Sunday, March 22, 2015
Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.
- St. John 12:24
The Gospel lesson this morning comes from one of the final public teachings of our Lord before his arrest and trial. The Greeks, we are told, come in search of Jesus. They are curious about him, but they do not understand the true heart of his mission which is not to amass followers but to walk in the way of love, even when this love would take him to the cross. Jesus tells his disciples a kind of parable: except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone, but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. Of course, our Lord is speaking of his own sacrifice; he dies our death and takes our punishment on himself. In so doing, he becomes the first of a race of human beings who have been re-created in this new Adam. By using this image of a seed put into the ground, our Lord also suggests that parables of God's kingdom are all around us. The cycle of death, rest and rebirth that is the basis of the seasons is a sign of truth of God as revealed in Christ. The statement also reminds us that love and death go together. In many ways I am a Christian today because when I read this in high school, it struck a nerve and I realized that love cannot be a generic love for humanity but has to be sacrificial love in which we die to ourselves to serve the good of another. To put it in its simplest terms, to love is to die. As long as there is no death to self, human relationships will be valued for what they can give or what comfort they provide.
Following on this idea of the relationship between love and dying, I want to look at the familiar parable of the Good Samaritan, using our Lord's saying in John to understand more deeply this parable. The setup for the parable is that there is a man who is beaten and robbed and then left for dead on the side of the road. There are two men of religion who pass by the injured and dying man because, as we will see, they do not want to die. Then along comes a Samaritan man, who, contrary to every expectation, rescues and cares for the beaten man. In this Samaritan man's act of love there are three deaths.
The first death is in the form of a death to prejudice and social taboo. You see, Jews and Samaritans just did not associate together. There was a long history of antipathy and divisiveness that went all the way back to the original divorce between the nation of Israel after the reign of Solomon. The two succeeding kingdoms of Judah and Israel frequently fought one another for territory and power, and this discord continued up until the time of our Lord. Perhaps most infamously the Jews destroyed the Samaritans temple in 120 BC. The idea of Jews and Samaritans interacting was taboo in our Lord's time, and it would have been scandalous for a Samaritan to touch and care for a Jew. The Samaritan had to die to prejudice and anger and ill-will. He had to let go of the idea that when God commands us to love our neighbor, by neighbor is meant the person who is like me, comes from my same social class, has the same amount of education as I have, has the same religious and political views. The 19th century Scottish novelist and theologian George MacDonald wrote that, A man must not choose his neighbor: he must take the neighbor that God sends him. . . . The neighbor is just the man who is next to you at the moment, the man with whom any business has brought you into contact. The Samaritan in dying to prejudice and ill-will had the definition of who his neighbor is opened up in this expansive way.
The second death that the Samaritan met was the death of revulsion to blood and filth. We are told that, unlike the priest and Levite who pass by on the other side of the road, the Samaritan goes directly to the man: Jesus says, when the Samaritan saw him, he had compassion on him, and went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast. The sight of blood and excrement and filth can provoke in us strong reactions. They can easily make us gag or feel faint. The natural human reaction to such things is to run away. Love calls us, however, to die to our revulsion, to remember that we ourselves are but dust and ashes, and that, not to put too fine of a point on it, a time is likely to come when we will being lying helpless in our own filth, and we will have to depend on the love of another.
The third death of the Samaritan was that of dying to our instinct for self-preservation. Again we are told that the Samaritan took the wounded man to an inn where he put him in lodgings and agreed to pay for his care. Jesus says, the Samaritan brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee. Two pence, far from being the equivalent to two pennies, was about two days' wages. We are not told if the Samaritan had relations for whom he had to care, but two days pay is a significant loss not to mention the promise of additional money to see the man to health. But all of this is not the focus of Samaritan because he is driven by love which causes him to die to these concerns of self-preservation. In feeling our instinct for self-preservation, we can often rationalize and say things like, you don't want to give so much away that you hurt yourself. On the contrary, we can be secure in dying to the instinct of self-preservation because we know that God is our provider and he is the one who gives us life, not money or material or reputation, as much as those things can lure us into the false confidence that the they are our security.
So, to sum up, in the love of the Samaritan we see three deaths: the death to prejudice and social barriers, the death to revulsion; and the death of the instinct for self-preservation. It is not surprising that our Lord's love takes a similar shape. In him we see a death to prejudice and social barriers. He associated with sinners, and Samaritans and even some Gentiles. But the greatest barrier that he crossed was that between God and humanity. St. Paul writing of Christ's humility said that, though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, [and was] born in the likeness of men. In his love, our Lord died to the revulsion of blood and filth. He touched lepers and those who were unclean who in that society would have been like untouchables. But he also overcame this revulsion in a spiritual sense, by not turning away from sinners, those who are dirty because their souls are devoid of joy, gratitude and love. Rather, he came to make these whole by his touch. Finally, our Lord died to his instinct to self-preservation by taking to himself the vulnerability of a small child in a stable in a remote outpost of the Roman Empire. This surrender reached its natural conclusion when he gave himself away so much that it led him to the cross. The instinct for self-preservation was answered by this ultimate sacrifice of love.
My question to you this morning is, Who is the neighbor who is challenging you to die to your prejudices, to die to your revulsion, to die to your instinct for self-preservation? We can avoid this neighbor, pass by the other side, but we will remain alone. But if we die, we will bring forth much fruit for the Lord.