Sermon for the 4th Sunday after Trinity: Who is my neighbour? – preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey, on Sunday, 10 July 2022 by The Reverend Robert Green. (Amos Ch 7: v 7 – end; Luke Ch 10: v 25 – 37)
The parable of the Good Samaritan is probably one of the best-known stories from the Bible, and being the “Good Samaritan” is often used to denote some act of kindness, but the parable is so much more than this. When Jesus told this parable in answer to the lawyer’s question “Who is my neighbour”, the story he told was political dynamite, for it cut to the heart of the centuries old feud between Jews and Samaritans, and in case we think that problem belongs to the past, we only have to look at the situation between Israelis and Palestinians today to realise that it has not been resolved even now. This was brought home to us here in Sherborne when a few years ago, a speaker about the whole situation in Israel and Palestine was arranged to speak at a meeting in the Powell theatre which caused outrage in some circles, because the poster made reference to the “Occupied Territories”, and the Chaplain of Sherborne School received ‘death threats’, and the Headmaster had letters of complaint. So what is at issue here? Both sides claim to be the true inheritors of the promises to Abraham and Moses; both sides, in consequence, regarded themselves as rightful possessors of the land. Few Israelis today will travel from Galilee to Jerusalem by the direct route because it will take them through the West Bank, and put them at some risk. In the same way first century pilgrims, as Jesus himself did, prefer to travel down the Jordan valley to Jericho, and turn right up to Jerusalem, but as the story reminds us, this was also at some risk as a man had clearly been mugged on this desert track and lay half dying beside the road. The Levite and the priest who passed by had a dilemma, because if the man was dead and they touched him, they would make themselves spiritually impure, and until they went through rites of purification would not be able to continue their ministry in the Temple, so they passed by, and the lawyer would have understood their reasoning. When the person who came to the man’s aid was identified as a Samaritan you can imagine his reaction. Furthermore when Jesus then asks him the question, “Which of these three do you think turned out to be the neighbour of the man set upon by brigands?” He can only answer, “The one who showed mercy on him” Notice he does not mention his identity as a Samaritan. Can he really recognise the hated Samaritan as his neighbour? Especially as Jesus followed this up by saying, “Well you go and do the same”. It is not enough to come to the recognition of who my neighbour is, for it has practical implications.
What lies at the heart of this confrontation with the lawyer then is a clash between two different visions of what it means to be Israel, God’s people.
We heard in the passage from Amos how the people of the northern state of Israel objected to this prophet from Judah warning them of their destruction if they continued their ungodly behaviour. They took unkindly to this foreigner interfering with their affairs, and we can see the fact that he was not one of ‘them’ got in the way of his message, and they chose to ignore it. Not long after, the Assyrians occupied Israel and Amos’s prophecy was fulfilled. This question about the neighbour is designed to smoke out Jesus’s supposedly heretical views on God’s wider plans for the whole world and to show that the lawyer was right to challenge him. Jesus’s telling of the parable does indeed spell out the wide-reaching grace of God, and his view is not heretical, but rather the fulfilment of the commandment that the lawyer claims to regard as vital. If we have this God-given revelation of grace and love that embraces the whole world, then it has implications for us. It is not difficult for us to see Ukraine as our neighbour as it suffers such a cruel invasion, but there are others who have escaped from tyranny, oppression and persecution. What about them? There are millions living in poverty while we live in comparative affluence. This must surely be the challenge that we need to face, and what story would Jesus tell us that had such impact on his original hearers? Whether we like it or not the answer we give to the question ”Who is my neighbour?” cannot just be a mental exercise, but as Jesus told the lawyer, “Go and do something about it”.