Who is your neighbour?
Jesus was famously asked: “Who is my neighbour?” by a lawyer who wanted to ‘justify’ himself before Jesus. It results in Jesus telling the most amazing parable of the Good Samaritan. Perhaps we are like the lawyer in Jesus’ story. We want to know what we have to do to share in the Reign of God. It is interesting that the lawyer seeks no further information on who is the God he is to love. He wants more information on who is the neighbour he is to serve.
The Biblical scholar T.W. Manson observed that “The question is unanswerable and ought not to be asked. For love does not begin by defining its objects: it discovers them.” But Jesus does not give a direct answer to the lawyers’ question; rather he helps the lawyer discover the answer for himself.
Jesus could have told a story about a noble Jew helping a Samaritan. Such a story would have been more easily absorbed into the religious self-understanding of his Jewish audience. Rather the hated Samaritan is the hero. Jesus speaks to one of the audience’s deepest hatreds and painfully exposes it.
The text has a clear progression as we move through the scenes. The priest only goes down the road. The Levite comes to the place. The Samaritan comes to the man. We don’t know which direction he is travelling. If up the hill, he has just passed the priest and Levite and therefore knows of their actions. If travelling down the hill then again he is probably aware of them on the road and what they have done.
But he feels compassion. This Greek word has at its root the word ‘innards’. We can say that he indeed had a ‘gut reaction’ to the man in need. More than this, his compassion is immediately translated into concrete action.
The parable presses us to discover (along with the lawyer) that we must become a neighbour to anyone in need. Who is it that is the neighbour in this story? It is not the man by the side of the road, (the person in need). It is the Samaritan who, by his actions, becomes a neighbour.
Going out to serve means we must reach out in costly compassion to all people, even enemies. The standard is set even though it may not be fully reached. We will discover that our serving, our giving, is a joyful response and that we cannot justify ourselves and earn eternal life. For the parable holds up an ethical standard to strive for. Like the command, “Be perfect”, it remains a standard even though in its fullest expression it is impossibly high. For Jesus, love is something you feel and do.
Going out to serve is the action component to our faith.
Two types of sin and 2 types of sinner appear in the parable. The robbers hurt the man by violence. The priest and the Levite hurt him by neglect. The story implies the guilt of all 3. The failed opportunity to do good becomes an evil.
Like the lawyer we may find we are consciously or unconsciously asking the question, “Who is my neighbour?” Like the lawyer we may also find that Jesus does not answer the question directly, but helps us discover what it means to be a neighbour.
Our challenge becomes whether we have the courage to “go and do likewise” or not.
Which eyes do we see the world with? The priests’ rigid code-book eyes, the Levites’ “Let’s-not-get-involved” eyes, or the Samaritans’ eyes that are moved by compassion? There is a great world of need around us to which we could respond. God invites us to see the need and in seeing the need we will hear the call to become neighbours.
General Secretary, Rev. Dr Andrew Williams
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