In today’s Gospel Luke 10:25-37 Jesus provides an answer to the question of ‘who is my neighbour’? Because the story is so familiar, we are in danger of missing how revolutionary his answer is. The Samaritans were a despised minority in ancient Israel. They were Jews who has apostasised, who had adopted the gods of their conquerors, and who had lapsed from the Law. Orthodox Jews despised them. If asked whether they loved their Samaritan neighbour, few Jews would have answered in the affirmative. But in his story, Jesus turns the tables. It is a Jew who is set upon by robbers and beaten and left for dead. The priest passes him by, as does the levite. These were religious men who knew the Law. Perhaps the priest did not want to make himself ritually unclean by touching a man who was bleeding? If so, he knew the letter of the Law and nothing of its spirit. The same was true of the Levite, who perhaps did not consider the wounded man his neighbour? If we assume (though we are not told it was so) that the injured man was Jew, he received short shrift from his fellow Jews. In his wounded state, it was hard, if not impossible for a passer-by to tell what nationality he was; in this way he becomes a symbol of mankind itself. The two religious figures pass by on the other side. we cannot know their motives, but then they don’t matter, it is their actions which count; maybe they are full of faith, but that faith does not evidence itself in anything by way of action when there is someone lying there who needs their help.
It is left to the representative of the despised minority to show the compassion one human should show for another. He does not ask if the man is Jewish or a Samaritan, he asks nothing – he acts. He shows compassion. oil and wine did not come cheap, but he pours them out to help the injured man; staying at a nearby inn did not come cheap, but the Samaritan pays in advance – and promises the inn-keeper more money if it should be necessary. The Samaritans had fallen away from the Law, they we ritually unclean, they were to be shunned. Yet this man did not respond to such treatment by meting it out to others – he broke the cycle of mutual recrimination. He knew that an eye for an eye made the whole world blind. HIs heart went out to a man in trouble. Even the lawyer who had been trying to catch Jesus out could see the answer to the question of who the good neighbour was. Jesus’ advice to him to go and do the same is addressed to each of us.
These words of Jesus challenge us, not least at a time when there is so much tension in Europe and America over the question of who our neighbour is. If we say it is not economic migrant, but it is the refugee, is that the answer Jesus would accept? If we say it is the Christian refugee but not the Muslim one, does that make us the Good Samaritan? Our neighbour is not just the one who is like us, or who we like, or whom we think deserves our help. Does Jesus set a high standard for us? Yes, he does, because if it is the member of the despised minority who is the good neighbour, it challenges our attitude to despised minorities. Jesus says nothing about ‘illegal’ or ‘legal’ despised minorities, and he says nothing about building walls to ‘keep them out’. In choosing the Samaritan as the example of the good neighbour, Jesus poses uncomfortable questions about our attitude to strangers at (and within) our gates.