Gospel inclusiveness: to whom can I be a neighbour?

Stephen Adam, 10 July 2016

Colossians 1: 1–14; Luke 10: 25–37

The lectionary sets out the cycle of readings from the Bible that we hear day by day and week by week throughout the year. Sometimes a preacher struggles to relate them to the circumstances of the day; at other times they ring out with relevance and resonance. Today is one such day.

The country has just gone through the most momentous weeks in a generation with this bitterly divided and angry referendum, a referendum that has polarised opinion and set individual against individual (even within the same family, as I can vouch), community against community and generation against generation, in ways that we haven’t seen since the Suez crisis. We now have to pick up the pieces with a vacuum at the heart of our government and an official opposition in a degree of disarray as we seek to redefine and renegotiate our relationship with our neighbours in Europe. And then here in our gospel reading this morning we have the lawyer’s question: ‘Who is my neighbour?’ There’s a certain serendipity here.

The parable of the Good Samaritan is probably the most well-known and loved story told by Jesus. What on earth is there fresh for me to say? That’s the trouble – it’s over familiar to us, we’ve heard it so many times, we can no longer feel its subversiveness. But the parables are more than simple stories; they are more like puzzles that force us to appropriate the narrative for ourselves and picture ourselves in it. Where do you stand? Whose side do you take? Where are you in the story?

The reason that parables like the Good Samaritan continue to fascinate us is that they speak beyond their original audience and address the context in which we live. They always remain open-ended, finishing not with a full stop but with a question mark, forcing us to engage our imagination and empathy. We don’t know what the lawyer did after his encounter with Jesus – we’re left to complete the story for ourselves, perhaps to think what we would have done in his shoes.

Just a couple of points, briefly, about the parable. First, the lawyer’s question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ As a lawyer versed in the intricacies of the Hebrew Bible, he knows the answer full well – it’s there in the book of Leviticus, where ‘neighbour’ is defined in terms of family, kin and close friends. The question is a trap, testing how far Jesus would dare go in extending these bounds.

But Jesus doesn’t fall into the trap or countenance any sort of prejudice against the other. Instead he turns the question around, asking ‘To whom can I be a neighbour?’ In other words, rather than having a limited view of neighbour – those who are ‘in’ and those who are ‘out’, by implication those who are excluded, those whom I will reject and condemn – Jesus puts an entirely different emphasis on it, fundamental to the gospel. It’s a gospel message of inclusiveness, where we ourselves are defined by Christ’s call to love neighbour as we love ourselves. The former Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, puts it like this: ‘God lives in the grace of our dealings with others’.

And then, to make his point, Jesus presents us with this marvellous parable of the Samaritan helping the wayside victim. Today the term Good Samaritan has become a bit of a cliché – you’ll be called a Good Samaritan if you do any sort of charitable act or good turn for someone. We no longer understand the outrageousness of the parable; it’s lost its power to shock us.

But for Jesus’ Jewish audience, a Samaritan was a detested half-breed, an outcast whom no one respectable would have dreamed of defining ‘neighbour’ to include. So there’s a real sense of scandal here which can be lost on us today. What it actually points to, of course, is the scandalous nature of God’s love, which is unconditional and knows no bounds.

We no longer understand the outrageousness of the parable … what it actually points to is the scandalous nature of God’s love, which is unconditional and knows no bounds.

At its heart our Christian faith is based on relationships and interdependence. At the most profound theological level we find this expressed in the Trinity – that divine intertwining of God the Father, the creator; God the Son, who in Jesus Christ reveals God to us in human form; and God the Holy Spirit, the outpouring of God’s love and purposeful action in the world today.

In turn, as Christians we are defined by our recognition that we are loved by God and the recognition of our common humanity – if you like, our neighbourliness and mutuality.

Neighbourliness has seemed rather lacking in recent weeks. The outcome of the referendum has revealed deep divides among people, with many having a real sense of alienation, resentment and deep distrust of our present mechanisms of governance. It’s been a brutal time, not helped by the shrill and exaggerated claims and counterclaims.

I confess that for me one of my sadnesses has been what I perceive as the narrowness of the debate (on both sides, I should say) – focused too much, it seems to me, on self-interest, what’s best for us, rather than being outward-looking and exploring how best the country can continue to be a force for good in the world and be a good neighbour to others.

But whichever side of the referendum debate we find ourselves on, there’s a desperate need now to heal the rifts and to find means of transcending the alienating rhetoric that has been such a feature of the referendum. The church – locally, nationally and ecumenically – surely has a part to play here in helping that process of reconciliation, for at its best the church is a people of bridge-building and peacemaking.

It’s not easy to see how all that will unfold, given the present levels of rancour and bitterness, but I’d like to offer three or four small practical suggestions.

Firstly, at the moment it’s more important than ever that we are good neighbours to each other: small acts of kindness, being prepared to listen and to sympathise with each other. Let’s treat each other gently, because we’re all a bit shell-shocked! As Peter said last week, at a time when we’re all in a whirl and are powerless to influence the big picture, it’s even more important to hold on to the seemingly small, day-to-day things in our lives where we can make a difference, and show love and care.

Secondly, whatever we may think about levels of immigration, we are continuing to witness a humanitarian disaster unfolding in many parts of the Middle East and, of course, in the Mediterranean. It’s particularly poignant on this, Sea Sunday, to remember the many thousands of refugees and migrant seekers still making that perilous crossing. So far this year alone, 64,000 men, women and children have braved the crossing from Libya to Italy and nearly 3,000 have died in the attempt – a measure of the desperation they have, and of the importance of the rescue work done by coastguard vessels and European navies, including our own Royal Navy.

As the Good Samaritan parable reminds us, our gospel is not about putting up barriers of fear and prejudice and we have a responsibility to provide practical help, however limited that may be, to the vulnerable and those on the margins, for whatever reason. It’s good that our Beyond Ourselves group has highlighted refugees and asylum seekers as one of the priorities for our parish to continue to be involved in supporting.

Thirdly, of course, continuing prayer; our government, our next Prime Minister – whoever that may be – and all those involved in taking forward the referendum outcome need all the help they can get, and that includes our prayers.

And then, finally, however difficult and however challenging the present situation may appear – politically, economically or constitutionally – whether you are concerned about the future or whether you regard the referendum outcome as a positive opportunity, it’s important that as Christians we hold the present in the context of the eternal. Our deepest anxieties – about our future, our nation, its stability – all these are dispelled by the peace of God, which brings hope and enables us to draw everything together in the confidence that God is faithful and his love knows no bounds.

Some verses from Paul’s letter to the Philippians seem particularly appropriate to hold on to this morning and in the complicated days that lie ahead:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.