24 Apr Who is My Neighbour?
Who is my neighbour? How do I love my neighbour? These are two questions I’ve heard repeatedly in the last month. Lockdown is causing these questions to bubble to the surface. Although they are simple questions, they defy simplistic answers. That, I suggest, is one of the reasons people are asking them. They require a work of discernment.
The first of these questions is connected to a parable—the parable of the Good Samaritan. Parables do not always yield answers easily, and for good reason. N. T. Wright writes of parables:
“They invite listeners into a new world, and encourage them to make that world their own, to see their ordinary world from now on through this lens, within this grid. The struggle to understand a parable is the struggle for a new world to be born.”
This struggle for a new world through the genre of parable, is one of the ways the inspired Scripture disrupts our ordinary lives, yielding new understandings and fresh guidance for us and our world. There is, of course, a testing of these understandings and directions against the original context and their fit for our situation. Nevertheless, we undertake this task believing that the same Holy Spirit who inspired the original text guides us now as we prayerfully read Scripture within our context.
In response, therefore, to hearing these questions, I have returned to the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), with the hope of bringing fresh understanding and guidance to our present moment. In what follows I offer two readings of the parable, with questions for reflection along the way. Before turning to the first of these readings, I provide a brief recap of and commentary on the parable.
An expert in the law wants to test Jesus, so he asks him a question: Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? (10:25) Jesus turns the question back on the expert to which he answers:
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind”; and, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” (10:27)
It should not be lost on us that the answer is comprised of two direct quotes from Deuteronomy and Leviticus—from the law in which the man is an expert.
Jesus affirms the answer, adding: Do this and you will live. (10:28)
The expert in the law, however, is not done. Luke tells us the he wants to justify himself, so he asks Jesus: And who is my neighbour? (10:29)
In response, Jesus tells the parable of the man who is robbed, stripped, and beaten on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho; of a priest and Levite who pass the man by; and of the Samaritan who shows mercy and helps the man.
By the end of the parable, it is clear that Jesus has passed the expert’s test; that, in a twist, the Samaritan is the neighbour because he demonstrates compassion, mercy, and love to the assaulted man; and that the expert is placed under obligation to be a neighbour—to go and do likewise (10:37)—rather than get fixated on the technicalities that miss the thrust of the law.
A Theological Reading
With the Church, I first offer a theological reading of the parable.
You and I are the man on road from Jerusalem to Jericho. We have been robbed, stripped, and beaten by the order of sin and death. And we see the effects of that not only in our personal lives, but in our families, workplaces, and communities. This sobering fact was true before the advent of COVID-19. What COVID-19 has done is highlight our poverty of spirit, our neglect of God and others, the injustices present in our communities, and our failure to care well for the created order.
We need to be rescued. We need healing. We need to be restored. We need a merciful neighbour. You and I need our own Samaritan.
And that Samaritan is Jesus Christ: the eternal Son of God who became incarnate as a human to rescue and heal us from the order of sin and death. In the incarnation, The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood (as Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message paraphrase of John 1:14). In the incarnation—and most fully at the cross—God gives God’s self in the person of the Son to rescue and heal us. God becomes our merciful neighbour. In the incarnation and at the cross we see the self-giving character of God who becomes our Samaritan in order to rescue and heal us from sin and death.
In what ways, then, do you need to acknowledge your spiritual poverty? What sin do you need to confess? In what ways do you need Jesus Christ to rescue and help you? What steps do you need to take to amend your ways?
A Moral Reading
Second, I offer a moral reading of the parable. To be clear, by a moral reading I mean a reading that helps to direct the way we live from a Christian understanding of who God is, who we are, and what kind of world we find ourselves within.
