Sunday, 10 July 2016

The good neighbour or something more

The story of the Good Samaritan in Luke's Gospel is well known (Lk. 10.25-37).  We look at this and interpret in light of the question that has been placed before Christ 'Who is my neighbour?', yet does Christ really answer the question?   Like any good story teller and politician we would say yes as the 'Go and do likewise" is sufficient;y clear given the circumstances.  Yet, I want to ask what are we being asked to go and do?

At a superficial level it is perhaps within our interpretation to follow on from the likes of St Augustine and speak of how we must, unlike the priest and levite, reach out our hands to those who are in desperate need no matter what the circumstance, no matter our consideration of who it actually is.  Coming into play here are a number of issues that we must first battle through as we realise the import of this story.  Firstly, we have no idea who the person who has been set upon is, where he is from, whether he is a Samaritan or an Israelite or some other tribal personage.  The 'man' has been stripped of all identification, for all we know he is a Samaritan.  In which case, this is a story of a Samaritan assisting another Samaritan. Are we then to go and look after those who are part of our own country or tribal group?

Secondly, what did the priest and levite see?  Neither of them appear to have had a close look at the person nor did they ascertain his condition.  We are not operating under Napoleonic law here, which imposes the requirement of a person to see if they can render aid.  It is within the legal constrictions of the Israelite legal system for priests and levites.  If it is dead they cannot come into contact for purity reasons.  This may not seem reasonable to us but for those listening it was perfectly legitimate.  Of course what happens if this is a trap set by robbers and it is one of their own who is lying there pretending to be hurt or a person beaten to become bait for another rich person. Can we not render aid by notifying the town and have them send aid is not his being neighbourly and  practical? If the person was an Israelite, perhaps he too would have felt mortified if the Samaritan came anywhere near him, perhaps he himself would have been repelled by this event.  So is the requirement to go against all laws and regulations governing our own societal norms in our struggle to be a good neighbour?  Go and do likewise.  Augustine would have us think about giving ourselves to those who are at odds with ourselves in times of adversity, reach out and give to those less fortunate then ourselves.  Even if we dislike them or despise them.  Yes, we truly need to do this with a willing heart but is this what we are being asked in the parable?

What hatreds do we harbour within ourselves?
  Are we prepared to let go our enmity of the unknown? 

Is there something more here that we are missing in what we are being asked to do.  I am not so certain that Christ has answered the question quite as readily as we assume if we follow St Augustine.  There is a deeper understanding that we have to grapple with which is over and above the neighbourliness of assistance in time of need.  Let us for a moment, despite what I said above, think of the traveller as being a good Hebrew who has been set upon.  Let us also agree for a moment about the rights of the two who go before the priest and the levite.  What exactly takes place in the case of the Samaritan?  I can imagine myself as the Samaritan,as I move across to the downed man.  I am uncertain if this is not just a ploy.  I loosen my knife at my belt so that I can kill the person if he springs up and attacks. If not perhaps I can kill another despised Israelite, one who should not breathe and whom I hate with all my heart and life.  This is what I have been taught from birth, should I not act within the realms of culture and natural social conditioning?  The two others I saw earlier did little why should I?

It is not love of neighbour that drives the scenario when it unfolds into the act of compassion and yet it is.  It is something deeper that has unfolded within the heart and mind of the Samaritan.  The hate with which he has been brought up to understand as being natural has gone.  The enmity that fuels the life of the Samaritan - Jewish interaction has been dissipated by love.  The person by the side of the road has been lifted out of isolation and being an SEP (Somebody else's problem) has become an object of love.  God is found here in this act. This is something that most of us have yet to come to terms with in our lives. We do not like to think that this level of emotion operates in our lives but we can see it rearing its ugly head within society.  The emotions generated within nationalistic movements and fundamental views are driven by enmity.  This level of emotion goes far beyond the 'love of neighbour' that we think of on a normal basis when relating this story.  This is what Christ is asking us to do when he says 'Go and do likewise' not just love of neighbour, that's easy, but loss of enmity and the lifting out into conscious presence the other in love.  This moves us beyond all borders into a new understanding of ultimate sacrifice. Only when we can discuss our own fears and our own prejudices that result in enmity can we really begin to encompass the love of the other that God requires of us.  This is when we begin to see God's presence and grace in our lives, not when we look for God's intervention as an outside presence.

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