|The Danger of Sincere Religion
A sermon preached by Richard Holloway at
St Marks Church, Broomhill, Sheffield (UK) in 2003
The trouble with the Parable of the Good Samaritan is that it
is too familiar and we think we know what it means. Bits of it have
actually gone into the language. We talk about "passing by on the
other side". Itís a phrase thatís used to describe a kind of
indifference and we have persuaded ourselves that this is a parable,
this is an indictment of religious insincerity and religious hypocrisy:
of people who profess one kind of conduct but actually do not perform
it; they pass by on the other side, they are hypocrites, they are
I think that is precisely to turn the parable upside-down, because the
really cunning and subtle thing about the parable of the Good Samaritan
is that it is not about the danger of insincere religion and religious
hypocrisy, itís about the danger of sincere religion and religious
I want to try and justify that claim.
But to understand the claim at all, we need to do a little bit of
background thinking here.
The remote background is the purity code that was the most important
aspect of the Jewish religion and it characterises lots of religious
systems in the world. There are objects and people and races and
foodstuffs that render the practitioner of a particular religion unclean
And to the Jew there were a number of objects, a number of persons
that did that, that created a kind of psychic, spiritual pollution
requiring cleansing before life could go on. And Gentiles were impure in
this sense. You could not touch a Gentile, you could not eat with a
Gentile, without gaining this kind of infection which then had to be
cleansed. And you could not touch a dead body without receiving impurity
from it and being cleansed; thatís the remote background.
The particular background to the question, however, concerns three
categories of people in the religious community of Judaism.
The priest was probably going home to Jericho from Jerusalem where he
had probably been doing his fortnightís duty, his fortnightís
priestly course in the temple at Jerusalem. He was riding back on his
donkey to Jericho and itís a very foreboding and forbidding road, the
road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Iíve done it several times, it still
is spooky: lots of twists in it, things that could be round the bend.
This is a good man, a sincere priest of the Jewish faith going home
after doing his duty in Jerusalem and he comes round the bend in the
road and he sees a body lying on the other side of the road stripped
naked, apparently unconscious, possibly dead. This is a good man so he
asks himself the question that the lawyer asked Jesus: "Can I be a
neighbour to this man, can I get involved with this man according to my
And that religious code forbids him to touch a Gentile or a dead body.
He doesnít know whether the man on the other side of the road is a Jew
or a Gentile because he is stripped naked, there are no distinguishing
recognisable characteristics, he doesnít know whether he is dead or
alive because he is unconscious. He knows according to his code that he
can go up to five feet towards a dead body but no closer, because if he
goes up to four feet he is rendered impure. If he touches a Gentile or a
dead body he has to turn his donkey back round, go back to Jerusalem,
cleanse himself and then ride back on to Jericho.
Heís left his mobile phone in the sacristy; he canít phone his
wife; he canít say "Iím going to be another couple of weeks
darling". He makes a calculation, he makes the traditional
calculation "Can I be a neighbour to this man?" and the
traditional answer according to his religion is "No".
His decision arises out of sincere religious conviction, out of the
practice, not the abrogation, of his code. And so he passes by a
discrete, five feet at least, away from the possible dead Gentile on the
other side of the road (and we never find out who the guy is anyway).
The next person on the scene is a Levite. Now he is lower down the
pecking order. He isnít going to second guess the guy in front. He
probably saw what was happening, the guy in front on a donkey. Heís
lower down in the pecking order, heís on foot, and he will make the
same calculation because he too is a sincere religious practitioner of
his faith. He will make the ethical, the spiritual, the theological
calculus "Can I be a neighbour to this apparently, possibly dead
body on the other side of the road?". "No". According to
a sincere calculation he passes by on the other side.
Then comes the first surprise in the story, because according to the
pecking order the listeners would expect Priest, Levite, Israelite (that
would be a bit like Bishop Priest and Deacon in the Anglican hierarchy),
it would be Priest, Levite, Layperson, - Priest, Levite, Israelite, -
thatís what theyíre next expecting.
They expect thereís maybe a wee twist in the story because this guy
Jesus is always twisting stories, but this they donít expect, because
a Samaritan is not in any kind of Jewish hierarchy. A Samaritan is
precisely one of those impure people that you canít have anything to
I won't go into the particular history of the schism between the Jew and
the Samaritan - it goes back to the mists of time in the Exile. But
there are many, many modern examples of exactly the same phenomenon.
We have exactly the same kind of split in Northern Ireland between
"Nicks and Prods" - between Catholics and Protestants. We saw
the same thing, in the Bosnian wars between Orthodox Christians and
Catholic Christians and Muslims. History is disfigured with these
apparently pointless feuds between inter-religious, inter-tribal groups
that become demonic and destructive - and this one was a long running
A hated figure next comes along and the interesting next twist in the
story is that he follows exactly the same code as the others, the same
God, the same law, a slightly different version of scripture and
understanding - but basically the same code. He should be making exactly
the same calculation, coming to exactly the same decision. He too should
be passing by on the other side, sincerely, religiously.
