Do you ever worry about your neighbours? About that they may think of you? What impression you give them as a neighbour? When they meet you or see you from a distance, what impression do they get? Is it accurate or a distortion? Are your neighbours threatened or confused by the impressions you give? Do they want to get to know you or do they lock the door and hide? Scientists tell us that the further away your neighbours live, the more likely they are to hold outdated, inaccurate and stereotypical views of you. Did you know, for example, that once broadcast, TV signals begin an endless journey outward into the cosmos at the speed of light? That means our earliest TV broadcasts are probably travelling through star systems more than 400 trillion miles from earth. Do you realise that our neighbours living 60 light years away are watching the first episodes of the Lone Ranger in black and white. 50 light years away they are now watching Rawhide and Bonanza. 40 light years away they have moved on to the original Star Trek series. 30 light years away they are able to watch the Dukes of Hazzard and Knots Landing. Just 20 light years away its Seinfeld and the Sopranos. Those only 10 light years away are being blessed by the Apprentice and countless episodes of Lost. Does it worry you what our neighbours in space may think about us? Does it matter what impression we give? If you want to explore this further I recommend the new film District 9.
If your neighbours knew about your TV preferences, the books you read, your interests, your convictions, values and priorities, what would they think of you? What about the people next door? Over the road? Down the street? The people you meet every day on the train? The people you work with? It may have been questions like this that prompted a certain lawyer to ask Jesus the question, “who is my neighbour?” meaning, “who do I bear some responsibility for and who can I ignore?” We answer this question all the time whether we consciously think about it or not. We answer this question by the way we treat other people.
In reply to the lawyers question, Jesus told a story, a parable. A parable is simply a story with a kick in the tail, a story in which we find ourselves an active if unwitting participant rather than an objective observer or innocent passerby. This parable of Jesus is as topical and controversial today as it was to those who first heard him. Jesus’ audience would have been very familiar with tales of hapless victims, robbed or murdered on that very road. Even today the road from Jerusalem down to Jericho isn’t the kind of road to take the family on a Sunday afternoon picnic. So Jesus had their attention. Christ talked about violence and danger – and we certainly have plenty of that today. He talked about crime, racial discrimination, fear and hatred. In this parable we also see neglect and concern, we see love and mercy. We know very well what the parable says, but what does it mean? Let’s spend a few moments considering the characters involved in this story and their attitudes toward the man travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho.
1. To The Thieves: He was a Victim to Exploit
The thieves did not see a fellow human being made in the image of God. They saw someone they could exploit. It did not matter what happened to him, as long as they got what they wanted. Their philosophy was “What’s yours is mine-I’ll take it”. God gave us things to use and people to love. We live in a culture that has got it round the other way. Jesus Christ never exploited a person. He always gives back more than he asks for. He always leaves a person in better shape than when He found them. If he wounds, he also heals. We must beware of looking at people and thinking “what can he do for me?” We may not mug people to steal their money, but we can so easily hurt people with our words and actions. To the thieves this man was a victim to exploit.
2. To The Priest and Levite: He was a Nuisance to Avoid
Jericho was a priestly city, a place where many of the priestly families lived. It is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. It has a warm mild climate all year. Before 1967, many of the oil rich sheiks from the Gulf States would spend their winters in Jericho. By comparison, Jerusalem is cold and exposed in winter. So Jericho was the place to live, and priests and levites would regularly frequent this road on their way to and from the Temple. Of all people one would have expected them to help this poor man. The priest was most probably riding. Priests were drawn from the upper class of society. They constituted the privileged elite of Jewish society. In the Middle East no one with any status in the community takes a seventeen mile hike through the desert. The poor walk. Everyone else rode. So what excuses might the priest have offered had he been caught on a security camera travelling by on the other side?”I’ve got to remain pure in order to serve God” When confronted by a stripped and unconscious person the priest faced a dilemma. How could he help someone who might be a sinner? His religious laws forbade him go within four metres of a dead person in case he became defiled. Then he wouldn’t be able to perform his duties. His peers would have applauded him for not stopping so that he could perform the higher work for God. Perhaps he thought, “It’s not my problem”. Maybe it was. Why didn’t the religious leaders do something about the dangerous road?
