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Who is my Neighbour?

Ordinary Sunday 15: 14th July, 2013
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill

A little girl asks her priest father: "Daddy, why do you always pray before you preach a sermon?" Daddy replied, "I'm asking God to help me preach a good sermon darling." The little girl comes back, quick as a flash: "So why doesn't he?"

In today's gospel story from Luke we are told that a lawyer is trying to test Jesus. How will the humble carpenter's son fare in his knowledge of the Torah and rabbinic literature with this intellectual? The lawyer starts with a question, one that would have been familiar to the rabbis of the day: "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" The Hebrew term is "olam ha ba" or literally the "world to come." Rabbinic texts are intentionally ambiguous on the question of "olam ha ba"; it is a good topic to open a debate with. Some place "olam ha ba" at the end of time, an idyllic place where all will go in the Messianic age following the resurrection. Others understand it more immediately as the end of life, the spiritual realm where individual souls go after death.

In true rabbinic style Jesus answers a question with a question: "What is written in the law? What do you read there?" This gives the lawyer the chance to demonstrate his knowledge of the Torah. He replies with the Shema, a prayer as central to first-century Judaism as it is today, drawn from Deuteronomy 6.5, "You shall 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 just to show his theological prowess he throws in a verse from Leviticus (19.8), "and your neighbour as yourself."

Jesus doesn't take the bait. He is not interested in speculations about the after-life: "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live." It is how we live in "olam ha ze" — this world — that counts. But the lawyer hasn't finished; he wants to draw Jesus out further. The debate has been fairly stock-standard so far. "And who is my neighbour?" he asks provocatively. This is the real question the lawyer came to ask. The issue of the day was the attitude of Jesus and his followers towards tax collectors and sinners, those outside the covenant. Jesus should know the book of Sirach, which makes it very clear how he should act towards such people (12.1-7):

If you do good, know to whom you do it, and you will be thanked for your good deeds. Do good to the devout, and you will be repaid—if not by them, certainly by the Most High. No good comes to one who persists in evil or to one who does not give alms. Give to the devout, but do not help the sinner. Do good to the humble, but do not give to the ungodly; hold back their bread, and do not give it to them, for by means of it they might subdue you; then you will receive twice as much evil for all the good you have done to them. For the Most High also hates sinners and will inflict punishment on the ungodly. Give to one who is good, but do not help the sinner.

Jesus and his followers were flouting the rules. Who is my neighbour? There are clear limits in the law as to who one should help. There are boundaries to love and compassion. There are clearly defined insiders and outsiders.

Jesus now takes his gloves off. He abandons the "I know scripture better than you" game, and replies with a hard-hitting parable that silences the cocky lawyer. Imagine yourself in the story. You have been robbed, beaten up, left for dead in a ditch. A priest passes you by, a Levite passes you by; Jewish or not you are unclean; how could these religious folk possibly break their laws and stop to help you? But a Samaritan sees you in your need, an outsider. He has compassion for you, he stops and helps you, he finds you a place to stay and makes sure you have enough money to get back on your feet.

Who of these three is the neighbour? Jesus asks. Who of these three should you love as yourself? Ironically it is not the priest or the Levite, those inside the covenant; it is the Samaritan, the outsider. He is your neighbour, the one the law implores you to love. Jesus turns the lawyer's self-righteousness on its head. Religion is not about being in a club of the righteous. God's love is for all people, especially those "out there" — sinners, tax collectors, Samaritans, refugees, asylum seekers, victims of abuse, gay and lesbian people, Aboriginal people, atheists, homeless people, those who don't yet know God. In short, all people. And Jesus says to the lawyer, Jesus says to us: "Go and do likewise."

I don't know about you, but I get pretty overwhelmed at times with Jesus' inclusiveness. Love my neighbour? Love all these outsiders? It's hard enough to love my family and friends. Luke's gospel has an answer, well two answers actually: prayer and other Christians. I'm sure the first-century readers and hearers would have felt equally overwhelmed by Jesus' challenge. The parable of the Good Samaritan is followed in Luke's gospel by a collection of Jesus' teachings on prayer: the story of Mary and Martha, the Lord's Prayer, and perseverance in prayer: "Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you" (11.9-10). Prayer is the wellspring of evangelism, social action and social justice. Our love for neighbour can only really be sustained if it comes from a place of prayer.

Likewise: other Christians. We can't carry out Jesus' call on our own. That's why we come to church. Alone we can accomplish very little. In our reading from Luke's gospel last week we heard of Jesus sending out seventy disciples. Our call is the same today, to work with one another in the proclamation of the good news of the gospel. In closing, I quote Archbishop William Temple's words that I included in the pew sheet a couple of weeks ago; they are wise words and well worth repeating:

It is rather agreeable than otherwise to expand the mind by contemplation of an eternal purpose, and there is perhaps a certain amount of thrill and glamour about the conception of the age-long purpose of God now to be wrought out through His Church. But when it comes to what we can do ourselves, it always seems so little, as, of course, it is. What each one alone can do is always very little, but the way great things are done is by all doing that very little unitedly.

The Lord be with you ...


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