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A Sermon from Sherborne
Who is my neighbour?
A sermon for the Parish Eucharist at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Sunday 14 July 2019 by the Reverend Hugh Bonsey, Associate Priest
Out in the Judean desert, the road from Jerusalem to Jericho is one of the loneliest roads that I know. In the first century, main highways had been constructed well by the Romans, and were safe. But other roads were far from safe. The Jericho Road had a reputation for being the hunting ground for thieves, who could hide behind the enormous boulders, and strike at a moment’s notice on an unsuspecting traveller. I well remember the primary school plays, in Morning Collective Worship, when eager children would play the various parts. Of course, the favourite choice was to be a bandit! This famous road is the setting for one of the most famous parables of Jesus: The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10.25-37). It is perhaps only surpassed by that of the Prodigal Son. We have heard it many times, although some of the younger generation would find it strange and unknown to them. There are many meanings to the story, and severe challenges to us, as we are shocked by the detail which Jesus brings us.
I begin by putting the parable in the sequence in which Luke tells it. In the verses preceding our Gospel reading, the seventy disciples, whom Jesus has sent out, return to him. He praises them for seeing and understanding the people to whom they were sent. He praises them for their ability to understand truths which elude the wise and knowledgeable members of Jewish society. This ability of seeing is developed in the parable as the three men walk down the Jericho road. Two of them ‘see’ the injured man in a cursory way, but not the requirement of them to help him. The third man does see accurately and compassionately, and therefore helps and comforts ‘the man in the ditch’. As the Gospel reading ends with the command to do the compassionate work of God, Luke continues with the story of Martha and Mary. Martha works very hard, but it is Mary who is in the better relationship with God, through Jesus, as she stills herself and listens to the Lord’s words. Mary ‘has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’ (Luke 10.42).
Luke seems to be at pains here to emphasize that it is the relationship with God which drives everything else. Works by themselves contribute nothing to our relationship with our Heavenly Father, but if we work in accordance with his will, then such works will cement our relationship with him. Such a concept is drawn out in the parable of the Good Samaritan, as we see the Samaritan’s love and care for the injured man as being in tandem with God’s care and love for the same person.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan has often been interpreted as a dramatic story about being nice, and caring for others, rather than ignoring them. Such an interpretation is understandable, given the circumstances in which the injured man comes to be where he is – in the ditch, and the kindness of the stranger coming to his aid, while two fellow countrymen pass by and ignore him.
But we can see from the outset that the stakes are very high in this story of Jesus. It begins with a lawyer testing Jesus, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus replies with a question relating to the Jewish Law, or Torah. He asks the lawyer what he finds there. The lawyer replies by quoting two passages in the Hebrew Bible. Firstly, the shema, which commands love of God with our whole being, and then the command to love our neighbour as ourselves. In the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, it is Jesus who quotes these two passages. It is thought that Jesus is the first person to merge these two important passages together.
Jesus instructs the lawyer to do precisely what has been stated: to love God and neighbour. The Greek words are even more compelling: the lawyer hears the words of Jesus, ‘do this continually, and you will live.’ Yet, loving one’s neighbour is not using them for an ulterior motive of loving God. To love one’s neighbour is ‘an invitation to participate in the life and being of God.’ (William Loader).
The central question to the whole story is, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ By asking the question: ‘Who is the neighbour whom I should love?’, there is the possible auxiliary question: ‘Are there neighbours whom I do not need to love?’ The answer demonstrated in the parable is clear: there are no limits and no boundaries to the identity of those whom we should love.
As the story unfolds, we can see who is a true neighbour, but up until that point, we should be aware of cultural beliefs within Judaism in the first century. There were numerous reasons why no-one should approach the wounded man. One was that God was thought to punish sin. If a person was suffering misfortune, it could well be a condition created by God and therefore should not be interfered with. There were matters of theology and law which forbade anyone to help the injured man.
Here comes the utter shock, and, in Jewish understanding, the travesty of the story: that a Jewish man was cared for and supported financially by one of the despised and hated Samaritans. In this traditional reading of the story, the theme of neighbourliness has been dealt with by Jesus to show that it has no barriers – in race or cultural differences, which may include longstanding mistrust and even hatred. No-one could identify the status of the man in the ditch, as he was stripped of clothing and possessions. He was just a person who needed help.
A neighbour is someone who lives or is near to you. The injured man needs a neighbour – one who will draw near. The man who draws near has no thought for his own personal cost – he gives both time and money for the welfare of the other. The identity of a Samaritan being ‘good’ or caring would have been impossible for a Jew to accept in the first century. Yet the person who drew near was the very person who was unacceptable in Jewish society. Incidentally, this is not a story about loving our enemies. If that were the case, the characters in the story would have been reversed. The injured man would have been a Samaritan who was cared for by a Jew.
There is another reversal, which may not always seem to be obvious. We usually assume that the Good Samaritan is the focus of our attention as he gives through his love and compassion for the injured man. However, the reverse can also have enormous value for us. It is in receiving care and attention from the ‘hated foreigner’ that enables the injured man to survive, and, perhaps, thrive. Would we be willing to accept such an offer of help from people whom we wish to be keep at arm’s length (or further)?
Bishop John Moorman gives a most useful conclusion to this famous parable, and I commend it to you for thought and prayer this week. He says:
When the story had been told Jesus asked the lawyer which of the three men “proved neighbour” to the man who fell among thieves—was, in fact, the man whom he (the victim) should love. The answer was the Samaritan “who showed mercy on him”. This is where the heart of the parable lies, and is the point so often missed by the commentators.
To do acts of service to others in need is, indeed, neighbourly conduct; but all such acts—the strong helping the weak, the rich helping the poor, the good helping the bad, and so on—have in them the germs of patronage and condescension which can so easily foster pride and complacency. The parable of the Good Samaritan tells us that the person whom you must love is not the person whom you can help, but the person who can help you, especially the person whom you most despise and dislike, the person with whom, in ordinary circumstances, you would “have no dealings”, the person to whom, of all others, you would least wish to be in any way indebted. The purpose of this most subtle of parables is, therefore, to show the beauty not of charity but of humility, that most elusive of all virtues. (Moorman, J.R.H. (1960), ‘The Path to Glory’)