Seeing Our Neighbours

This sermon was given by our ALM Carol on Sunday 4 July 2019. You can read it again here:

The parable of the Good Samaritan, depicted for us in the window over the baptistry area, the lawyer answered Jesus, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself”. But then the lawyer turned to Jesus and asks, “Who is my neighbour?”

Remember the time when we knew our neighbours, I do—I mean really knew them. Probably today there are still some neighbourhoods where people truly know most of their neighbours. I don’t happen to live in one such neighbourhood. We know each other and we can count on each other in need, but truth be told, there are some people living in my neighbourhood that most of us don’t know very well, one we don’t want to know at all, and there is one that we all know far-too-well. So, I must ask myself the question that the lawyer asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbour?”

Are my neighbours only those people with whom I have the most in common or with whom I have developed a good relationship? Are my neighbours only those people whom I trust? Who do we see as our neighbour?

After telling this parable, Jesus asked the lawyer, “Now which of these three do you think seemed to be a neighbour to him who fell among the robbers?”  I don’t think there is anyone who might answer anything different from what the lawyer said— we would all say, “He who showed him mercy,” wouldn’t we, of course, it’s the obvious answer. Because if you’re a person with any normal sensitivity—you’re never going to say that the Priest or the Levite was the true neighbour. Obviously, the Samaritan was the neighbour to the man.

But you know what? There’s another side to this story of the Good Samaritan. It is not as simple as it might at first seem, and we need to be very careful that we don’t too quickly place ourselves in a position of judging the actions of the Priest or the Levite.

Let’s consider a few things about these two men who are so often judged harshly when this parable is read. First, who are the real bad guys here? The real bad guys are the robbers who have done so much damage to the poor traveller. But they are quickly out of the picture. Or are they? Jesus simply says that they stripped the man, beat him, and went away leaving him half dead. But how far away did they go? Is it possible that they have left this poor traveller there as bait for the next person to pass by?

Second, what are the Priest and Levite thinking as they walk along that particular road on that day? This road from Jerusalem to Jericho was, and still is notoriously dangerous. It is a seventeen-mile hike of narrow rocky passages, and of sudden turnings, which made it easy for robbers to take advantage of travellers. This would have been common knowledge for the original listeners of Jesus’ story…and no surprise that a human being was mugged and beaten along the side of the road.

Are the Priest and the Levite fearful for their own lives? What if the injured traveller is bait? What if they stop and become victims themselves? What if they are on their way to attend or perform a religious service? What if the victim is already dead?

Let’s put the situation in present day context. You’re driving along a deserted back road. You’re all alone in the car. It’s late afternoon in January and it’s dark. There are no streetlights anywhere and the road is lined with thick woods on either side. Suddenly, you see a car off the side of the road and there is a man standing behind it waving for you to stop. He’s obviously injured; it looks like there is blood on his shirt. What do you do?

Let’s add one more thing to this modern scenario. Recently you’ve read in the paper about a series of robberies and assaults that have occurred on this stretch of road. Do you stop?

All right let’s go a little further with the scenario. You are driving to a wedding and you are dressed for the ceremony. If you stop, you’re probably going to get dirty trying to help the man. What do you do? Since you have a mobile phone, couldn’t you call for police help and keep going? After all, the police are trained to help in this kind of situation.

Think about it and I ask you, are you the Priest, the Levite, or the Samaritan? Are you a neighbour to this man? The question becomes a whole lot more difficult when put it in the context of present-day society. But the situation is not all that different from when Jesus told this parable.

You see the key to understanding this parable is not in the story itself. Nor is it in the response of the Lawyer. The key to understanding is in the very last line of the parable. Jesus asks the Lawyer, “Now which of these three do you think seemed to be a neighbour to him who fell among the robbers?” The Lawyer quite properly responds, “He who showed him mercy.” You have to give the lawyer credit; he knew the correct response.

But then Jesus says the one thing that the lawyer –and we—tend not to hear clearly. I think this is the key to the parable. Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.” He doesn’t say, “Go and do likewise unless your own life is in danger” or “Go and do likewise unless you’re dressed for a party” or “Go and do likewise unless you can get someone else to help.” He simply says, “Go and do likewise.” There is no caveat and no qualification to what Jesus is saying to us; just “Go and do likewise.”

What’s interesting here with this parable is that we don’t know how the Lawyer reacted to being told to “Go and do likewise.” Did he actually hear what he was being told or was he still hearing the praise he had received earlier when Jesus had said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this, and you will live”.  Praise often has a way of making us selectively deaf to anything else for a brief period. So, did he really hear what Jesus had finally said to him? Or was he still a bit puffed up by Jesus’ praise?

We have no way of knowing, because Luke doesn’t choose to tell us anything more about this parable or about the encounter with the Lawyer. Luke transitions directly into the story of Mary and Martha. So, we have no way of knowing whether or not this Lawyer went and did likewise throughout the rest of his life. However, we can look at how we hear what Jesus is saying to us.

Jesus asks, “Who was this man’s neighbour?” But Jesus is also asking us, “Do you see your neighbour?” You see, it’s one thing to acknowledge—in theory—that you—that we—are neighbours to everyone else. It’s something else entirely to “see” your neighbour.  You can’t be a neighbour unless you first see your neighbour. And “seeing” your neighbour means loving that person as much as you love yourself.

Here’s another part of the Parable of the Good Samaritan that is not always abundantly clear. That man who was beaten and robbed? He was a Jew. We know that because of how his journey is described. He was going “down from Jerusalem to Jericho.” He was coming from the Temple and going home. Those two that ignored him. They were also Jews. But the man who stopped to help him was a Samaritan. Samaritans hated the Jews and the Jews hated the Samaritans. They both practiced their own version of Judaism, and each thought the other was wrong. So, they hated each other. They had no contact with each other if they could avoid it.

At some time or other in our lives we are all the man in the ditch. Naked, vulnerable and in need of help. We all have moments when we need someone to reach out pick us up and give us hospitality, even at great cost to themselves. What if, in this parable, the lawyer represents the man in the ditch and the Levite and Priest represent law and order? Then guess who Jesus might be? Could Jesus be the Good Samaritan? I’m not suggesting this is intentional. I am suggesting that Jesus always is in the other. He is always in the eyes of the person we cannot look upon. He is the one people despised and rejected, but who comes to save us, speaks tenderly to us, lifts us into his arms, and takes us to the place of healing. As Paul said, “while we were still God’s enemies, God saw us in the ditch and had compassion, and in Jesus, came to save us.”

You see I think it’s one thing to put ourselves in the role of the Samaritan and hope that we would model his behaviour. It’s another thing to put ourselves in the role of the man in the ditch and hope that we receive help from the person we see as our enemy. When Jesus says “go and do likewise,” he means to see the unseen. Love the unloved. And allow for someone to see and love you.

In this parable, the Samaritan saw his neighbour and he loved him—despite their differences and the historical and cultural animosity. You see in order to love your neighbour you must let your neighbour love you. So, when Jesus says, “Go and do likewise” to that lawyer—and to us—he means “Go and do likewise” for everyone; love everyone; accept everyone; welcome everyone—without any qualification. Just as Jesus opened his arms to save all, he’s telling us to open our arms and be healed with our neighbours.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King once said:

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.

The true neighbour will risk his position, his prestige, and even his life for the welfare of others.

In dangerous valleys and hazardous pathways, he will lift some bruised and beaten brother to a higher and more noble life.”

Let us “go and do likewise”



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