Read Sermon


"Who is my neighbour?"


21 August 2005 11:00 | Fr John Cullen

NT: Galatians 3.16-22; Gospel: Luke 10.23b-37 (Pr 10, YrC)

It's a very pertinent question for today: "Who is my neighbour?" - as pertinent for those of us who live in London, as for people living in the Gaza strip. And it raises sharp questions, whether we are thinking about our local neighbourhood, our city, our nation, or the global community.

But if we look to this morning's Gospel to help us answer that question, I wonder if we are ready for the rude shock that awaits us? The trouble with the parable (and it's important to remember that it is a parable) of the 'compassionate Samaritan' is that it's one of the most well known and oft quoted parables in the NT; but it is also one of the most misunderstood of all the stories Jesus ever told! Its usual title: 'the Good Samaritan' gives an indication of the subtle way it has been domesticated. To be a 'good Samaritan' has become shorthand for doing good to someone in need, giving rise to the popular mis-understanding of the parable, and taking from it the sharp bite and the offensive, threatening shock it carried for the original hearers.

It comes as something of a different kind of shock to us today to realise that years of populist interpretation of the parables has reduced them to rather benign moralistic tales. Whereas in their original context, Jesus' parables were powerful illustrations which opened the eyes of his audience to view the world differently, to challenge the way they under-stood their world, and to imagine what the world of God's kingdom would be like. Remember Christianity was described as the faith which was turning the world upside down. For many this 'upside down world' (or was it really right way up?) was scarily disorientating; to others it was totally unacceptable, to be resisted at all costs, even if that meant getting rid of its founder - silencing him once and for all.

The difficulty for us, hearing the parables today, is that we don't expect to be disorientated or offended by them; we no longer experience them, we are no longer drawn into them, surprised, disarmed, and possibly - if we have ears to hear - transformed by the experience. Recognising our handicap, let's put popular piety aside, and try to hear afresh this disturbing tale of the compassionate Samaritan.

A certain Lawyer stands up and asks Jesus: "What shall I do to inherit eternal life?" Despite Luke's warning that the questioner is setting out to 'tempt' Jesus, there is no animosity here. It was a question which fascinated any thinking Jew, educated or otherwise. The lawyer simply wants to know how this teacher will respond. Jesus refers the lawyer to his own territory: "What is written in the law?" Predictable and safe. The lawyer responds with the Shema known by heart by every Jew from childhood. "That's all you need to know," says Jesus. But the lawyer responds all too typically: "Yes, but what do you mean by 'neighbour'?" Jesus decides to parry no further. As a good teacher, he replies with a story; but it turns out to be a much more direct answer than the lawyer, or any of the bystanders - or we - have bargained for!

'A traveller on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho gets mugged, and is left stripped, robbed, and half dead at the side of the road.' Now this is where many preachers, in self deprecating mode, try for a few laughs, by identifying with the two members of their own profession, a priest and a Levite, who pass by on the other side: 'rushing off to a deanery meeting or a clergy study day, for which they are already running late!' Sadly, another trap for the unwary! Jesus wasn't point-scoring here against the clergy. No one in his audience would have been surprised at the behaviour of the priest or the Levite: not because either of them would have been regarded as heartless or fearful of getting their hands dirty; no one would expect a religious figure to act any differently, because of the strict prohibition against such a person touching a dead body.

The lawyer and the other bystanders - ordinary village folk or peasants - are expecting the hero of the story to be one of their own class - one who, despite lack of resources, comes to the rescue and sees the injured traveller is taken care of, confirming the basic goodness of their own kind. But they are in for a surprise.

It is very difficult for us to imagine their dismay and disgust at the twist the story now takes. At the very mention of the word 'Samaritan' the crowd would have become tense; but to be told that it is the Samaritan who comes to the rescue of the robbed man stuns Jesus' audience. To understand the depth of hatred, of loathing between Jews and Samaritans in first century Palestine, we must imagine feelings every bit as hostile as those between the most unbending Orthodox Jew and the most entrenched Palestinian nationalist such as we have seen in the violent scenes this week as the settlements in Gaza have been cleared; or in clashes between hard-line Catholics and Protestants in Ireland. The tensions between Samaritan and Jew were racial, religious and social, and the animosity went both ways. By introducing a Samaritan into his story, Jesus has chosen a person who his audience would have considered one of the most odious characters possible.

But Jesus goes on to heighten the offence by referring to the Samaritan as having 'compassion' on the robbed man, a word particularly used of God in relation to his people. Again, in binding up the man's wounds, the Samaritan reflects the very action of God in caring for his people. Such comparisons would have been morally and theologically repugnant to Jesus' hearers. But the greatest shock is yet to come.

The original question the lawyer asked Jesus was: "And who is my neighbour?" (i.e. the one to be rescued). But Jesus now turns the question right around and asks the lawyer: "Which of these three was neighbour to him that fell among the thieves?" (i.e. the one doing the rescuing). The role of neighbour is suddenly reversed! So taken aback is the lawyer, he cannot bring himself to utter the word 'Samaritan'; he simply whispers: 'The one who showed mercy'. The startling, stomach-churning revelation at which the lawyer's mind balks, is that instead of being the favoured fortunate who comes to the rescue of the less fortunate, the parable invites him to identify with the victim on the road rescued by the stranger, who turns out to be his most despised enemy! His flesh creeps with disbelief.

Any self-respecting Jew would rather be left for dead, than submit to the ministrations of a Samaritan.

Far from being an inspiring story encouraging us to do good to the less fortunate, the parable of the compassionate Samaritan is actually one of the most disturbing of all Jesus' stories. It presents us with a vision of God's kingdom in which boundaries are completely re-drawn - where, as one commentator puts it, 'the most odious enemy is discovered to be one's neighbour, capable of such unexpected goodness that those who want to be righteous must follow the actions of those they most despise'.

"Who is my neighbour?" It's a very pertinent question for today.
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