The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) is well known as a story about kindness and generosity to a stranger in trouble, about being a good neighbour and recognising who are our neighbours. As we listen to the story, we are invited to think which characters we identify with and then think about how we might respond in the same circumstances.
As we listen, we realise uneasily it is a highly radical, provocative story, inviting us to cross the many invisible but tightly policed racial, economic and stranger or alien ‘other’ boundaries, just as Jesus was challenging his listeners .
The parable asks us to think about our own family circumstances and the culture in which we live, all our assumptions in this predominantly white thinking country, what we learned as children and adults about how to behave and respond to others different to us. Determining who we should care about and why.
The story opens with a lawyer, a respected, learned professional who stands up to test Jesus about what he must do to inherit eternal life, perhaps wanting to show up Jesus as a fraud. Jesus responds by asking him about what is written in law on this matter. The lawyer knows the answer and responds confidently with the familiar statement of faith from Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and Leviticus 19:18.
You shall 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 your neighbour as yourself. Luke 10:27
As we step into the parable of the Good Samaritan with the lawyer and the disciples gathered around Jesus, we realise although we know this story well, so we don’t always stop to think about what the story is asking of us.
Jesus invites us to think about God’s love for us, and our love for others as the neighbour! Rather than Jesus showing the lawyer who is his neighbour, Jesus shows the lawyer how to be a good neighbour, to be neighbourly.
As understanding dawns in our minds, by the end of the story we are transformed from fear to love. Like the lawyer, our blindness fades and we are left transfixed with the reality of seeing our own habits which prevent us from being neighbourly. Do we recognise ourselves in the priest or Levite? Have we imagined ourselves as the Samaritan or even the person who has been robbed, beaten and left for dead?
I was wondering if we can recognise our own Levitical, pharisaic and priestly habits which prevent us from being neighbourly. Locally, there have been stories of people pushed out of rentals because of holiday occupations, so higher rates can be charged with holiday makers and a good profit made, while those with limited resources become homeless, living in cars and tents.
Over east it’s been a similar story following the floods. Emergency accommodation sourced by agencies and government departments but then families tipped out for holiday bookings and no housing available in a country with over one million second homes available but not for rent.
The experience of Australia’s behaviour over real, life-threatening climate change and its impact in the Pacific and our disrespectful rejection of the Pacific Islanders’ existential concerns on this single issue over the last decade have had members of the Pacific Forum genuinely questioning Australia’s neighbourliness. I’m not sure they recognised us as their neighbour.
As we come to the end of NAIDOC Week, celebrating the First Nations peoples of this country, we are being asked about our capacity to be good neighbours and support the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
None of these examples have easy answers and you may well argue with me over them and provide reasonable counter arguments; and likewise, there are good and reasonable reasons given for the decisions and behaviours of the priest and Levite as they passed by on the other side of the road. I’m sure the lawyer in Jesus’ story did the same and was probably indignant Jesus was using them as an example about how blind privilege, custom and practice become habitual in our lives, so we no longer see our cultural conformity and deafness to Jesus’ message of love. Too often fear drives our behaviour not God’s love.
The victim was a man travelling to Samaria, a stranger to those passing by him and he travelled alone, without protection against bandits. Samaria was a place embodying the deep hostility between Jews and Samaritans. The people were deeply divided and held strong animosity for each other.
There were significant purity laws which both the priest and the Levite had to follow and any contact with an unclean person, a stranger, would have invalidated this state and it would have required significant effort to become clean and pure again. The practical assistance offered in cleaning, caring and providing money for the injured person needed effort and another visit to make sure the innkeeper was not out of pocket. And, to add insult to injury in the story, the significant acts of neighbourliness were done by a Samaritan, a despised individual according to his racial identity.
Jesus was deliberately provocative in his description of the main characters and their context for the story. Race, money and wealth, and the ‘other’, a man who was despised and a stranger. A Samaritan who would have been used as a scapegoat in any other story told by a rabbi. The beaten man in need, and all three men seeing him and only one responding. This story shows us how to see ourselves as we imagine ourselves as the lawyer, the Levite, the victim and the despised Samaritan.
Or perhaps we’ve removed ourselves altogether from the story as we don’t want to be challenged, and we see ourselves as the listeners, enjoying the lawyer’s discomfiture and resisting any insight in Jesus’ message of love and neighbourliness for us.
So my question is the same as Jesus’: Who is a ‘neighbour’? Is it someone we know and respect; someone who lives next door? Is it one of us; and, would you call a stranger whom you have been taught to despise and previously treated with contempt, who comes to your aid, a neighbour? Are we someone else’s neighbour in these circumstances?
Would you resent accepting help from such a despised person, the ‘other’ in our context? We can find ourselves choking on our self-righteousness and shame when someone we despise is helpful and kind. Have you thought about who is our ‘other’ today?
Who would Jesus put into the Samaritan’s role now if he was telling this story again for our culture and times?
Is it in this moment we realise God’s love transcends and transforms our lives and our actions, when we respond as the Samaritan? We are bigger than our circumstances and our own privilege. We are not defined by them, we are as God calls us, and we can be who God invites us to be.
Jesus reminds us who is a real neighbour. It was the despised Samaritan who was moved by pity (10:22); and, he showed true mercy to the one who was beaten (10:37).
The Lord be with you.