Cain asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper? The answer is “Yes, regardless of your sister or brother’s race or colour.” Perhaps he was afraid of an ambush. May be it was, maybe it wasn’t. What mattered was the person in need. If we allow fear to determine our actions we will be paralyzed from serving God. Maybe he thought “Let somebody else do it” The priest could have said, “the Levite coming up behind me, he can stop, I don’t need to.” But then the Levite could then have thought, “The priest didn’t do anything, so why should I?” You and I can always find somebody to point to as an excuse for our own neglect. Failure to act when we should is just as sinful as to act when we shouldn’t. If we go through life wanting our own way, then other people will always be a nuisance because they will get in our way. But if we go through life with our eyes open seeking opportunities to share the love of Christ, then every nuisance, every encounter becomes a divine appointment, an opportunity to serve God. To the robbers this man was a victim to exploit. To the priest and Levite he was a nuisance to avoid.
3. To The Lawyer: He was a Problem to Discuss
Jesus told the story in reply to a lawyer’s question. The lawyer was an expert in religious law. Israel lived under religious law in a similar way as Sharia law is imposed in some countries with a Muslim majority. He was then a professional theologian. The lawyer wanted to test Jesus on a point of law. To win an argument. Jesus turns the conversation round to teach a fundamental truth about concrete action. The lawyer was safe with theories, “who is my neighbour?” He was threatened with the reply “What would you have done in this story? What kind of neighbour are you?” To the robbers this man was a victim to exploit. To the priest and Levite he was a nuisance to avoid. To the Lawyer: He was a problem to discuss.
4. To The Inn Keeper: He was a Customer to Serve
I do not criticise the inn keeper. He had his inn to manage, and that kept him busy. But I want to use the inn keeper to illustrate the fact that many Christians serve, or rather serve particular people because it is their job and they get paid to do it. Maybe the inn keeper would have helped the man without the Samaritan’s two silver coins, and the assurance of more if it was needed. We don’t know. That was not the main point of Jesus story, but it is worth noting that the inn keeper took the money. So let’s follow through on the implications. How far are we willing to serve as long as it is convenient and won’t cost us anything? Fine as long as it doesn’t interfere with my agenda? Fine as long as I can reimburse for that expenditure? Motive has a great deal to do with ministry. The Pharisees prayed, gave tithes and fasted – all acceptable religious practices, but the motive of some, says Jesus, was to gain the praise of people, not to glorify God.
If I only serve because I am paid to do it then I am more like the inn keeper than the Samaritan, for I am treating you as a client rather than a human being. Of the five attitudes demonstrated in this passage, only one was acceptable, and that belonged to a foreigner. When Jesus uttered the phrase, “But a certain Samaritan….” I’m convinced His Jewish audience were shocked.
The Jews and Samaritans had no dealings with one another. Every morning, a pious Jew thanked God in his prayers that the Lord had not made him a woman, a Gentile or a Samaritan. A Gentile might conceivably become a Jewish proselyte but not a Samaritan. They were lost eternally. The last person you would expect to help a Jew would be a Samaritan. I’m sure his audience expected Jesus to say “when the Samaritan came along he took one look at the man and … finished him off.” The concept of “ethnic cleansing” may be a recent addition to the vocabulary but the actions it describes have been going on for thousands of years. There was no love lost between Jews and Samaritans. Jesus might just as well have been describing the action of a Serb toward a Croat in Bosnia, or a Greek toward a Turk on Cyprus, or a Palestinian toward an Israeli settler on the West Bank. Contrary to their expectation, Jesus elevates a despised Samaritan, as the one who did not permit racial or religious barriers to hinder him from helping this unknown victim.
5. To The Samaritan: He was a Neighbour to Love
The Samaritan did not blame the injured person for the collective attitudes of either race, and use that as an excuse for doing nothing. He dared to act as a concerned individual, in three specific ways.