If you and I allow have allowed Jesus to be our Samaritan—if we have believed he was who he claimed and would do what he said—then, we are made to be our true selves, our child-of-God selves (as, again, Eugene Peterson puts in his paraphrase of John 1:12). And part of what it means to be our true selves is to be a neighbour. In doing so, we pattern our lives after Jesus Christ, our Samaritan. Just as Jesus is a merciful and self-giving neighbour to us, thereby showing us his love, so we are to be a neighbour to others. This connection is made throughout the New Testament. For example, in 1 John 3:16-17, we read:
“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for one another. If any one of you has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has not pity on them, how can the love of God be in you?”
At just this point, we may want to ask—like the expert in the law—but who is my neighbour? Just this week, I’ve know of a friend who has lost her job, thought about the needs of the school where Bronwyn teaches and the Pīhopatanga in which I am a minster of the gospel, talked about the fundings needs at Venn, pondered the mass unemployment and associated hardship and indigence ahead, and read an article discussing the possibility of famine and starvation facing parts of the world owing to COVID-19. Because I live in this world, I “see” the need of others on a scale that was not true of Jesus or his hearers. And with that comes certain temptations. The scale and pervasiveness of the need that I see means that I can become desensitised and lacking in compassion. I can become overwhelmed and paralysed, not doing anything. I can adopt a posture in which I have all the answers to all the needs I see, rushing in unwisely to solve problems and not listening to those whom I serve. Or, I can seek to meet all the needs around me, burning out in the process, and harming family and friends along the way.
With this context in mind, I come back to the parable for moral direction. I place four themes before us for consideration.
First, in contrast to the expert in the law who wanted to rule out certain people as his neighbour, Jesus challenges the expert to a life marked by compassion, mercy, and love in which he could be a neighbour to anyone when he acted in these ways. In our present moment, I believe the same invitation is given to us: to cultivate compassion, mercy, and love; and to resist hard-heartedness, indifference, and fear, so that we might become a neighbour to anyone who enters our lives.
Second, because the Samaritan seems to have cultivated a life of compassion, mercy, and love, he takes concrete steps to demonstrate these things. He bandages the man’s wounds, he takes him to an inn and takes care of him, and, when leaving, he pays the innkeeper to take care of the injured man. The question who is my neighbour? can become an abstraction—and even a mechanism of avoidance—from the near ones that are in or enter our lives. The assaulted man entered the life of the priest, Levite, and Samaritan; but only the Samaritan recognised it. There is a work of discernment and “paying attention” here. Who are the near ones in your life? Are you recognising them? Family, friends, colleagues, people in a place that you have a connection with?
The concrete acts of compassion, mercy, and love shown by the Samaritan are limited, which brings me to my third point. He binds the man’s wounds and takes him to the inn to care for him. But then he leaves the next day. The Samaritan is compassionate and merciful. But he is also a finite creature, with (one assumes) a number of arenas in which he must undertake further concrete acts of compassion, mercy, and love. He embraces limits; and so must we as we daily discern which concrete acts to undertake and which to leave aside. Perhaps the Samaritan thought about setting up an organisation to reduce the number of assaults on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, but then discerned it was not his task. What areas should you be involved in? How much time should you give? How much money should you give?
Finally, to discern the concrete acts in obedience to the command to be a compassionate, merciful, and loving neighbour—to go and do like the Samaritan (Luke 10:37)—we must recall that Jesus Christ is our Samaritan and that we are to love him with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind (Luke 10:27), because he first loved us (1 John 4:19). Both the commands, to love God and to love our neighbour, require our loving obedience because the same God commands both; however, there is a cascade from God’s love for us, to our love for God, and finally love for our neighbour.
As you and I discern what it means to be a neighbour marked by compassion, mercy and love, I commend this prayer of Jacob Boehme:
Give me, dear Lord, a pure heart and a wise mind,
that I may carry out my work according to your will.
Save me from all false desires,
from pride, greed, envy and anger,
and let me accept joyfully every task you set before me.
Help me to discern honestly my own gifts
that I may do the things of which I am capable,
and happily and humbly leave the rest to others.