Who is my neighbour or not?
The nature of teachers and students of the law is to question what they are told and to seek clarification from others. This is as true today as it was in the time of Jesus. The lawyer asks, ‘What should I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus asks a question in return: ‘What is written in the law?’ The fact that it is a lawyer of Israel asking the question is evidence for the true statements that we all teach what we need to learn. Moses, the lawgiver himself, had said back in Deuteronomy that the law was all about life: "See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess" (Deut. 30:15-18).
It is clear that we are to make choices – to obey God and walk his ways or not. One leads to life and the other to death. A bit grim! But God is also a restorer. When the exiles return to Yahweh in faith and obedience, he will turn to them and ‘return’ them to their previous state. When Israel turns back to God, he will turn back to them. SO does this mean that the threat of punishment is undermined? Will it make them say, ‘Oh, it doesn’t really matter? We can always repent and be restored’? Hardly! The historical books paint a gloomy picture of both northern Israel and southern Judah: apostasy and decline, invasion and conquest, death and exile. Those who lived through those tragic years would definitely not have said, ‘It doesn’t matter’. And those who survived into exile ended up dispirited and depressed (see Ezekiel 18:2). The punishment was real and painful.
But when we turn to God, there is Restoration – I like that word. Rest and be restored. When the people turn back to God, he will turn back to them, turn their fortunes around. Further, he will then give them all the blessings and prosperity promised in the first place, and experienced in the early years. And as always, God will be emotionally involved: it stems from his compassion and results in his delight. It will also lead to ‘circumcision of the heart’. For those used to physical circumcision, this is a rich metaphor of personal commitment and heartfelt obedience, in internal attitude as well as external form. Earlier, God commanded it (10:16) now he promises that he himself will affect it.
This passage show God’s knowledge of humanity, his foresight of events, and his provision for restoration. The warning is real: no wonder this is the synagogue reading for the Jewish equivalent of Lent, the ten days of repentance between New Year (Rosh Hashanah) and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). But so is the promise: the ‘even if’ shows that no situation is irretrievable if there is a change of heart. This does not instantly resolve the painful issues that rear up at the start, but it does give us a pointer for reflection.
So ‘What should I do to inherit eternal life?’ ‘What is written in the law?’ The reply of the man is part of what is written in Deuteronomy 6:5 which says, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might.’ To this the Scribes added Leviticus 19:18 which bids a person to love his neighbour as himself. The Rabbis sought to define who was a neighbour and at their worst limited this to fellow Jews; Gentiles were not counted as neighbours no matter how closely they lived to Jews. The parable of the Good Samaritan is a challenge to our limited care.
So who is my neighbour?"
What Jesus offers is not far away. It is the common event of a mugging and the also common events of indifference to suffering on the one hand and mercy in response to need on the other. The story is as close as the fear we feel when someone approaches us on a dark pavement at night, as near to us as the people we can walk past without noticing, as familiar as the smell and feel of a plaster on a cut finger.
"Who is my neighbour?" the lawyer wants to know, and so do I. I also want to know, how do I love my neighbour as myself? What about fostering dependency in the neighbour, or wearing myself out or just putting plasters on wounds that need so much more?
The story begins with a man on the downhill road from Jerusalem to Jericho. With his back to the Holy City, he is making his way towards a place that was known for its vice, robbers and corruption. The man is alone. Now this road was notorious for robbers, and it is foolish to travel alone, especially if you have anything precious. Is not life precious? The man is mugged by a bands or robbers, stripped of his possession, his dignity and his health. He is left half-dead and if he doesn’t get help soon he will be dead.
Lucky man: he come a priest. Help is at hand. But when he sees the man, the priest passes on by. Well, if the pries had gone over and touched the man and the man was dead, it would make him unclean and he would not be able to perform his duties for seven days(Numbers 19:11) it would seem the priest was more concerned with ceremony rather than charity. You could hear the common cry: ‘It’s more than my job’s worth.’
The next person to come along is a good churchman, a Levite. Surely there is hope there. The Levite perhaps is frightened that the robbers are still near and the man on the ground is just a decoy. He could use the same excuse of the priest for not making contact. The law was more important than love.
Then came along the Samaritan – a non-Jew. Surely he would not bother. But he does because he is moved with pity for a fellow human being. He goes over to the man and pours oil and wine on the wounds – normal usage for both, though also symbols of peace and joy. He then lifts the injured man up and puts him on his own animal, brings him to an inn and takes care of him. The next day the Samaritan pays the innkeeper and says, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’
Jesus then asked which proved to be a neighbour. When the lawyer replied, ‘He that showed mercy’, Jesus said, ‘Go and so likewise.’
We are challenged to accept all as our neighbour and to show concern for those we try to avoid; those who get into trouble through their own fault; those who are racially or religiously different, all who are in need or in trouble.
In John 8:48 the Jews called Jesus a Samaritan. Maybe we should heed the words of the Good Samaritan and interpret them as Jesus speaking to us: ‘Take care of him, and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’
1. Look at Deuteronomy 30:1-20.
What would the Lord do for them (v3-5, 6, 7, 8-9) and why (v1-2, 10)?
What were their options (v15, 16-17, 18) and why was choosing life the way to go (v11-14, 19-20)?
2. Who are your neighbours? How well do you know them?
3. Who are the neighbours you would not necessarily become involved with? Do you have a fear, real or misguided regarding these neighbours?