Who is my neighbour? (Part 1)

Sermon by Rev Allister Lane on 8 July 2018

Readings were Psalm 82 and Luke 10: 25-37

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What a wonderful series we’ve had on Science and Faith over the last three weeks. Thank you to Stuart, Jonathan and Neil for these superb sermons.

Neil Dodgson concluded his sermon about Artificial Intelligence last week saying:

… we [the church] are well placed to grapple with the ethical problems that come from the increasing use of artificial intelligence and the dehumanisation of decision making.

…we must affirm that community is vital to the full development of human beings.And…we must always put relationships at the heart of what we do. We are all fearfully and wonderfully made. Let us recognise that in one another.

What does it mean to live in relationship with others? Genuine relationship? How do we recognise the dignity in each of us, and honour that in each other? Thankfully, the Christian faith has wonderful resources for these questions.

The teaching of Jesus is at the centre of how we understand God’s truth given to us. And to follow Jesus as a disciple is to learn from him. And so in today’s Gospel reading, there is a question about life that Jesus was asked, and I want us to actually take three weeks to look at Jesus’s answer.

What’s the question…?

Who is my neighbour?

The answer Jesus gives to this question is a story (a parable). And I want us to take time with this teaching of Jesus, to see how the parable may ‘work on us’.  How the parable will challenge our assumptions and convenient compromises, as we seriously think about this question ‘Who is my neighbour?’

Where do you think you would find this window?[1] That’s right – here at St John’s; at the north end (behind the congregation). This window captures the essential detail of the parable:

  • the first window is characterised by the robbers
  • the second (middle) window by the Samaritan
  • and the third by the Innkeeper.

The parable has been an enduring feature of Jesus’ teaching for the Church, and from it we get a strong emphasis on the importance of neighbourliness. And yet, given all we feel we already know about neighbourliness, what further ways might we allow this ‘Jesus parable’ to prise open and extend our categories of a neighbour, and how might we re-imagine how we relate to others, in living out our faith?

The first thing we need to do is examine carefully the context of Jesus’ teaching – to understand as much as we can what the first listeners of Jesus’ teaching heard (so that we can discern what God’s Word is to US today). We call this examination ‘exegesis’.

The question ‘Who is my neighbour? emerges in a conversation… The conversation is between Jesus and a lawyer. This lawyer wants to know what he has to do to inherit eternal life. What the lawyer is interested to know from Jesus is the scope of who might be regarded as a ‘neighbour’. The lawyer is really asking, “Could you tell me who I really have to love and who I don’t have to work so hard to love?” [2]

In response, Jesus offers the lawyer not an analytical definition of jurisprudential terminology, but an imaginary tale (a parable) that illustrates what it means to be a neighbor in practice. The story we know as the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Professor Chris Marshall (who holds the Chair of Restorative Justice at VUW) comments:

Of all the stories Jesus told, none has been absorbed more deeply into the moral and legal traditions of Western society than has this extraordinary little story.

Its influence far exceeds the boundaries of strictly religious or theological discourse.

The parable still frequently figures as a starting point for discussions in moral philosophy and social & experimental psychology about altruism and the nature of social responsibility…

The parable is commonly cited to encourage charitable activity at the local level and to inspire philanthropy on the global stage, especially in the form of emergency aid and relief assistance.[3]

We can safely assume Jesus tells this parable, not to tightly and neatly define what a neighbour is, but to disturb the assumption of those who hear it.Like all the parables Jesus tells, it is meant to ‘works on us’ – to ‘get under our skin’ and work its creative and imaginative energy in how we live: how we make decisions in prioritising our time, treasure and energy.

As one Biblical scholar has said:

The parables are meant to arouse the imagination in ways that cannot always be anticipated.

They leave the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.[4]

So, let’s delve briefly into the key parts of the story, allowing ourselves to hear this story afresh for what it teaches us…

Jesus begins: a man is traveling on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. This was an actual road in Jesus’ day, and it was a scary road to travel—the stuff of horror movies.[5] This road was noted for the robbers and thieves who camped out waiting for unsuspecting travellers. On his journey the man falls into the hands of robbers and is beaten and left for dead.

This is noteworthy right at the start of the story: to teach us who our neighbour is, Jesus considers it a matter of life and death.

Now, a priest (someone like a Church Minister) comes upon the man, sees him seemingly dead in the road and, rather than stop and help, continues his journey down to Jericho. Then a Levite, a lay leader, comes by and sees the man but keeps on walking.

Then a Samaritan comes down the road. The Samaritan bandages the man’s wounds, puts expensive oil on his body, places the man on his own donkey, and takes the man to an inn.[6]

After finishing his parable, Jesus looks at the lawyer and asks,

“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” (10:36).

And the lawyer responds, “The one who showed him mercy.” (v. 37).

This is a real juxtaposition. The lawyer, who claims that he is a faithful follower of God, wants to know whom he has to treat well in order to make it into heaven. And the Samaritan, who was not considered a believer, gives everything he has to show mercy and love the man.

The parable does not limit the scope of who our neighbour might be – it blows it out to be everyone and anyone. When Jesus calls us to love our neighbour, Jesus is telling us not to limit who may be a person (however unexpected) who is connected to our own life.[7]

Who do you identify with in this parable?

  • The Good Samaritan?
  • The priest or Levite?
  • The robbers?…(!)
  • The man left for dead?

In the next two weeks we will keep looking at this story (and the relationships of the characters) for what God is telling us about what it is to be a neighbour.

As a bit of a ‘teaser’, I can say that we will be asking how this story may show us that our neighbour is one who offers us life. This suggests we may find new meaning for our lives as we think what it is like being the character in the story left for dead. What is it like finding that our neighbour is the one (the unexpected one) who offers us life?

This interpretation (from the perspective of the man left for dead) is an addition to our usual/classical interpretation that Jesus is teaching us to share with the poor and needy from our excess and position of power.

Finally, the Gospel we proclaim is that we understand who a neighbour is from God, who comes toward us in Christ – as our neighbour, our friend, our brother. In Him we are given life.




[1] Stained glass window in St John’s Presbyterian Church of Good Samaritan parable.

[2] ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’

Jesus is pleased with the lawyer’s response (which reflects the lawyer’s good understanding of Jewish scripture The lawyer sums up the entire scriptures by quoting from Deuteronomy 6:5: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength;” (Luke 10:27). The lawyer goes on to quote a second commandment from Leviticus 19:18 that tells us how to live out the first commandment:, “and your neighbour as yourself”. (Luke 10:27).

[3] Chris Marshall, Compassionate Justice, Eugene: Cascade, 2012, p21.

[4] C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom; New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1961, p. 5.

[5] Jerusalem was 2,500 feet above sea level and the trek was seventeen miles down a windy road to Jericho, which is 800 feet below sea level.

[6] The Greek word for inn has the connotation of a five-star hotel. It is a much different word than the one used to describe the “inn” where Mary and Joseph couldn’t find room. This inn is top-of-the-line, not a backpackers but a Hilton. The Samaritan gives the innkeeper two coins worth at least two days’ wages to take good care of him. The Samaritan promises to return to pay more if needed. This Samaritan bends over backward to care for the man.

[7] This year it is 50 years since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. And the last sermon he ever preached – the famous ‘Mountain Top/Promised Land’ sermon – was on this parable of Jesus. King preached the following about the characters in the parable: “the first question that the priest asked, the first question that the Levite asked was: ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’” King understood Jesus’ teaching about giving and receiving, and that a neighbour can be someone we did not expect.

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