Mutuality: What it means to be a Neighbour

11 July 2010

Luke 10:25-37

We are probably all familiar with the story of the Good Samaritan. We may have even acted it out at Sunday School. Perhaps we were one of the robbers that attacked the man battered, robbed and left lying on the side of the road that cut through the hills between Jerusalem and Jericho. Or we were the priest or the Levite, religious leaders, passing by the injured man; the first hurrying by with his nose in the air and eyes averted, the other stopping briefly to look at the man and then quickly continuing on his way in case he should be contaminated or end up in the same condition. Then came the hero, journeying into our story like a travelling salesman. Perhaps we wanted to be him. We were told he was a hated Samaritan but that didn't make much impression on us because we didn't know any Samaritans and anyway we knew he was 'good'. He stopped, treated the man's wounds, put him on his donkey and slowly continued his journey to Jericho where he left him in the paid-up care of the hotel owner. The Samaritan is held up as an example of the love one should show to a neighbour – or is he? 

Let us stop and look more closely at the text. A lawyer, wanting to test Jesus, asked him what must he do to inherit eternal life? Jesus directed him to the law and inquired what he understood from it. The lawyer replied using the accepted summary of the law, "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". Jesus affirmed this answer and told the lawyer that if he did this he should indeed inherit eternal life. But the lawyer was not satisfied, he hadn't scored any points in this dialogue so far, so he asked "Who is my neighbour?" 

As was often the case, Jesus didn't answer the question directly, 

but instead told him a story and then asked the man to provide his own answer. "Which of these three do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" 

Something is wrong. The neighbour was supposed to be the one in need, the robbed and beaten-up man lying half dead on the road. We are supposed to see our neighbour in the suffering ones. Jesus has confused things. He has changed the noun "neighbour" into a verb. 

The lawyer replies as we expect, of course carefully avoiding actually naming the Samaritan, "The one who showed him mercy". He is then told to do likewise, to be neighbourly, but who is the neighbour in the story, and who is our neighbour today? 

Jesus was always messing things up and turning accepted ideas upside-down. Such as the notion of the kingdom of God, who was in and who was out, and what sort of relationships were found in it. Here I think is another example which changes who is the neighbour. As a result, I believe we have an example of the mutuality of loving relationships that belong in the kingdom of God and reflect those found in the relational Trinity. 

Let us go back again to the story and look at the summary of the law supplied by the Lawyer. He recited the command to love God with your whole being, and then added that you are "to love your neighbour as yourself". It is not one of the ten commandments but rather a summary of some of them, and comes directly from Leviticus 19:18. Jewish scholars tell us that the Hebrew means not so much 'to love your neighbour as yourself' but 'to love your neighbour who is like yourself'. There is a subtle difference here. We are talking about a neighbour who is created by God as we are, a human being, a subject, a real person with a name, of equal status to ourselves, not just an object to control, or disregard. This person and ourselves are neighbours to one another, called into a mutual equal loving relationship. 

Now, because I think it is very important, I want to pause and demonstrate what I mean by a mutual equal loving relationship. To begin with we have the priest and the Levite more or less ignoring the injured person and accentuating this by passing on the opposite side of the road – as far away as possible. This man is not even considered a human being, he is given no dignity – he is something that warrants only a glance by one man and looked down on by the other. He does not exist at all or just a dead bit of flesh. 

Then comes the Samaritan. At first he helps the injured man from a dominating superior position – from above. He is the healthy one standing above the victim. The other is recognised as a human being but not yet as a subject with dignity, made in the image of God. Oil and wine are used. Then the Samaritan raises the bandaged man on to his donkey. See what has happened. The two men are now more or less at the same height. Neither is dominating the other or feeling less important than the other. The Samaritan must now change his pace, leading his donkey and perhaps helping to hold the man in the saddle. The two men share the same risky position, vulnerable to being attacked by robbers. If anything, the man on the donkey has a slightly better possibility of escaping. They are vulnerable neighbours to each other, both watching out for the other and dependent on the other. They are in a mutual relationship of love and compassion with one another. 

As we look at this vignette of the Samaritan and the injured man on the donkey slowly fading into the distance, let us notice something else of importance. We have considered the Samaritan and the injured man, but the Samaritan needed help from other directions. First he tended the wounds by using the healing properties of oil and wine provided by nature. Next he was assisted by his donkey. Without this animal it is doubtful that he could have helped the man for 10 kms or 7 miles or more to the hotel. So we see this little group of God's creation demonstrating their inter-connection and oneness with each other and need for each other. 

If we should now reply to the lawyer's question, "And who is my neighbour?", our answer could be everyone and everything on this planet. We are all neighbours to each other. As a community of believers and as individuals we are called to respect the dignity of the other and have a responsibility for the well-being of each other, including nature. I believe this parable challenges us to consider who is our neighbour? First, in our everyday life when we help one another, do we always do it in a way that respects the dignity of the other person – allowing them to sometimes make choices and have the opportunity to give as well as receive from us? Do we speak to people in wheel chairs or ignore them and dialogue only with their carers? 

Do we realise when hospital visiting that we relate to patients from a dominating position of health, accentuated by a standing position? 

Finally, as Australians we are faced at present with the problem of asylum seekers coming to our country – our neighbours in need, asking for a share of what we have, peace, dignity and a home. It is a current political issue. Many of these people are victims of abuse, and have had family members murdered. They have often waited for years in detention centres in Indonesia in appalling conditions described as "unsanitary, unsafe, isolated and utterly inappropriate for children", to be accepted by Australia or some other country. These centres are understaffed by Australian and United Nations' officials. The long delays experienced have caused some refugees in desperation to risk coming to Australia illegally in unsafe boats. The Good Samaritan shared the position of the victim and then provided for his care in the hotel. What is our attitude when asked to share our country with our neighbour who is a victim? - to accept having a little less so another can live? 

Who is our neighbour we are to love, the one who is like ourselves? And to whom are we called to be neighbourly? 

Helen CSC