Sunday 14 July 2013

Who is my neighbour?

Address given at Templederry & Killodiernan on 14 July 2013, the Seventh Sunday after Trinity, year C.

Jesus’s story about the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) is so familiar that it is easy to miss his main point.
It is more about recognising who our neighbour is, than about loving them as ourselves and responding to their needs, important though that is.

And his words would have been very shocking for those who heard them first.

The story was prompted by a lawyer, we’re told – a learned professional man.
He asks Jesus ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ – in other words, how must I behave to be worthy of God’s favour. Jesus bounces the question back at him, saying ‘What does God’s law say?’ When the lawyer answers, ‘Love God, and love your neighbour as yourself’, Jesus agrees with him, saying ‘Do this and you will live.’ After all, as both Matthew (22:37-39) and Mark (12:31) tell us, Jesus had said as much himself when asked what the greatest commandment was. Jews understood very well their obligation to protect and care for their neighbours in need. ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’, is a quotation from the book Leviticus (19:18) – it is a command from God.

But then the lawyer chances his arm again, asking Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ It is in reply to this that Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan.

A man travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho is robbed and left for dead. A priest and a Levite travelling on the same road pass by on the other side, ignoring his plight. (A Levite was a layman privileged to help the priests in the Temple – a bit like a Diocesan Reader, I suppose!) But then a Samaritan comes along. A Samaritan of all people, who stops and helps the traveller, treats his wounds, takes him to a safe place, and even pays for him to be cared for. When Jesus asks which of the three was a good neighbour, the lawyer replies, ‘The one who helped’ – in other words the Samaritan. Jesus tells him, ‘Go and do likewise.’

To accept help from a Samaritan as a neighbour – that is what was shocking for a pious Jew.

So just who were these Samaritans?
The Samaritans worshipped the same God as the Jews, the Hebrew God YHWH, but believed that YHWH had chosen Mount Gerizim near Nablus, not Jerusalem, as the site of his holy temple. That was where they worshipped and where Samaritan priests made the traditional Hebrew sacrifices. They accepted variant texts of the Torah, the first 5 books of the Hebrew scriptures, but they rejected the rest.

According to the Samaritans themselves, they followed the true religion of the ancient Israelites prior to the Babylonian Exile, preserved by those who remained in the Land of Israel, as opposed to Judaism, which was changed and brought back by those returning from the exile.

When Jesus was alive up to a million Samaritans lived alongside but apart from the Jews in their own villages in what we now call Palestine and Israel. But history has not been kind to them. They suffered centuries of persecution and forced conversion, first by Byzantine Christians and then by Arab and Turkish muslims. Yet a small Samaritan community of around 1,000 still remains today in Nablus in the West Bank, faithfully maintaining their own distinctive faith.

In Jesus’s time, orthodox Jews despised and disliked Samaritans. They were heretics who did not follow Jewish law, unclean, untrustworthy, quite outside the pale. And the Samaritans no doubt heartily returned these sentiments. Both groups had as little to do with each other as they could – neither saw the other as their neighbour.

Jesus made the shocking point that every person is a neighbour, even despised Samaritans.
Many people in our society today find it just as hard as the Jews in Jesus’s day to accept some people as neighbours.

Take Travelers for instance. It is not so many years ago that one of the Nenagh RC priests bravely insisted that a sign saying ‘No Travelers’ should be taken down in the cinema. More recently a house in Ballina was burned to prevent a traveler family from moving in. And I notice the Council is still sending out an unmistakable message that travelers are unwelcome by mounding up the verge on the Drummin Rd.

Or consider asylum seekers. There is a lot of prejudice against them, partly perhaps because so many are not European. Surely it cannot be right to keep people in direct provision centres for years on end on a dole of €19 per week, denying them the right to work and contribute to society. There are fears for the safety and welfare of children in these centres, and once children reach the age of 18 they are denied funding to take up college places, and left in complete limbo.

And then there are Muslims. A Muslim doctor at Nenagh Hospital was assaulted in the street a couple of years ago, and there are disturbing reports of growing harassment and attacks on Muslims in Ireland. Since Bush declared his ‘war on terror’, I have often heard derogatory comments about Islam, including remarks that ‘Muslims are all terrorists’, which is quite untrue.

We cannot claim to be followers of Jesus unless we accept that all these - and many more besides - are our neighbours. We have an obligation to be good neighbours to them, to protect and care for them when they need it. And when we hear others express crude prejudice about them we should confront it and not collude with it.

The Samaritan crossed the boundaries of prejudice to help his neighbour – may we ‘Go and do likewise’.

No comments: