Who is my neighbour? (Part 2)
Sermon by Rev Allister Lane on 15 July 2018
Readings were Luke 10: 25-37 and Ephesians 2:17-22
This is the second week we hear the question “Who is my neighbour?”
This question, that was asked of Jesus, continues to examine us and our motivations. And once again, we pay close attention to what Jesus taught – as we expect ourselves to learn and grow in our understanding of ‘Who is my neighbour’.
The answer Jesus gave to the question ‘Who is my neighbour’ was of course a story (what we call the parable of the Good Samaritan). Why didn’t Jesus give a clearer answer? Why didn’t he just say ‘everybody’?
Last week I said that by teaching us in stories, far from being tidy and conclusive moral instruction, the parables of Jesus ‘work on us’ and ‘get under our skin’. By doing so, the moral implications for us are not bounded to limited obligations. The parables work on us with creative and imaginative energy that affect how we live our faith.
It’s a story not just about who we are to love. It’s a story about how we might recognise that our well-being is tied up in life of a stranger. It leaves us with lots to think about.
I gave a bit of a ‘teaser’ last week: suggesting that we will be asking how this story may show us that our neighbour is one who offers us life. We’ll come to this soon – so just hold that idea for a moment: our neighbour is one who offers us life.
A good story will have a few twists. Twists make it more interesting and more memorable – and Jesus was a master storyteller. So I see two twists in this tale I want us to look at:
- The choice of a Samaritan as third character,
- The question that Jesus concludes with – which seems to me ‘inverted’.
The first twist: Why has Jesus made the third character a Samaritan? Because Jesus is a master storyteller we have here a great plot: it is set up with the first two characters not fulfilling the moral expectation (not taking action to help) – so we are expecting that the third character will do something different and interesting.
There can be no doubt the hero of the parable is the Samaritan. Indeed, although he is not described as the ‘Good Samaritan’ by Jesus – this character has come to be described as the ‘Good Samaritan’ because of his actions. At that time there was incredible racial and religious tension between Jews and Samaritans. For Jesus’ original audience, Samaritans were anything but ‘good’. They were half-breeds; social outcasts; untouchables; racially inferior; practicing a false religion.
So Jesus’ choice of a Samaritan to be the third character coming along the road to Jericho, as an ultimate outsider, to help the victim, was a stunner.
Why does it matter? It matters because this affect our understanding of what Jesus is teaching. Jesus, as a Jew, didn’t illustrate his point (that people of every race, colour, class, creed, faith, sexuality, and level of ability are our neighbours) – by telling a story in which a Jew was kind to someone else. Instead, he told a story in which a Jew receives help from a person who was his enemy. By casting an enemy of the Jews as the hero confronts assumptions. What Jesus is teaching blows wide open our understanding of ‘Who is my neighbour’.
And perhaps our own assumptions need confronting is we listen carefully again to this parable. As those who have heard this ‘Good Samaritan’ story before, don’t we kinda assume we know what Jesus’ teaching is? If we are honest, have we already concluded what it means to be a neighbour – as we identify primarily with the Samaritan character – that we are to look after those less fortunate. In other words, to the question ‘Who is my neighbour?’ we take the parable of the Good Samaritan to be teaching us: someone who is less fortunate that I can help.
But what is the question Jesus concludes the parable with? Having told the story of the man left for dead, two people passing him by, and the Samaritan helping… we might expect Jesus to conclude by asking something like:
“Which one recognised who their neighbour is?”
If Jesus had asked that question, then a good answer would be: The Samaritan recognised who is neighbour is – the man left for dead and needing help.
But Jesus asked a different question… What was it…?
“Which one was a neighbour to the man?”
It seems an inverted question. We don’t rule out the interpretation that our neighbour could be someone in need, whom we have a moral responsibility to help. But more obviously (if we follow closely the teaching in this story) Jesus is telling us in answer to the question ‘Who is my neighbour?’ – that our neighbour is someone who gives us life.
Do you see how Jesus is teaching this? We are invited to see that part of recognising and relating to our neighbour, is to see our own well-being is tied up in life of a stranger (who is, in fact, our neighbour).
