Sermon preached in Gorbals Parish Church in Glasgow, on Sunday 11th July, the seventh Sunday after Pentecost
One of the first things on anyone’s mind when they move to a different country is: “What kind of neighbours will I have?” I don’t know about you but I thought about that quite a lot before moving to Scotland. When we first landed at Prestwick Airport with our family, we were taken to our first flat in Bridgeton, next to Glasgow Green. It was a wonderful place to live for us. But the strange thing about the flat is that in four months of living there we only came across two or three neighbours.
But then we moved to a house in Mount Vernon, in the East end of Glasgow, and on the first day after the move, two or three girls rang the bell and asked if our children want to come out and play with them. Our children made friends instantly and had a constant supply of friends to play with. But one day, we had a big problem. I was working around the garden with someone from the church, my wife was doing some work around the house when she realized that our son, Marcus was nowhere to be found.
We turned the house upside down, we searched in every corner, shouted his name as loud as we could. Soon I was in the car, trembling like a leaf, searching every street around our house. When I got back to the house after being unsuccessful, it seemed that ALL our neighbours were out of their houses. Some of them got in their cars and joined the search, others were searching around their houses, in the park, in the back alleys, and everywhere they could think of.
Soon we had to call the Police and they showed up very promptly. They asked for a picture of Marcus and details of what he was wearing, and then said that they need to start searching in the house. We all thought that was a waste of time, since we had already done that. Soon enough, Marcus was found sleeping under the bed in the guest room, hidden behind a large suitcase. It seemed that he had been playing hide-and-seek with Lisa. She could not find him, so she lost interest and went off to play with her friends, while Marcus fell asleep in his hiding place.
I cannot even begin to describe the feeling of immense relief combined with a serving of major embarrassment that we failed to look properly under the bed. The Police were very, very nice and understanding, assuring us that it was a very good idea to call them just in case.
The next few weeks, as I walked and drove on the street I imagined what people must have thought about me: “There goes the silly Romanian who lost his son under the bed!” The neighbours were actually very empathetic, telling us their own stories of losing children in cupboards and calling the Police to the rescue.
It was such a good feeling to have all our neighbours behind us, feeling our grief, going out of their way to help with the search, showing up at our door afterwards to tell us how happy they were that he was found safe.
What a wonderful feeling of community that was! They didn’t HAVE to do anything. It wasn’t their duty. All they had to do, perhaps, was to look around their own gardens, and that’s it. But they went out of their way, beyond the call of duty, to reach out to their neighbour in his time of need.
In a sense that is the kind of situation Jesus is describing in his parable. When the priest sees the man lying on the ground naked and unconscious, according to the law, he was only bound by duty to help if the man was a Jew. But the man was naked and unconscious, so nobody could have known if he was a Jew or not.
If he was a foreigner the Priest would have become ceremonially unclean if he touched him, and would not have been able to perform his priestly duties for at least a week. He would have needed to return to Jerusalem and go through a week long process of purification, during which time he could not eat from the tithes of the Temple. His whole family and household would have been affected by the same ban.
By his interpretation of the law, the priest seemed to have made the right decision by walking on the other side of the road and avoiding the injured man. Then comes the Levite. The Levites were the subordinates of the priests, so this Levite could have been this priest’s subordinate. He could have thought that if he helped the man, he would have contradicted his superior’s interpretation of the law. He was in a tough spot, so he decided to agree with this superior’s interpretation and walked on by.
And then the Samaritan comes along. He was not bound by the same laws that the priest and the Levite subscribed to. Rules and regulations were not his concern. Jesus tells us that he was moved by compassion and he reached out to the injured man, not even thinking if he was a Jew or not.
At this stage it is important to note that Samaritans were enemies to the Jews. They had a different Bible, they worshiped on a different mountain, and they weren’t even pure blooded. They were a combination of Jews with other nations, which was an abomination as far as the law abiding Jews were concerned. They were half breeds, mongrels. Jews did not intermarry or they have anything to do with them. Samaritans were by definition the outsiders, the bad guys.
That is why Jesus’ parable must have been shocking to the Jewish scholar and his audience. This Samaritan not only gives first aid to the wounded man, but he places him on his donkey and takes him to an inn. Now inns were not out in the middle of nowhere. He had to walk into a village to reach the inn, probably even in Jericho, and that was a dangerous venture for a Samaritan in the middle of Jewish territory. Imagine a Celtic supporter carrying a wounded Rangers supporter through the gates of a full Ibrox Stadium. Or imagine a Native American Indian carrying a cowboy with two arrows in his back into a Saloon in Dodge City. Not a very safe move.
The Samaritan took a huge risk by bringing the wounded man into a Jewish inn. Also, he didn’t HAVE to pay the inn keeper the equivalent of two days’ wages and pledging to pay the rest of the bills after he returned. But he went out of his way, and showed amazing compassion towards a man who might have never been able to repay him. He risked his own neck by taking the wounded man through hostile territory to find shelter. Talk about ‘beyond the call of duty’!
The dramatic effect of the story Jesus told must have been amazing. His audience must have been astonished to hear a story where a priest and a Levite were the bad guys, and a Samaritan was a good guy.
The religious leaders were concerned with laws and regulations, while the Samaritan treated the injured man like a real person, with immediate needs.
Nationality didn’t matter to him. Race didn’t matter to him. Purity laws didn’t matter to him. He simply showed compassion.
It seems to me that Jesus is setting the stage for the emergence of a new kind of community, where the meaning of neighbour transcends nationality, gender, race, social status, economic status, religious affiliation and so on. In this new kind of community, it doesn’t matter where you’re coming from, what you’re wearing, what language you’re speaking. If you are in great need you can count on your neighbours to be there for you, because we all belong to the same community.
How amazingly relevant is this message for us today, as our society becomes increasingly diverse in terms of nationality, race and religious affiliation! It is perhaps easy to be a good neighbour to our own people. It is easy to be exclusive and to find excuses to not show compassion to the outsiders.
Jesus is teaching us that we cannot say we love God with all our heart, if at the same time we fail to love our neighbour as ourselves. But who is our neighbour? The Samaritan did not even ask this question. He simply showed compassion. My neighbours did not stop to think if I am really their neighbour; after all, I was a foreigner. They simply showed compassion.
So who is my neighbour? Well, in the new community that Jesus is urging us to build in his name, such a question should not be asked. It is the wrong question. It is the question the scholar asked Jesus, prompting him to tell this well known story. But Jesus ends his parable by asking the scholar a different kind of question: “Which of the three BECAME a neighbour to the man attacked by robbers?”
Instead of passively deciding who is and who is not our neighbour, Jesus is teaching us that community involves action, not passivity. We are taught to BECOME neighbours to each other and to others in order to create real community, with all the costs and risks that this action involves. Bridging the Gap is such a wonderful example of this kind of community, and today’s gospel passage affirms us in this ministry.
And so we ask for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to enable us to continue on our journey of becoming neighbours to those in need, being inclusive rather than exclusive, compassionate rather than legalistic, treating people like human beings rather than reducing them to a label. This is what we ask, in Jesus name. Amen.