1. He Showed Compassion 10:33
“But a Samaritan, as he travelled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.” (Luke 10:33)
This word means much more than passing pity. The original has with it the connotation of being deeply moved inside. It is the word used to describe the way the Lord feels about lost sinners. Compassion describes the way God feels about us. When we show compassion we are merely demonstrating our family likeness. He showed compassion.
2. He Took the Initiative 10:34
“He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him.” (Luke 10:34)
The Samaritan could have excused himself. He was a foreigner in a hostile country. He was alone and vulnerable, but Agape, God’s love does not look for excuses, it looks beyond obstacles. It does not ask why, but why not? The Samaritan cleansed the victims wounds with wine and soothed them with oil. He bound up the wounds so they would begin to heal. He took the man to the inn to recover and promised to return to pay the bill. The lawyer was willing to talk, the Samaritan took the initiative. He demonstrated compassion. He took the initiative and, thirdly
3. He Bore the Cost 10:35
“The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’” (Luke 10:35). He interrupted his schedule to help this man. It may have made him late for a business appointment, it may have delayed him from seeing his family. But he paid the cost. What did he have to gain from this personally? Nothing – except the joy and strength that come when you do God’s will. When you serve in love without expecting recognition or reward. What did the Samaritan show? Compassion, initiative, sacrifice. So what is the point of the story? Why did Jesus tell this story? Why did Jesus tell this story in this particular way?
What was it in Jesus story that challenged his hearers? The key to understanding the parable is in the wounded traveller’s condition. It is not a curious incidental. Jesus says, “They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.” (Luke 10:30). Why did Jesus add this detail? What was the condition of the victim? Naked and unconscious. Why was that a dilemma for Jesus hearers? Because they couldn’t tell if the victim was one of their own community, or a stranger, a foreigner. These little details are skillfully woven into the story to create the tension that is at the heart of the drama. The Middle Eastern world was made up of various ethnic-religious communities. You could identify the stranger ahead of you in two ways. By their accent and their clothing. In the first century the various ethnic communities within Palestine used an amazing array of dialects and languages. In addition to Hebrew, one could find settled communities using Aramaic, Greek, Samaritan, Phoenician, Arabic, Nabatean, and Latin. Not without reason was the north known as the Galilee of the Gentiles. No one travelling a major highway in Palestine could be sure that the stranger he might meet would be a fellow Jew. But a short greeting would reveal his language or dialect if their clothing had not already given their nationality away. But what of the man in this story? Jesus tells us he is stripped of his outer clothes and is unconscious. He is thereby reduced to a mere human being. It was such a person that the robbers left beside the road.
The lawyer tried to trick Jesus. He wanted Jesus to draw a line in the sand. Those are your neighbours and those are not. But Jesus turned the question round and asked “Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” (Luke 10:36). When Jesus asked the lawyer which of the three was a neighbour to the victim, the lawyer gave the correct answer but he would not even bring himself to use the word “Samaritan”. He was still resisting Jesus attempt to reach his heart. I wonder whether we have got the message? Perhaps we too would do well to ask the question – who is my neighbour? “What kind of neighbour are you?” “What kind of neighbour are you to anyone you meet?” For Jesus teaches that we cannot separate our relationship with God from our responsibility toward those he brings across our path. The lawyer wanted Jesus to define the limits of his responsibility of neighbourliness. He wanted Jesus to identify those he had to be a neighbour to and those he could ignore. Jesus turned the question round. The question is not ‘to whom need I be a neighbour?’ But rather ‘what kind of neighbour am I?’ – to anyone I meet? I invite you to join a revolution this week. Break the spiral of fear and hate in our community with acts of compassion and mercy – especially toward those who are different, those who are the outsiders, those who are the strangers. Who ever the Lord brings across your path today. Your assignment from Jesus is really very simple: “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:37). Lets pray.
Sermon delivered at the chapel service for World Vision USA in Washington 28 October 2010. A text version is available here