The Rev’d Dr Raymond Pelly
Psalm 145:10-18, Jeremiah 8:22 – 9:5, Luke 10:25-37
‘And who is my neighbour?’ That’s St. Luke’s question at the heart of his Gospel, a Gospel that begins with the Annunciation, the birth of Jesus, and ends with his Resurrection and the walk to Emmaus,.
‘And who is my neigbour?’ We can ask that question in our own back yard, our own street or family. Who is suffering and why; and what can we do about it’
We can also ask the question in a global context where we now have over 60 million displaced (or stateless) persons with thousands more pouring out of Syria (and other places) every day. This in a violent world beset by three interlocking crises:
*of money: Has the rich-poor gap reached breaking point where some parts of the world are becoming economically unviable, often places with fast-growing populations. One thinks of parts of Africa, Latin America, Asia …
*of food: Do we have enough to feed the world’s ever-increasing population? Or are we looking at resource wars: not only over food, but other basics like fresh drinkable water, arable land, or sources of energy?
*of the environment: Are there parts of the world – some in Australia? – which are becoming too hot to be habitable; where in heat-waves, thousands die – as has already happened this year?
So who is my neigbour?
This is the question Luke poses as in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. To understand it fully, some biblical background. The command ‘to love your neighbour as yourself’ comes from a context where ‘the neighbour’ in question is clearly the stranger, the alien. Jesus would have known texts like, ‘The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt’. [Leviticus 19:18 in the light of 19:33; compare Deuteronomy 6, the whole chapter].
But it doesn’t stop there.
Not only is love to be extended to strangers and aliens, but also to enemies! That too Jesus would have known. In Chronicles we read of a terrible battle between Judah, the southern kingdom, and Israel, the northern kingdom based in Samaria. The defeated southerners – men, women, children – were being lead captive to become slaves to their conquerors – only to be confronted by a prophet, Obed, who commands them to ‘send back the captives’ to where they had come from. So this is what some leaders of the conquering army then do. ‘They took the captives … gave them sandals, provided them with food and drink, and anointed them; and carrying the feeble among them on donkeys, they brought them to their kindred in Jericho, the city of palm trees’. [2 Chronicles 28:8-15]. Here already we have the language of Luke’s parable.
Its’ not surprising, then, that of love of strangers, aliens and enemies in the parable itself is framed by this same north/south conflict . Jesus has just been through a Samaritan village (on his way to Jerusalem) where he was refused hospitality. The indignant disciples say, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’ Quit that nonsense, says Jesus. Turning the question around, he says that revenge is off the agenda. No; it’s all about love of strangers and enemies. Get that into your heads.
The extent of this hatred comes out in St.John’s Gospel where, when some people in Jerusalem want to insult him, they say, ‘Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?’ [John 8:48]
If we now move to the parable itself, we find the motive behind the lawyer’s question a bit suspect. He wants to know how he can get right with God (justify himself) and ‘inherit eternal life’. He rehearses the traditional commandments about love of God and love of neighbour. Jesus gives this ‘the big tick’, but then challenges the lawyer to go and act that out. The lawyer replies with a tricky question, ‘But who is my neighbour?’ perhaps expecting Jesus to leave it there.
But Jesus won’t leave it there. He gets back with a story, one only found in Luke’s Gospel, what we call, The Parable of the Good Samaritan. Striking is the sudden shift from vague talk about ‘love’ and ‘getting right with God’ to an actual concrete situation of need and the detailed and costly care it calls for. We have a mutilated body. A man has been attacked by robbers, stripped, beaten up, and left half dead. Moreover, the situation is dangerous, for might not the robber-band still be around? The carer risks becoming another victim.
Then comes the melancholy account of two religious professionals, a priest and a Levite; men who, for whatever good reason, skirt around the mutilated body, pretending they didn’t see it: ‘passed by on the other side’. Into this shocking scenario, enter a man with a double otherness: a layman, not a religious professional, and, as we have seen, member of the Samaritan sect, generally regarded as heretical. Suddenly we move from indifference to action, from blindness to sight, from vague talk of ‘love’, to active and costly care. With a compassion that, given the danger, was heroic, the Samaritan was ‘moved with pity’.
In Jesus’ own words, the story then continues:
He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever you spend.
Two denarii, we should note, would provide for two months of lodging in a small country inn [New Oxford Annotated Bible]; and the Samaritan offers to pay more, if need be. But what is extraordinary about the ethic Jesus teaches is that not only is love to be understood as active and detailed care, but, more than that, the carer himself or herself must be the one who is to bear the cost of the caring. Authentic care is costly or, as we might say, sacrificial.
For consider the full cost of his actions to the Samaritan. First comes the possible opprobrium of associating with a member of an alien group – here the Jerusalem-based Jews. Second, ‘care’ involves summoning up the courage and compassion to pick up a mutilated body in a situation of extreme danger, ‘to show mercy’ in this heroic and spontaneous way. Third, it involves bearing the cost of caring – here, first aid, money, shelter – in a sustained way, long-term (‘when I come back’). That is what it means to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’.
What Jesus is saying is this. Put yourself in the position of the mutilated traveler, the refugee, the stranger, the enemy. Isn’t this kind of care you would want for yourself? As he says in another place, ‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and prophets’ (Matthew 7:12).
We don’t however get the full force of this unless we realize that it describes the pattern of activity typical of Jesus himself: caring for people in myriad situations, many of them risky; with him and his disciples bearing the cost of this care, making it real – ‘you give them something to eat’ says Jesus, faced with hungry people. And in his Passion, caring so much that he took steps to insure that the love, forgiveness and care of God reaches every person – starting with the people around the cross, friends as well as enemies. So it was Jesus quâ Good Samaritan who was crucified. But this time it was infinitely costly and ‘for all’.
And then, in the Resurrection, we have God, the most powerful, caring for the lowest of the low, here the mutilated body of Jesus, the powerless in life as in death. In a blaze of light – like the Transfiguration – the meaning and goal of creation become visible: God’s capacity – made real in Jesus – to generate new life in hope and Resurrection where none seemed possible before. Even with a mutilated, crucified body.
Paul in Romans 5 sums it up powerfully, ‘where sin increased, grace abounded all the more’; and this to include the weak and the strong, the righteous and unrighteous, the godly and ungodly, friend and foe alike. God’s love, his active caring, is like that.
In that league, how do we rate?
We could put it in the form of a question posed by a Jewish scholar. She writes: ‘The issue is not “who is my neighour?” but “can we recognizes that the enemy might be our neighbour and can we accept this disruption of our stereotypes?”’ [Amy-Jill Levine, Jewish Annotated New Testament, Oxford, 2011, p.123]
Perhaps it boils down to this: Do you know how to be a decent caring human being?
So there we have it: the two things this parable teaches: first, recognition of the stranger in need; and the, the care this calls forth: spontaneous, costly, and sometimes heroic.