Who is my neighbour?
Read Luke 10:25-37
We have some different, but familiar characters in this well-loved parable of Jesus.
We have a victim, about whom we know nothing except that he was a bit foolhardy, as no one with an ounce of sense walked the road from Jerusalem to Jericho on their own, they’d go in a group. There’s a 3,600 ft descent from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea near Jericho, down a narrow, twisty road which was the happy hunting ground of robbers. 500 year after Jesus told this story, one of the early writers called the same journey ‘The Bloody Way’. The legal bod who asked Jesus the initial question would know all this, and probably come to the conclusion that this traveller had no one to blame but himself for what happened.
That doesn’t excuse the other three characters if they were also on their own, but at least it places our victim as someone who maybe some people of the day would say ‘got his just deserts’ for risking the journey alone.
Today we might have similar thoughts about refugees crossing deserts or being willing to cross the Mediterranean (or the English Channel) in flimsy overcrowded dinghies.
But it does raise the question to ourselves of how many people do we know, or maybe we were the same, who have done silly things in the past and regretted it later. How would we have viewed the response that followed our folly?
Well, we could sum up the first two by saying they were simply being ‘risk-averse’. Are you aware of just how deeply this world is entrenched in risk analysis? It affects us as a Church. We’re told to be very careful about lone working in this building, in case an accident or incident occurs, whereas in the past there’d be not worries about scrambling up ladders and suchlike. Of course it makes sense, from a safety point of view, but does make me wonder at times how the human race survived up to the 21st century.
The priest in our story hurried past the traveller lying there at the edge of the road. He didn’t know if the man was dead or alive, but the religious law said that a dead man was ‘unclean’ and to touch one would mean he was tainted for 7 days and unable to perform his duties in the Temple. Couldn’t risk that. It was ceremony over charity every time! Temple duties meant more to him than human misery.
Then there’s the Levite. The Levites also had their Temple roles, often including singing the Psalms during worship, or as teachers or judges. He may have done a quick risk analysis and decided that he’d heard enough stories of bandits having decoys lying by the side of the road ready for unsuspecting passers-by to stop and discover that there’s a gang lying in wait to rob them, or worse. So, he does the ‘sensible’ thing and walks quickly by – can’t be too careful, can you? Safety, that’s personal safety, first!
Which leaves the Samaritan. And when the official, and anyone else listening to Jesus that day heard that word, they would assume this was going to be the villain of the story. Jews hated Samaritans. It went back a long way and was a well-established hatred. He may not have even been a true Samaritan, just a travelling salesman, but probably not a Jew and therefore less of a person.
But what we do know is that his credit was good! The innkeeper might have questioned his theology, but not his ability to pay!
What we also know is that his first priority was not risk assessment, or Temple cleanliness. He might have been a heretic to the Jews, but his heart was in the right place and the love of God was obviously in his heart.
It wouldn’t be the first time that religious people had made poor judgements about other people outside of their particular theological viewpoint, and sadly that is still happening today. Human beings are quick to judge, and slow to understand and ask forgiveness. As one commentator says, ‘In the end we will be judged not by the creed we hold but by the life we lead.’
Of course, Jesus’ parable was not given out of the blue, it was in response to a question by a scribe, one who was deeply involved in the creation and upholding of the religious Law. He’s obviously listened to Jesus, been attracted to his message and now a nagging doubt about his own beliefs has not only been sown in his mind but has germinated and is beginning to grow.
‘So, what must I do,’ he asks. ‘to inherit (or gain) eternal life?’
‘You know the Scriptures better than anyone,’ is the response, ‘how do you see them answering that one?’
27 He answered, ‘“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind”; and, “Love your neighbour as yourself.”’
28 ‘You have answered correctly,’ Jesus replied. ‘Do this and you will live.’
And to the additional question of ‘who is my neighbour?’ which really meant, ‘Who is my neighbour other than my fellow Jews?’ he gets this story, which in many ways is a story which transcends the centuries and can be as relevant to us now as it was then.
We live in a country which is becoming more polarised, where certain groups of people feel less safe, less loved, less belonging, than maybe they used to. There’s the young, a cultural group that perhaps we struggle to understand these days, as their world revolves around things and issues that we find difficult to relate to. There are the ethnic groups, the refugees, the left wing, right wing, mega rich, unemployed and struggling poor and everything in-between. Where are we in how we see them all as fitting into our nation? How easy is it to become prejudiced, even unintentionally?
Are we simply drawn to people who are just like us. Could that be us being risk-averse?
Jesus challenges us as we walk around the town where we live, work or do our shopping. What about the beggar, Big Issue seller or busker on the street? What about the drug addicts sitting blank-faced in the town centre?
What about the people who seem different to us, who don’t quite fit into the box that we call ‘acceptable behaviour’. Where do we place them in our understanding of God’s world?
‘A person’s a person, no matter how small’ says Horton the elephant in the children's book.
36 ‘Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’ says Jesus
37 The expert in the law replied, ‘The one who had mercy on him….. despite being a despised Samaritan I guess.’
Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise.’