Week after week, as I read the Lectionary of readings set by the church, a remarkable number of mini-miracles take place. It is astounding how often the Scriptures speak directly into a current situation.
Take, for example, the today’s set Psalm for Evening Prayer – Psalm 60 – which we will read on the Rectory lawn this afternoon after our ‘Strawberry Tea’. Bring the EU referendum to mind, think about all we have learned about the divided country we live in and the divided Europe our vote has created, and then listen to these words:
“O God, thou hast cast us out, and scattered us abroad.” (vs 1)
“Thou hast moved the land, and divided it: heal the sores thereof, for it shaketh (vs 2)
“Hast thou not cast us out, O God?” (vs 10)
“O be thou our help in trouble: for vain is the help of man” (vs 11)
It should not surprise us, of course, that God speaks to us through the Scriptures. The key question on such a weekend as this, is ‘what is God saying to us about the European referendum?’
For this, we need always to take account of those three important words that I’ve told you about before…the three words which should always be applied to any analysis of Scripture: context, context, context!
First we must ask ourselves – what is the context in which an original story was written? What was going on in history at that time?
Secondly, we need to ask ‘what was the context of the writer of that scripture?’ What did the writer understand the original story to mean? Why did they chose to include it?
And thirdly, we need to think about our own context, into which the Scripture is read. ‘What does this Scripture say to us, here today?’
So, let’s apply these three questions to the Gospel reading that we’ve just heard:
First, the context of the story itself. It takes place at that moment when Jesus turns aside from his teaching ministry, and ‘sets his face towards Jerusalem’. In doing so, he passes through a Samaritan area. The Samaritans were a sect within Judaism, made up of Jews and Genitiles – what we might call ‘foreigners’. They believed many things differently from the mainstream of Jewish belief – but suffice to say that were seen as outsiders by the people around Jesus. They were different. They were outsiders. They were, no doubt, a perceived threat to the ‘good, hard-working families’ of ‘normal decent society’.
As such, they were routinely hated and despised by many Jews - even Jesus’ own disciples. When the Samaritans fail to give Jesus a warm welcome, James and John ask Jesus whether they should call down ‘fire from heaven’ to consume them! But Jesus rebukes his disciples. They are not thinking straight. They are forgetting that Jesus himself used Samaritans to illustrate an answer to the vital question ‘ who is my neighbour?’.
As one might expect, that is entirely within consistent with the rest of Scripture – especially the teachings about how aliens and foreigners should be treated by the people of God. As far back in history as the book of Leviticus instructed the people of God as follows: “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born”.(Lev.19.34)
Secondly, we must ask about the context of the writer of this Gospel. Tradition tells us that Luke was a follower of St Paul. He was writing at a time when the new band of Christians were beginning to feel the iron boot of Rome on their heads. They were hiding from persecution, and fearful of their status as religious strangers in a strange land. So Luke writes to those who are experiencing the poverty of being second or third class citizens in a European super-state, run not from Brussels, but Rome.
Luke encourages them, by reminding them of Jesus’ priority for the poor and the downcast, for the Samaritan and the stranger. And then, in the second part of the reading – he encourages them to be steadfast in their faith. He reminds them who have no security, no home, that Jesus himself lived in just the same way for the sake of the Kingdom. ‘Foxes have holes, and birds have their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’. (Lk 9.58)
Then, finally, what about our context…the context into which this Scripture is read today? Well, we find ourselves in a situation where fear of the foreigner has once again driven a nation into division. I don’t know about you, but I have been struck by how many of the ‘Brexiters’ interviewed on TV and Radio have cited an influx of foreigners as their reason for voting to leave Europe.
What we are experiencing, in front of our eyes, is the old phenomenon of xenophobia – that is ‘general fear of the foreigner’. This is different to ‘racism’ – the unreasonable hatred of someone because of their appearance or racial characteristics.
Xenophobia is of course, the oldest trick in the politician’s play-book. Persuade the gullible and uneducated that all the woes of a country can be blamed on a marginal group. Then the gullible and uneducated won’t bother to challenge the Government itself about its economic decisions, or the disproportionate wealth of the elite. Roman emperors did it – they blamed ‘the Christians’. The Ku Klux Clan, and the Apartheid Government used it to blame black people for the problems of American and South African society. Hitler used it to manipulate the German nation into the Second World War. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to unfold all the ways in which the xenophobia of recent months is unfounded rubbish…but you are all intelligent people. You can do that for yourselves.
The other modern context into which this Scripture speaks is the culture of wealth. The UK is the fifth largest economy in the world. If you have the certainty of a decent wage or pension or benefit payment at the end of every month, you are already more wealthy than 90% of the world’s population. And yet, at every turn in the EU Referendum, politicians on both sides of the debate have consistently focused their arguments on one point: the claim that if we vote for their side, we will be better off.
Into that context, Jesus reminds us that the Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head. (Lk.9.58). And he points us to a reality that is greater and more magnificent that anything human beings can conjur…the coming reality of the Kingdom of God.
We know what the Kingdom will be like – because Jesus has told us. It will be a kingdom in which Samaritans – foreigners - are our neighbours, loved as much as we love ourselves. It’s a kingdom in which the humble and the poor will be blessed. It will be a kingdom, filled by the Spirit, in which St Paul’s fruit of the Spirit will be known: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Sadly, we have seen little enough of these things in the last few weeks. Instead, we have seen qualities from St Paul’s other list…the ‘works of the flesh’: enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions and factions.
“O be thou our help in trouble [O God]: for vain is the help of man” (Psalm 60.11)
So, finally, what is our calling in this circumstance. How are we to respond to recent events? How are we to be agents of the Kingdom in a divided a fractured nation?
Through the Scriptures, Jesus speaks to us across time: ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God’. You and I are called to keep on declaring the coming of the Kingdom. In the face of all opposition, all hatred, all xenophobia. In the face of corrupt politics and businesses.
In the face of a public dialogue that is all about what we can gain, we hold up a cross. We hold up the supreme example of a God who pours himself out in sacrifice for the good of all. We hold up a Lord who had no palace. And we continue to speak of not what we can gain, but how much we can give for the life of the world, and for the good of all humanity.