Aid, because it appears that some multinationals and others use these kinds of structures to evade or avoid an estimated $160bn a year of tax owing not here in the UK but in developing countries.
In those countries, the tax gap can mean not just some cuts in public services, but sometimes in some places no public services at all, and so the difference between life and death.
Tonight, 868 million people will go to bed hungry and filling the tax gap could fund the work necessary to address the three million child deaths every year caused by hunger and malnutrition.
When these issues are put to the business community, the cry that goes up is often, simply, we are not at fault, because we obey the law.
And some even say that they are discharging their fiduciary duty to their shareholders to act in their interests to maximise profits and so are positively obliged to exploit every tax loophole they can find.
That’s not a reading of their legal duties that I would support but in any event, the law is not the right place to look for the moral answer.
The law is a human construct and often only represents a kind of lowest common denominator. The global tax system needs from all of us a moment of metanoia, that is of repentance, a change of mind.
Because if it’s the path to God we’re after, we have to think again. The straight path in biblical terms is often counterintuitive – and turns out to be a winding one, full of surprises.
We cannot reason our way to God, we cannot argue our way to God. In the Chapel of St Katharines, Limehouse, there is a mosaic in the floor bearing these words from St Augustine of Hippo: We do not come to God by navigation but by love.
This is our calling. Not to keep our eyes on what may be the most straightforward route, the most direct route, or the merely or barely legal path. It is to put on a pedestal only the one true God and to submit completely to the one true North.
The law cannot bear unlimited obligation. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus shows us that neighbour means not just a person like you or close to you but those for whom you might have no particular regard, strangers in every sense.
This is not the ‘charity begins at home’, Leviticus reading of neighbour which the lawyer in Luke was anticipating.
Jesus makes it clear that every person is deserving of our attention and our love. We are called to be people in relation, in community, with all those living now and to come. And yes, tending to their needs may disrupt our journey, alter our route, involve us in extra expense.
Love is content to bear unlimited obligation - even to the point of death, death on the cross.
We need to keep our eyes open to see the chances we are given to be a good neighbour to others, whether or not the law requires it and whether or not it was in our original plan.
We need to be ready to put ourselves out, to cross over the road, and in doing so, to make his paths straight.