Sunday 14 July 2019

Who is my neighbour?

Address given at St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan on Sunday 14th July 2019, the 4th after Trinity.

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, important though that is. And his words would have shocked 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 then understood very well their obligation to protect and care for their neighbours in need - as they still do. ‘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.

Let's remind ourselves of the story.
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. 

Incidentally, a Levite was a layman privileged to help the priests in the Temple – a bit like a Diocesan Reader, I suppose!

Now it may shock us, the thought that men of God like the priest and the Levite should ignore a person in such obvious need. But it would not have shocked those who heard Jesus. According to Jewish Law, contact with blood, or worse a corpse, made a person ritually impure. If the priest or the Levite had touched the man left for dead, they would have become ritually impure, and so unable to discharge their religious duties. Those who heard Jesus would have understood that it was better by far for the priest and the Levite to pass by on the other side, leaving the man to be cared for by someone else – a neighbour. They would expect nothing less.

But then an outsider 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 cannot bring himself to call the good neighbour a Samaritan, replying, ‘The one who helped’. Jesus tells the lawyer, ‘Go and do likewise.’

To accept help from a Samaritan as a neighbour – that is what would have shocked a pious Jew at that time.

So just who were these Samaritans?
The Samaritans worshipped the Hebrew God, YHWH, but they 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 sacrifices. They used variant texts of the Pentateuch, the first 5 books of the Hebrew scriptures, but they rejected the rest. The Samaritans believed they followed the true religion of the ancient Israelites prior to the Babylonian Exile, preserved by those who remained in the Land of Israel. Whereas the Jews who returned from exile had brought back a changed and perverted religion.

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 almost 1,000 still remains today near Nablus in the West Bank, faithfully maintaining their own distinctive faith.

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

Jesus makes the shocking point that every person is a neighbour to be loved, 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 Travellers for instance. It is not so many years ago that one of the Nenagh RC priests bravely insisted that a sign saying ‘No Travellers’ should be taken down in the cinema. Anti-traveller prejudice among settled people still makes life very difficult for Irish Travellers, despite their recent recognition as a distinct ethnic group.

Or consider asylum seekers. 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, even to cook their own food for their families. 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. Muslim’s in Ireland, as elsewhere in Europe, are suffering increasing harassment and attacks on the streets. How often do we hear derogatory comments about Islam, how often do we hear someone remark that ‘they are all terrorists’, which is quite untrue.

We cannot claim to be followers of Jesus unless we accept that all these and many more others different from us 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’.

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