But who is my neighbour? A parable for today


Scripture: Luke 10: 25-37

Who is my neighbour? This is the crux of the parable of the Good Samaritan.  It is just as relevant to society today as it was when Jesus told the story.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell versions of a story in which someone questions Jesus about eternal life or the greatest commandment. Each time, it revolves around the shema, which we call the “Hear, O Israel.” The ‘sting’ comes in the tail, like a scorpion. Five words: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Before we examine the question, ‘Who is your neighbour?’, as in today’s parable, let’s ask ourselves why Jesus (and the authors of Leviticus 19:18) included the words, ‘as yourself.’

Why ‘as yourself’?

Many years ago, a priest told me that in his counselling practice, he came across many clients whose main problem was that they did not love themselves. In that context, loving yourself does not mean being egocentric. It means, instead, being comfortable in your own skin. It’s difficult to extend love to other people if you don’t have an internal sense of self-worth.

‘Who is my neighbour?’ is not a stupid question

Jesus told the much-loved parable of the Good Samaritan in response to a lawyer’s question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ Put yourself in the lawyer’s position. Who were his neighbours? He would probably have thought about his friends, the people living in his community, his professional colleagues, and more generally, his fellow Jews. Other people would be ‘not neighbours’.

The Samaritan was moved with pity: Luke 10: 33

Jesus didn’t put the man down and say that he was trying to weasel out of thinking about the issue. He told a story. Bandits robbed a traveller (who was presumably Jewish) and left him for dead. Two members of the priestly class passed by without helping him.  You might think that they would both have thought of him as a neighbour.  But apparently, they didn’t.  Finally, an outsider offered the injured man very generous help. Jesus asked the lawyer, ‘Which of these people acted as a neighbour?’ The lawyer answered, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’

Possible explanations of the parable

Some preachers tie this parable to Jesus’ ongoing conflicts with the religious authorities. The priest and the Levite do not care enough to stop. But along comes a person from Samaria. Good Jews have looked down on Samaritans for centuries because of religious differences. Typical of the priests! Too self important to stop and help. Even a Samaritan was more neighbourly!

Another explanation is that the parable is about whether and when to “follow the rules.” But maybe the two members of the priestly class had good reasons for not stopping to help. The injured man might be bleeding or even dead. Contact with blood (or, worse, a corpse) would make the priest or the Levite ritually impure.  Perhaps the priest was off to Jericho to perform a wedding. If he became ritually unclean, he couldn’t have officiated at the wedding. He was in a bind. Either he helped the injured man, or he performed his religious obligations. But he could not do both. Unless, that is, he felt that he could make an exception and not “follow the rules.”

Who is my neighbour: breaking or following the rules

Breaking or following the rules is a recurrent theme in Jesus’ ministry. He healed a crippled man on the Sabbath. His disciples plucked ears of grain on the Sabbath. Both activities were “against the rules”. But Jesus said that the rules were made to fit people, not the other way round. So the question in the parable of the Good Samaritan is not whether the priest was inconsiderate and uncaring.  It is whether the rule about uncleanness took precedence over care for another human being. Jesus consistently takes the side of love for other people over following the rules.  He clearly felt comfortable enough in his own skin to take unconventional positions.  In modern parlance, he had a progressive theology rather than a traditional one.

Casuistry: how to apply the rules

To put it simply, casuistry means considering each case on its merits. It means trying to choose the right course of action in the particular circumstances. That’s why I have argued that ‘medical aid in dying’ can be the least bad option to alleviate suffering , even though it contravenes the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ You might apply similar thinking in the context of abortion. Contrast, for example, using abortion as a routine method of birth control, as was done in Soviet Russia, versus allowing a 13 year old who has been raped to terminate her pregnancy.

In the parable of the Good Samaritan, I see the priest and the Samaritan both trying to do the right thing under morally ambiguous circumstances. For the priest, rituals and rules got in the way of caring for someone in need. The Samaritan was conflicted by old and ingrained prejudices against Jews. But he was able to overcome his prejudices and help the injured man.

Can everyone be  a neighbour?

The lawyer asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus pointed him to what every Jewish person would recite daily at morning prayer. ‘Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbour as yourself.’ The lawyer’s implicit argument was that not everyone could be a neighbour – there’s the in-crowd and the out-crowd. Jesus disagreed: no-one should be left out.

Therefore, the question, “Who is my neighbour?” is at the heart of the parable of the Good Samaritan. The lawyer probably framed the answer narrowly: his friends, community, colleagues, co-religionists.  Neighbour or non-neighbour?  Who is in and who is out? Who is worthy of my help and who isn’t? The present US Administration not only sees in or out in terms of Americans versus foreigners. Even worse, it sees the ‘in’ crowd as those who support the current President and the ‘out’ crowd as everyone else. Last Monday’s Globe & Mail had a distressing editorial to the effect that this attitude is now infecting the policies of certain provincial governments in Canada.

The Samaritan saw the injured man as ‘neighbour’ even though he wasn’t “one of us”. He felt comfortable enough in his own skin to act as a neighbour. The priest did not feel comfortable enough in his skin to risk breaking the rules.

People in remote communities: neighbours or non-neighbours?

I want to end by linking this homily to the one I preached on Aboriginal Sunday. It should be unacceptable to us at St. George’s (or more generally to us in southern Ontario) that there are remote communities in our province where people do not have clean drinking water, adequate housing, and access to proper education and health care.

One of our communion hymns today is When I needed a neighbour were you there? As the lawyer asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbour?” Are the people who live in remote Indigenous communities our neighbours or not? Are they ‘them’ or are they part of ‘us’? Put another way, are we priests or are we Samaritans? The Good Samaritan recognized that the man who needed help was his neighbour, even though he was probably a Jew. He didn’t only stop to help. He took him to receive care, and paid for it out of his own pocket. Seems to me that Jesus might make an unwelcome contrast between the Samaritan in his parable and our attitude towards the neighbours in the remote parts of our province.

Jesus said, “Which person was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”  The lawyer answered, “The one who showed him kindness.”  Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”