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Who is my neighbour?

The Parable of the Good Samaritan by Jan Wijna...
The Parable of the Good Samaritan by Jan Wijnants (1670) shows the Good Samaritan tending the injured man. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Luke 10, we find the “Parable of the Good Samaritan”, where an expert in the law comes to Jesus and asks, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responds by asking him what is written in the law, to which the expert answered, “‘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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” These two laws are also found in Matthew 22 and Mark 12 in the context of the Two Great Commandments. There’s a general rule in biblical literature. If it’s said once, it’s important. If it’s said twice, it’s really important. If it’s said three times, you better listen, because this is so very important. EG: Holy is the Lord – important. Holy of Holies – really important. Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty – so very important. We’ve got these two great commandments repeated in three of the Gospels – there’s something rather important about what is said here.

The expert goes on to ask a really good question: “Who is my neighbour?” which Jesus then launches into this parable.

30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 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. 35 The next day he took out two denarii[c] 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 10:30-35 (NIV – Bible Gateway)

As with many bible stories, the modern listener loses a lot of the intricacies that are involved here. It seems like a rather nice story, but instead, it would have provoked his audience, it would have shocked them. To understand this, we need to look into the characters. Firstly, the man, heading from Jerusalem to Jericho (a distance of about 15 miles, or 24km), would most likely have been Jewish.

Jewish high priest wearing a hoshen, and Levit...
Jewish high priest wearing a hoshen, and Levites in ancient Judah. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Priest would have been a Jewish priest. The Greek word used, hiereus, is used to indicate a priest – either Jewish or Gentile – who offers sacrifices and is busied with sacred rites. In the context of this story, we need to assume that it is a Jewish priest. The priest may have known this man – assuming that the man lived in either Jerusalem or Jericho, and this priest – also heading on the road to Jericho – may have been either at the temple in Jerusalem, and had known this man. Yet, he passes him by without help.

The Levite, traditionally from the tribe of Levi,  “served as assistants to the priests. It was their duty to keep the sacred utensils and the temple clean, to provide the sacred loaves, to open and shut the gates of the temple, to sing the sacred hymns in the temple, and to do many other things.” (Blue Letter Bible) This is someone whose whole purpose was to be seen as clean in the eyes of the Lord. Touching anyone who was bleeding, and naked, would have removed his purity.

Finally, the Samaritan. This is the shocking part. Jews hated the Samaritans. Samaritans hated the Jews. Samaria was in the north, the old Northern Kingdom of Israel, while Judea – with its capital Jerusalem, was in the south. If you read Chronicles, the author doesn’t treat the northern kingdom very kindly – they are seen as sinful, and get punished for their idolatry and iniquity by getting conquered by the Assyrians. In a Babylonian Talmud, these words are found about why the Jews excluded the Samaritans:

Why are Samaritans [kuthim] excluded from entering Israel?
–Because they were mixed up with the priests of the high places.
Rabbi Ishmael said:
“They were righteous proselytes in the beginning.”

(Virtual Religion)
Josephus in his history book, Antiquities, also showed that the Samaritans didn’t like the Jews.

Now (about 9 CE) when Judea was administered by Coponius, who was sent out byQuirinius [the Roman governor of Syria]…these things occurred: During the celebration of the feast of Unleavened Bread, which we call Passover, in a custom of the priests the gates of the temple [in Jerusalem] were opened after midnight.

And then, when their opening first occurred, Samaritan men coming into Jerusalem in secret, began to scatter human bones in the porticoes and throughout the temple. (So, the priests), who were not accustomed to such things before, managed the temple with greater care.

Josephus, Antiquities 18.29-30

This is a map of first century Iudaea Province...
This is a map of first century Iudaea Province (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So you can see that the Samaritans and the Jews really didn’t get along. Jews would often avoid travelling through Samaritan country, even if it meant taking a longer route – A Jew travelling from Galilee to Judea would generally travel via the Decapolis so as to avoid Samaria. So when Jesus uses a Samaritan in his story, that’s shocking enough, but that he would actually be the one to stop and help this Jewish man would have been completely unheard of in this day and age. But not only did he stop and help. He took the man to an inn and took care of him. And when he could no longer stay, he paid the innkeeper two days wages to look after the man, and offered to pay any extra when he returned. Even in today’s society, that is unheard of. Sure, we might see a victim and call an ambulance, and might stay with them until they get there, but to actually take care of them, and to pay for extra care – even that is unheard of in today’s society.

So, as you can see, this story is really quite shocking. And that’s when Jesus poses the question to the expert. “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” (Luke 10:36). Jesus leaves it for the expert to figure out. Not wanting to say that it was the Samaritan, the expert says, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”

Jesus didn’t tell the expert to give up his own beliefs. He didn’t instruct him to take up the beliefs of the Samaritan. He told him to “Love your neighbour as yourself.” To love those that you hate. To love those whose beliefs differ from you, and to have mercy on them.

Plate entitled "To the friends of Negro E...
Plate entitled “To the friends of Negro Emancipation”, celebrating the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thankfully, there are many examples of Christians who have taken this command, to love their neighbour as themselves, and have applied it, even when it may have differed with their beliefs. I think of the abolition of slavery, where Christians were at the forefront of people saying that it was wrong – even though we could have turned to our bibles and said that it was right for us to own a slave. Instead, we showed love to those that had no rights, and said that it was wrong, and we fought for it to be abolished. The people that we freed may often have been from different beliefs than us – but that didn’t matter. We showed them love anyway, because they are our neighbours, and Jesus commanded us to love them.

Asylum seekers protesting on the roof of the V...
Asylum seekers protesting on the roof of the Villawood immigration detention centre in Sydney, Australia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a more modern context, Christian groups have been at the forefront (along with many other community groups) fighting for the fair treatment of refugees and asylum seekers in detention in Australia. For example, CARAD – the Coalition assisting Asylum Seekers, Refugees and Detainees – supports many who come out of detention, helping them find accommodation, food, clothing, education and English lessons, and much more. Those that are helped aren’t necessarily Christians, and often come from Muslim countries. They are of a different faith and belief, but they are still our neighbour, and we help them still, because Jesus commanded us to do so.

Jesus shows us that our neighbour is the Jew, the Gentile AND the Samaritan – that is to say that our neighbours are the insiders, the outsiders, AND the untouchables. He doesn’t ask us to agree with them, or to take up our beliefs. What he does ask us to do is to show them love, to show mercy to them, and to love them as we love ourselves.

Who is the Samaritan that God is challenging you to love?

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