But thereís a single verb at the heart of the parable that is weakly
translated in English. Translation never works as we know, but this is a
particularly feeble translation. In the Greek it says that when the
Samaritan came and saw the man lying by the side of the road "his
guts writhed with compassion", "they churned up" "
they turned over".
We say "he was moved with pity". But what happened inside
him was an explosion of mercy and what it did, this explosion of mercy,
this absolute compassion and empathy for the man on the other side of
the road, was to blow the code apart. It simply obliterated the
religious code that the other two had sincerely kept and which he
according to his religious profession should have been keeping too. It
blew it out. It rendered it meaningless and he goes across the road and
he ministers to the man.
Thatís the story, thatís the scandal at the heart of the story.
Now letís pause for a second here to think about our codes, our
religious rules and regulations. We need them. We need our codes because
we are a potentially chaotic people, we humans. We do terrible things to
each other. We need discipline and order. We need highway codes in order
not to kill each other on the roads and we do that even so. We need our
And the history of human culture is the history of the codes that we
have devised to keep ourselves from destroying one another, to keep some
kind of co-operation and peace and love and human community. But there
is something else that we also learn, that the codes themselves are
means to ends and never should become ends in themselves, because
otherwise they become stupid.
Jesus said to people that he was arguing with about the Sabbath (which
is a good example of a good code, because people need a rest): it was
made for us, not us for it. And there may come times when we have to
abrogate in order to be ministering in love to the fullness of humanity
- but we do this all the time in unimaginable ways.
I do not know if you saw that modestly amusing movie Meet the Parents
with Robert de Niro and Ben Stiller, but thereís an amusing little
episode in it. These are the in-laws from hell. He goes to visit them
one weekend and Robert de Niro turns out to be a kind of psychopathic
CIA agent, so he flees from the family and he decides to go back home.
And he gets to the airport and he goes into the departure lounge and itís
completely empty, there's no one else in it. And the woman, the
official, comes to the microphone to say "We are now going to board
the plane"- completely empty departure lounge- "and as is our
usual practice, we will board by seat row rotation. Will all passengers
from seat rows 10 and above please step forward and board the
Thereís no one in the departure lounge so Ben Stiller steps forward,
and heís in row 9, and he hands his ticket over and she says,
"Iím sorry sir, we are boarding only seat rows 10 and above".
"But thereís no one else in the bloody departure lounge."
"Iím sorry sir our regulations state that we board only by seat
No one gets on the plane. She says "We are now ready to board
the rest of the passengers. Will those in seat rows 1 and above please
step forward" - and he hands over his ticket. (Now thatís an
example of allowing a sensible code, because it is a sensible way to get
on planes, but it doesnít always make sense, especially if there are
only two or three people).
Itís an example of a code that has become tyrannous and has actually
And what Jesus wants us to do, therefore, is to understand the function,
the purpose of these codes, to hold them firmly enough for them to guide
us but not so tightly that we canít discard them when the need arises.
And the first lesson is one of the first examples of this happening in
the Christian community, is precisely illustrated in Acts Chapter 10. Itís
a great little short story. I hope youíll go home this afternoon and
read it after lunch, if youíre still sober. Itís quite a long
chapter and like all good short stories it has several scenes - a
beginning, a middle, and an end.
It begins with Cornelius, this Gentile, therefore unclean, therefore out
of the system, who has heard about the Jesus Movement and wants to get
into it. So he sends messengers to this guy Simon Peter. Heís heard
that heís around, heís visiting Joppa. He wants to find out more
about the Jesus Movement, and may want to come into it.
And in the middle segment of the story, Peter is on the roof-top at Joppa
praying and therefore falls asleep (which is what happens to me) and in
his sleep he has a dream. And the deep unconscious background to Simon
Peterís dream is precisely the struggle thatís going on in the young
Jesus Movement about whether to admit Gentiles - people like us.
Because it was until that moment merely a sect within Judaism and there
was a debate raging in the Christian church. It had its radical, Paul,
it had its conservative, James of Jerusalem, and it had Peter stuck in
the middle - like your average bishop - who didnít know which way to
go, so he went both ways at once. When he was with Paul he was a radical
when he was with James he was a conservative and didnít know how to
decide. "On-the-one-hand-and-on-the-other-hand-itis", you know
that kind of psychological disease that can afflict church leaders.
And he has this dream. A great sailcloth is let down from heaven and on
it there are all sorts of things that are impure to a Jew, things he may
not eat, and he hears the voice, and itís the voice of God. He hears
the voice saying "Rise Peter, kill and eat".
And one of the most piquant elements in this story is that Peter
quotes God back at God. He says "Iím sorry God, you have already
forbidden Jews to eat this stuff. I can read it to you in Leviticus: youíre
supposed to have dictated it, and I cannae eat this stuff, it is
forbidden, itís unclean, itís profane." And the famous
statement by God: "Thou must not call profane what I have
The dream ends and, of course, if youíre a good Freudian youíll
understand whatís going on. Simon Peter is wrestling sincerely in his
unconscious with this great issue that is to confront him. He wakes up.
