This is the text of the Warden’s sermon at the first Evensong of term, last Sunday.
Who is Your Neighbour?
Who is your neighbour? The two greatest commandments in the Bible, we are told, are to love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength and to love your neighbour as yourself. So I ask you again…Who is your neighbour?
Religious people, unfortunately, are often inclined to try to create new rules, to want definitions, to know who is in and who is out. They like certainty and clarity. If you like easy definitions and simple answers this is not a good story for you. It is a familiar story, I hope, …but if it isn’t, let me explain.
A religious lawyer comes up to Jesus and asks him what he needs to do to please God. Jesus turns the question back on the lawyer and asks him how he sees it and the lawyer gives an excellent reply: you should love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength and love your neighbour as yourself. Jesus is impressed and says so. The lawyer feels rather pleased with himself and asks a further question: who is my neighbour? The lawyer wants to define who his neighbour is so that he can be exactly sure who it is that he should be loving. Is it those in his family, or those with whom he does business, his friends perhaps, the people he likes and chooses to be in his circle? Or is it just the Jewish people, those who have the same world view, the same beliefs…those who look the same, speak the same and share his values? He wants a narrow definition that he can easily control and he also wants, I am sure, to know who is not his neighbour, those whom he doesn’t need to worry about. Life is easier when we know exactly who is in and who is out. I think he may have regretted asking that question, but it gives rise to one of the greatest illustrations ever told, the story of the Good Samaritan.
To summarise the story, a man is beaten up and left for dead. Two religious men, greatly respected in their community, pass by and ignore him, reluctant to get involved, afraid the muggers might still be lurking around, concerned that they might become unclean by touching a dead body, full of self-importance that they will be late for their important work. Caring for those who are in need can be a messy business. Then along comes a Samaritan. Now it needs to be understood that Jews and Samaritans did not get on and the Jews looked down on Samaritans as racially inferior. They had nothing to do with them. Why would this Samaritan man stop to help a Jewish man…the injured man would surely not have helped him if the roles were reversed. But this man does not pass by…he stops, he tends the injured man’s wounds, he takes time to nurse him and takes him to an inn, he pays money for his care and promises more if necessary.
Among other things here, Jesus is challenging our racial prejudices. The Jews may have been a chosen people, but that did not give them the right to despise others. Everyone, the Bible makes clear, is made in the image of God. We are all image-bearers, fearfully and wonderfully made. That is something we must remember at all times, a huge lesson for the modern world and a lesson for us too here at St. Columba’s, with our wonderfully diverse community. Every pupil in this school is made in God’s image and that surely demands that we should treat them all with respect and dignity.
The story of the Good Samaritan would have been a great story even if the man who stopped to show mercy had been Jewish, but by making him a despised foreigner it adds so much more power and nuance to the teaching. And it needs to be clearly understood that in telling this story Jesus is being deliberately provocative and his illustration of what it means to be a neighbour would not have gone down well with many of his listeners. Some of them would have been furious. Others, perhaps secretly fed up with the hypocrisy of the religious leaders, would have been delighted and amazed by his boldness and drawn to follow him and listen to him further. They were used to religious teachers or rabbis, but this one was a bit different. Jesus characterises the religious leaders of the day as callous and selfish, while suggesting that even those who were on the outside, not in the club, racially impure, were possibly more acceptable to God than those in the club. You can see why he fell out with the religious authorities, who eventually ended up plotting his death and handing him over to be tortured and killed.
So, with this story in mind, let me ask you again, who is your neighbour? Through every age there have been those who want to define exactly who their neighbour is, so that they can be sure to tick the right boxes and care for the right people. It makes life neater. However, if we are to take on board the lesson from this parable, this story told by Jesus, we will need to rethink our boundaries and widen our circle and be prepared for life to be a bit messier than we might like. Our neighbour, according to Jesus, is anyone we meet who may be in need, anyone who needs our help. In this age, that does not mean just those with whom we live but those whom we come across in any capacity whom we are able to help: the other race, the other community, the other religious belief, those who are suffering, those who have been abandoned. Perhaps our neighbour is the person we see on our screens whom we will never meet face to face, but we are able to support with our time or our finances. Perhaps your neighbour is the Afghan refugee or the asylum seeker, fleeing their country for a better life; perhaps it is the homeless person outside Lidl or the elderly person living on their own down your street; perhaps it is the person in your boarding house who lacks confidence and needs a friendly greeting. Loving your neighbour can be very costly, but sometimes it can also be very simple.
I don’t want to try and define or suggest who your neighbour might be, because Jesus is deliberately getting rid of definitions and comfortable parameters. ‘You can love these ones, but you don’t need to worry about those ones.’ Is that what you would like to know? The smug lawyer who came to Jesus, who gave a good answer and then asked Jesus to define exactly who his neighbour was, got more than he bargained for. I wonder whether he wished afterwards that he had kept his mouth shut after Jesus told him his answer was a good one.
So the question remains and has remained down the ages. Who is your neighbour? You must answer that question for yourself. It is one of the most important questions you can ever ask yourself, but you need to be careful of the answer because it may be awkward or uncomfortable and there is a very good chance that it may not be the one you want to hear.
Illustration: The Good Samaritan by by Domenico Campagnola.