Readings: Colossians 1:1-14
The problem with preaching on the Purple Passages of the Christian tradition is that the purple´s getting a bit faded. How do you come up with something new - or at least newish - to say about the Lord's Prayer, or the Prodigal Son, or, as this evening offers, the Good Samaritan? So instead I'm going to talk about the celebration in Sweden and in Holland of the three hundredth anniversary of the birth of Carl Linnaeus.
As all you eager biology types know, it was Linnaeus who came up with the way we organise the names of different species. He recognised that there were families of organisms, and that you could try and link every living species with its closest relatives and then trundle back up the family tree to the most basic question of all - is it animal or vegetable? So human beings are animals, then animals with backbones, then animals with backbones which are mammals, and so on until you get to the fine distinctions between neanderthals, modem humans and Yorkshiremen. It was one of the great steps forward in modem science.
But like any piece of human knowledge, it has a darker side. Similarities and distinctions can be got hold of and given spin. At what point does a difference outweigh a similarity? At what point do you say, "This isn't like that, and so deserves inferior (or preferential) treatment?" At a very simple level, are the differences between us and the apes enough to justify them being treated as 'just other animals'? There's a live debate running on that one. At a very much darker level, remember the efforts nearly a century ago to find a 'master race' which would be privileged far above inferior human beings, and how that was exploited in 1930's Germany. The search for difference and distinctiveness can be a dangerous one, can reduce us to naked tribalism.
Which is how, by a long and circuitous route, I get back to the Christian faith. There is in the Scriptures a long tradition of distinguishing, of naming - in the Eden story just about the first thing the man does is to name the creatures which share the garden with him - and there is an equally long tradition of then using those names, those distinctions to colour the way we look at the universe. For one example among many, look at the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, where the common bonds between the Jews returning from Babylon and the Yahweh - worshippers who had remained in Palestine are ignored. Instead, Ezra and Nehemiah create a purified Judaism, dismissing their fellow-believers as second class or worse, and giving them a label based on the city where they were centred: 'them from Samaria' - the Samaritans. From then on, there would be Jew (good) and Samaritan (bad), regardless of the way any individual actually behaved. The label was all you needed to know. And then we get to Luke's Gospel.
There have been many attempts to update the Good Samaritan parable: Riding Lights theatre company did 'the Good Punk Rocker' many years ago. But these updatings seem to fail to get to the nub of what's going on. Alongside the challenge to the lawyer about who is a 'neighbour' is a deeper dig which goes almost unseen, but which fits in perfectly with one of Luke's themes. In Luke, we find Jesus challenging this dehumanising labelling of people.
Just to look at the Good Samaritan story, especially in the light of Ezra and Nehemiah, the labels of 'good' and 'bad' are reversed. The Samaritan is revealed as a compassionate human being, the Priest and the Levite as deeply flawed. Perhaps even more controversial is the suggestion that they are flawed because of their religion. The labels which are attached to these three people by common prejudice are shown to be completely perverted. They say nothing about the worth of the three, they act only as shelters for privilege and camouflage for contempt. The theme recurs in the story of Simon the Pharisee, the Gospel from a few weeks ago, and in the Centurion's servant story, where Jesus finds greater faith in the pagan representative of the occupying forces than among the Chosen People (and thereby offends both the nationalists and the purists). Even the genealogy in Luke, tracing the descent of Jesus (including his descent from the foreigner Ruth), takes his story back, not to Abraham as founder of the Jewish faith, but to Adam, the first of all people. It's an important decision which relates Jesus not to a common nationality or a common religion, but a common humanity.
We humans like labels; they're a good excuse not to trouble ourselves with thinking or with seeing the other person as someone with the same humanity and rights as ourselves. Even in the Church some enjoy throwing these little hand-grenades across from one side to the other: "You're a nasty liberal", "Yuk, you're a horrid evangelical", "Oo, look at that silly high-church stuff". Yet it's the Church which proclaims there's no longer these labels, "neither Jew nor Greek, nor slave nor free" and all the rest. Aren't we in the perfect position to say to the world, "Stop the name calling. What do we have which unites us as one as common humanity on a common journey?" If Linnaeus all those years ago managed to see all life as related and bound up together, and came up with names which showed the similarities before the differences, perhaps we can do the same in our divided, labelled, name-calling world?