Thereís a knock on the door and the servants from Cornelius are down
at the gate asking to come in to the Christian community. Do you see
whatís happening here? God is coming to Peter, not from the past, but
from the future.
They are knocking at the door, asking for entrance - and the old code
doesnít provide him with an answer to the new challenge that is
And the history of religion, the history of the Christian religion, is
precisely the history of a God who comes to us from the future. And we
are not capable of recognising him because we are fixated on the God who
is come to us from the past. We quote the God of the past at the God of
The greatest Old Testament scholar alive today, a guy called Bruggeman
says the Torah, the law, corrects the Torah, scripture corrects
scripture. There are elements in scripture that jettison other elements:
" Call thou not unclean what I have cleansed"
And the history of change in Christianity is a history of groups
knocking at the door, seeking entrance, and we quote at them the old
scripture. Slaves knocked at the door for 1,800 years before we realised
that the scriptures that appeared to justify slavery contradicted the
scriptures that made love the primary element in Christian living. We
finally heard that knocking at the door and we abolished slavery 1,800
years after Jesus came to tell us not to be imprisoned by codes.
Two hundred years later there was another knocking at the door - this
time women, because scripture, God in the scripture, clearly tells us
that women are subordinate to men. They are instruments of temptation,
gateways to sin - all of those things because, of course, it was Woman
that plucked the apple, tempted by Satan.
Men have been blaming women ever since. "The woman gave me and I
did eat" - and so we kept them down. We allowed them in the
sanctuary to do the flowers and to scrub the floor but never behind the
alter. Never in the nice green frock, although they look better in nice
green frocks than some people, I can tell you. And we finally opened the
door to women five minutes ago, only five minutes ago and still
grudging. We donít give them the big hat yet do we?
Whatís the next group thatís knocking at the door. The gays, the
lesbians. Theyíre knocking at the door. Theyíre downstairs while we
are upstairs struggling with the issue. The primates at Lambeth Palace,
up on the roof at Joppa - downstairs gays knocking at the door-"
Call thou not unclean what I have cleansed".
They donít get it yet, do they? God comes from the future, and the
challenge to us, the Jesus challenge to us, is to know when the old code
is over, when there is someone lying at the side of the road and you
have to go to that personís rescue, no matter what the code says and
mercy has to obliterate the imprisoning code, that maybe made sense at
one time or other but makes no sense today.
So as you go down that Jericho road, the Jericho road which is life, the
Jericho road which is a journey into the future, you have to be alert to
the person that may be lying on the roadside round the bend, the person
that comes from God. Or if youíre on the rooftop at Joppa, you may
have to be alert to the knocking at the door downstairs as God comes to
you out of the future.
So this is the day of decision, a moment of decision for our church.
Will we go into Godís future or will we simply lock ourselves into the
past, into the old ways of understanding, into religious sincerity.
And of course thatís the way we let people off the hook when they
are prejudiced against other sections of society. Itís religious
sincerity because itís in the code and it is in the code. The
Bible says terrible things about gays and lesbians, as it does about all
sorts of other groups that weíve accommodated ourselves to. Possibly
people like ourselves, because we ourselves may be in odd relationships,
condemned by scripture. We may belong to these marginal groups that so
love Jesus because he was for the marginal.
It seems to me that that is the essence of the Christian movement, the
Christian journey through life, going down that Jericho road, always
alert to what may lie on the other side, and its quite tragic that the
very leaders of our communion donít get it. They hold the code, they
donít respond to the naked bleeding body lying on the other side of
I want to leave you with a few lines of verse I got from a refrigerator
door. You know how you get lots of good advice on fridge doors. Its
usually about diets and things, but occasionally its about something
more profound. This was on an American refrigerator door the size of a
small truck, as American refrigerators are. You get whole kind of
theological theses. Iím thinking of writing a book called "Fridge
This was a gay friend of mine who had held on in the Christian church
against all the pressure and ugly things that had been said by his
Church over the years. It all happens in the American church as well -
although the American church in many ways has wrestled with it more
honestly than we have over here.
And I saw this on the fridge door a few years ago. It had kept him in
the church when he might easily have left because the church, as it
were, described him as unclean, as impure, as that which may not be had
communion with, as that which may not have sexual communion with people
whom he loved. But he had hung on in, he had not left the church and he
pointed to this verse and he said "Thatís what keeps me
going", and I copied it into my commonplace book and I commend it
This is how it goes. It was written by a minor nineteenth century
American poet, the only thing in his life that was memorable, but good
to have even that:
They drew a circle that shut me out,
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win,
We drew a circle that took THEM in.
And it seems to me that if we can draw a circle of the love of Jesus
as widely as that, we might even bring in the bigots and the homophobes
and one day the Christian community will be as wide as Godís love, as
big as the biggest heart in the world.
Brothers and Sisters, draw your circles as wide as Godís love. Amen.
© Richard Holloway: This article may not be
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