Perhaps a story will help. I heard someone describe how an elderly woman had a young family of noisy children move in next door. From that day her peace and quiet was constantly disrupted. These kids were not well behaved, and she felt their parents didn’t help that much with a total lack of discipline. The kids were constantly making a racket and would occasionally come into her property, making her feel like her personal space was being invaded.
That was until the day she collapsed on the floor, and it was these kids who spotted her through the window and got help. You can imagine how she relates differently to them now.
Are these kids her neighbours? (You bet they are.)
Responding to the question ‘Who is my neighbour?’ Jesus chooses not to settle it by categorising who is a neighbour and who isn’t a neighbour. Jesus doesn’t even simply say ‘everyone’. What Jesus does in this story is identify that being a neighbour is to live in an active mode. A person who is ‘our ‘neighbour’ is not a passive, pre-determined category – Jesus is teaching us to activate our understanding of who we relate to as a neighbour. We are to ‘neighbourise’ others. We are invited to define ourselves as neighbours.
By responding with this inverted question “Which one was a neighbour to the man?”, Jesus moves the question into action and choice and is therefore saying to us it’s not a matter of saying who in the world deserves my love as a neighbour, it’s a question of your decision to be a neighbour; your decision to offer life to another. The Samaritan is a neighbour because he saves life. Can we then decide to be neighbours by deciding to save life?
Jesus wants to shift us into an active mode; to turn our lives into life-giving realities. And this ‘life-giving’ doesn’t just flow in one direction. After all, it’s about us in relationship. To love your neighbour (to live a life-giving reality) is to both offer life to others, and also to love the one who can save your life.
Friends of mine have a house in the Marlborough sounds, and early one evening a guesthouse a couple of kilometres on the other side of the water spotted an enormous fireball rise up from close to our friends’ house. They immediately rang another guesthouse a few hundred meters adjacent to our friends’ place. With no nearby fire service, such an incident can be a matter of life and death, so all the guests were mobilised with buckets and other containers to go and fight the blaze. When they got down the road they all found our friends standing around a bonfire of garden weeds – which they had ignited using a generous amount of 91 octane petrol! The group armed with containers of water, were shooed away in case they put the garden fire out!
Our neighbour is someone who gives us life. Being a neighbour is to turn our lives into life-giving realities. And a big part of the creative and imaginative energy in the parable is that you never know who that’s going to be. It can be the most unlikely person around. Openness to neighbourliness is an all-embracing phenomenon.
As I have said, being a neighbour is to turn our lives into life-giving realities. Jesus summons us to be life-givers. And to expect to be brought to life by other life-giving strangers.
What do we actually experience? Much of our ordinary, habitual lives supresses such expectations of ourselves and of others. Much of the time we assume our life is ours, that we are not obliged to share. We will find many reasons to retain our suspicion of the stranger. We may even (like the Priest and the Levite in the parable) find a way to of treating the obvious neighbour (the fellow-Jew at the side of the road) as a stranger.
How is it you limit who your neighbours can be? Where do you instinctively ‘locate’ your neighbours? Just in your street or apartment building? What about in your workplace, school, on public transport, …here in the city? What about those outside New Zealand? Are they are neighbours? People in other countries? Refugees…? Strangers…?
As we scan around ourselves, and consider what it means to be a neighbour by turning our lives into life-giving realities, I want us to think during the week about who our neighbours are. And what it means to be a neighbour – to ‘neighbourise’.
As I said last week, when we hear Jesus’ parables, we might imagine who we identify with most in the story. And we are left with the uneasy fact that we could in fact be all of them!
- We are those who find admirable and religious excuses not to act.
- We are those who find ourselves helpless and vulnerable at the side of the road.
- We are those who decide to give life.
To Jesus Christ, who loves us
and made us to be a kingdom,
priests of his God and Father,
to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
(—from Revelation 1:5-6, NRSV)
 Samaritans claimed that they were the true Israel who were descendants of the ‘lost’ tribes taken into Assyrian captivity. Competing claims over racial and religious superiority had become so toxic that both Jewish and Samaritan religious leaders taught that it was wrong to have any contact with the opposite group, and neither was to enter each other’s territories or even to speak to one another.