Saturday, July 9, 2016

Proper 15, Year C

Who is My Neighbour?

Readings: Psalm 82; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37

A lawyer comes to test Jesus. “What should I do to be saved?” Jesus does not give him the answer. He seldom does. Instead, he turns tables on him, asking him, “What do you think you should do?” The lawyer gives the correct answer. “Love God and love your neighbour.” He knows the law. He says all the right things. He does all the right things. He lives a respectable life. He knows that he cannot be challenged on his knowledge of the law. But he wants to justify his actions, so he asks another trick question, “Who is my neighbour?”

Being a lawyer and an upstanding Jew, he knows the definition. Long before Christianity, Jewish tradition taught that love of neighbour was one of the great principles of the Torah. In fact Judaism’s love principle goes deeper than most people imagine. We Christians pride ourselves on the concept of loving our enemies, while the Torah gives examples of how to love do it. “When you come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey going astray, you shall bring it back. When you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden and you would hold back from setting it free, you must help to set it free.”

Jewish people were conscious in every aspect of life of being the chosen people. If other Jews were also God’s chosen, then it was of the utmost importance to be a good neighbour, even to one whom you did not like. So yes, the lawyer understood the call to being a neighbour – to other Jews. So did Jesus.

And so Jesus tells a story. We know it well. A man travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho is robbed of everything and left for dead. Several people pass by him on that busy road, amongst them a priest and a Levite. Maybe they are in a hurry to reach Jericho before nightfall. Perhaps they fear being made unclean. Or they may fear being attacked themselves. For whatever reason, they don’t stop. But a Samaritan, an outcast of society, does stop. He cannot pass another human being in pain without wanting to relieve that pain. He takes care of the man, binding up his wounds. He takes him to an inn and looks after him as long as he can. He even gives the innkeeper enough money to care for the man until he is well. His are not simply Band-Aid solutions; he accepts the full responsibility for this person who is in desperate need.

In telling the story of the Good Samaritan, in even suggesting the possibility that a Samaritan could be good, Jesus is going beyond the biblical laws of the Old Testament that speak of treating other Jews as neighbours. And so he asks the lawyer one last question. “Who was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He knows there is only answer. “Go and do likewise,” Jesus tells him.

For us 'Good Samaritan' means doing the loving thing. It is a common metaphor, so much a part of our culture that it is in the dictionary. It is defined in the Oxford dictionary as a “charitable or helpful person”. However, in Jesus' time it would have been a stretch. It would have been inconceivable to the lawyer to put those two words together in the same sentence. The Jews of Jesus' time did not consider the Samaritans to be a "good" people. They were considered to be heretical in their worship. The breach between the Jews and Samaritans went as deep as any controversy could go. It hit at every prejudice – race, religion, nationality; that in itself gives a powerful dimension to the story, communicating Jesus’ vision of justice. We do not hear the lawyer’s response. The story comes to an end. But truly the lawyer could not help but get the point that Jesus was making.

We get the point as well. Or do we? ‘Good Samaritan’ means ‘good neighbour’. We all know that. If someone does a great kindness to another we acknowledge that person as a ‘Good Samaritan’. Our province even has a ‘Good Samaritan’ act written to prevent people doing good deeds that go wrong from being prosecuted. We relate to the story. But we can all find legitimate excuses for acting in other ways, to keep from becoming involved.

And so we need to continue to ask, “Who is my neighbour?” What an important question it is in today’s context. We have Brexit in Britain focusing on its nationhood, but with its underlying current of racism. We have the Syrian refugee crisis in a world that puts its own needs first. I have to admit that our response as Canadians makes me very proud, but I know we have not gone far enough. We have our First Nations people who need justice on so many levels. In our society the real challenge is not the casual hand out. Most of us manage ‘charity’ without much thought. It is in confronting the system that creates need in the first place. It is becoming advocates for those who lack power. It is accepting the responsibility for past mistakes that occurred long before our time and allowing transformation to take place in the lives of innocent victims. It is in understanding what it means to be a neighbour.

We know our call to be neighbour, yet we still hear the questions asked and perhaps even think them ourselves. ‘If we open our borders to Syrian refugees what will happen to us? Will we lose jobs for Canadians? Will they just go back when life improves? Will they become terrorists?’ Or when it involves our First Nations people, ‘if we honour their treaties, how will it affect us? What will it cost us? Won’t they just squander our resources? Why don’t they just get over it?’

The story is a revealing and judgemental condemnation of much that goes under the name of Christianity. It makes many professions of faith seem less than authentic. As long as I say the right thing and belong to the right church, my faith cannot be proved or disproved. But this parable demands that I account for my actions. I cannot simply say, “I turn to Christ” without making a commitment to love neighbour as self. Who is my neighbour? Every human being is my neighbour, without regard to colour, background or social status. Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan hits to the heart of the matter. The question remains: How will I put it into practice?
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