Neighbours or not?

 The Parable of the Good Samaritan

Sermon St Mary the Virgin, Marlborough, 14th July 2019 10am
Fourth Sunday after Trinity: Colossians 1.1-14, Luke 10.25-37

It’s a very familiar story we hear this morning, the parable of the Good Samaritan, and maybe too familiar to really appreciate the ways in which it tries to provoke. Jesus uses the story as a reply to a lawyer wanting to test him and to justify himself by asking the question ‘Who is my neighbour?’ On one level, the story speaks for itself by conveying a truth we all know instinctively: being a good person depends on what you do, not on your religion or status. We all should act as the Samaritan did, looking out for those in need, no matter who or where they are.

good samaritanRecently, I watched the film ‘My name is Khan’, a moving film around religious divisions as well as human goodness. An autistic Muslim man seeks to meet the president of the United States after his stepson is killed in the wake of 9/11. Encountering a range of people as he travels, he holds on to the truth told he was told as a child by his mother: there are only two types of people, those who are good and those who are bad.

However good a starting point, of course, this is too simple a view of humanity, as I guess we all have ‘good’ and ‘bad’ within us, and there will be days when we show more of the one than of the other. But the question Jesus addresses here is not ‘what makes a good person’, but ‘who is my neighbour’, who is the person we need to love as ourselves?

The answer to that question is not the person on the side of the road, not the person in need, but the person who helps him: the Samaritan. So the challenge with which we are presented is not so much to love the person in need, although that can be very difficult in itself, but to love the person who offers help, the stranger, the outsider. And if we’re honest, we know that too. It is one thing to help the vulnerable, those in need, but quite another to accept that we sometimes too are the person who needs the help, and we are not getting the help from where we had expected it to come. It is an important question to all of us, how do we enable others to help us? How do we both accept our own limitations and also enable others to use their gifts, particularly when they feel that they have nothing to offer?

We don’t hear who the man travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho is. We only hear that he is attacked by robbers and left in a ditch. From the way that the story is framed, we can assume that he is a Jew himself, someone from the same class and background as the priest and the Levite mentioned in the story.  Priests and Levites, those who represent the leaders of the people. What will he have felt, lying there, helpless, but getting no help from either of them, being rejected by the people he would have expected to help, those who should help? Also that is a feeling, I suspect, that is not uncommon to many of us: the feeling to have been let down by those in authority, those in leadership. It is something with which we can associate as a nation, a feeling that may have been one of the main contributors leading to the Brexit vote: a feeling of disappointment of those who are supposed to take care of us.

What about those people? If the Samaritan in the story is our neighbour, what about the priest and the Levite? Are they not our neighbours, or no longer? That sounds an odd conclusion and contrary to Jesus’ teaching of unconditional love. However, there may be a certain consolation in the realism that it is hard, and maybe too hard, to love those who have let us down, particularly those nearest to us.

And so, maybe at least temporarily, our obligation to love may be suspended. We are called to follow Christ, but not to be Christ ourselves. This may be a particular relief for those who have been abused or neglected by the very people they trusted, the people who had the responsibility of looking after them.

This turns our attention away from the man in the ditch to the priest and the Levite who walk past. Again, it is maybe not so much the fact that they see a person, even one of their own, lying in a ditch that should have inspired to help them, but the very fact that they hold the office of leaders in the nation means that it is even more their responsibility to look out for those in need. It is easier to disappoint when there are these expectations put upon us, and that is something we need to be aware of. The man who was assaulted may have hoped that a stranger would come to his help, but would have expected the priest and the Levite to do so. And that expectation is a great responsibility.

That is a message to all of us with some sort of leadership positions, whether that is as parents or grandparents, those volunteering in looking after the young or vulnerable, and of course those with any responsibility in government, whether that’s political or religious. It is our duty to look out for those in need, not just those we know, but equally not forgetting them either.

So there are many different morals to the story of the Good Samaritan, all relating to our core humanity, and I’m sure the longer you look at the story, the more can be drawn from it. The first remains our duty to love our neighbour as ourselves, no matter who that neighbour is. That duty then comes with the proviso that there may be times when it is too difficult to love others, and thus maybe temporarily we can be relieved from that duty. And even when it is too hard to love people, we are still asked to pray for them: to hold them before God, knowing that His love is greater than ours. It also is a lesson in the responsibilities that come with leadership, particularly when it comes to looking after those in our care.

However, maybe the most important message of the story remains ‘Go and do likewise’. There is only so much that can be said, until it needs to be done. Go and be that person God had made you to be. The person who is vulnerable, but loved. The person who may find him- or herself in any of those three positions we read in the story: the priest, the man on the road or the Samaritan. Go and do likewise, and love your neighbour as yourself. That is the way that brings closer the kingdom of God, and the way that leads to eternal life.

 

 

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