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WHO IS MY NEIGHBOUR?

 

Bible references are to the Anglicised New International Version (NIV-UK) unless noted otherwise

 

O brother man, fold to thy heart thy brother;

      Where pity dwells, the peace of God is there;

To worship rightly is to love each other,

      Each smile a hymn, each kindly deed a prayer.

J.G. Whittier (1807-92)

 

THE ‘GOOD SAMARITAN’, the character in Jesus’ simple story prompted by a lawyer’s question, has through the generations become the figure of those who voluntarily offer help or sympathy to others in times of trouble – examples of true neighbourliness. Often the description is used by those who have no idea of its origin, yet there is an indication that deep in the hearts of many there lies a consciousness that the attitude taken by the Samaritan of Jesus’ parable exemplifies the true duty of mankind to one another.

 

An expert in the Law, a man well versed in the books of Moses, one who might today be called a Doctor of Theology, had purposed to put the teachings of this revolutionary new preacher to the test, and his opening question aroused the keen interest of the surrounding witnesses. ‘Teacher . . . what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ (Luke 10: 25). A vital question! Was it intended in part to educate the listening crowd? Or did the learned lawyer have some personal misgivings as to his own standing before God?

The Scriptures do not indicate his motive, and he may or may not have been sincere in his interrogation. In his position of authority he may have resented the popularity of an upstart itinerant preacher and resolved to stumble him. On the other hand, the new teaching of Jesus of Nazareth may have intrigued and interested him, and if it proved to be in harmony with the Mosaic Law, then he would be prepared to give it further consideration.

 

As on other occasions, Jesus answered the question with another question – one that immediately established His own loyalty to the Mosaic code:

 

What is written in the Law? How do you read it?’ (Luke 10: 26).

 

The answer came readily. Quoting from Leviticus 19: 18 and Deuteronomy 6: 5, the lawyer replied:

 

‘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, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’

 

‘You have answered correctly,’ Jesus replied. ‛Do this and you will live’ (Luke 10: 27, 28).

 

Is That It?

Even some of the bystanders might have given what seemed a ‘stock answer’. Schooled by the Priests and Levites in the letter of the Law, they were for the most part lacking a more profound understanding of its deeper meaning and its practical application. But his years of debate and analysis among his theological colleagues prompted the lawyer to probe further, and anxious to hold the advantage in argument against the unlearned Nazarene, he put a supplementary question: ‘And who is my neighbour?’ (Luke 10: 29).

Was he a little mortified when Jesus responded by telling the simple story of a certain man’s misfortune in being attacked and robbed on a lonely road? (Luke 10: 30-35). Today we might say that the man was mugged and left for dead. The bystanders listened eagerly. Of course this must be for them! And the portrayal of the two religious men who hastily looked the other way and walked on probably struck a chord with the ordinary folk, while the lawyer, one purporting to live the religious life, might have felt a measure of discomfiture.

 

But when it proved to be a Samaritan who came to the rescue of the victim, almost without exception Jesus’ audience felt surprise – and perhaps something akin to shame. Who were the Samaritans? Held in contempt by the Jews, they were a mixture of a few apostate Jews and many Gentiles, settled in an area some 35 miles north of Jerusalem after the captivity of the Israelites of the ten-tribed kingdom. God evidently regarded them as Gentiles, excluded from citizenship in Israel, foreigners to the covenants and the promises of God. And when sending out the twelve apostles, Jesus had specifically cautioned them: ‘Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans’ (Matthew 10: 5).

 

Who is my Neighbour?

The story Jesus told set out the answer to that question with unmistakable clarity. Transcending the proper concern for family, for friends, for compatriots, there is a brotherhood of all men that demands a serious regard for the needs and well-being of all humanity. The Apostle Paul states that ‘No man liveth to himself’ (Romans 14: 7, King James Version), and as the 16th-century poet John Donne expressed it, ‘No man is an island, entire of itself . . . any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’[fn1]

 

These principles have been rejected by many today, and the extent of that rejection is evident in the chaotic conditions both in individual human relationships and in international affairs. But while such conditions were foretold by St. Paul when writing to his young companion (2 Timothy 3: 1-5), there is nevertheless ample evidence that the loving, compassionate spirit does live on in the hearts of men and women everywhere, regardless of religious affiliation – or lack of any such external driving force.

 

Touching accounts of kindness, of generosity and sacrifice for the sake of the suffering world, for victims of cruelty, and even for victims of their own foolishness, are sometimes published, reminders that ‘where pity dwells, the peace of God is there’. But today’s ‘Good Samaritans’ are not necessarily religious. They may call themselves agnostic, or even positively atheist, but the quality of mercy persists even in fallen humanity. It is an element of that image and likeness of God in which man and woman were created (Genesis 1: 27), and which survives the ravages of time, springing into action instinctively when need arises. It is often called ‛common grace’.

 

Samaritans Today

In 1953 a London vicar, Chad Varah, founded an organisation dedicated initially to the support of people on the verge of suicide. He had conducted the funeral of a girl of fifteen who had killed herself, mistakenly believing she had contracted a repugnant disease. Varah’s deep concern for those in anguish prompted him to ask for volunteers from his own congregation to extend a listening ear and a hand of friendship to such people.[fn2]

 

The work aroused much interest and the movement grew rapidly. There are now more than 200 branches in the United Kingdom and Ireland, with some 15,500 trained men and women volunteers. The main objective is to be a hearing ear to potential suicides and help to reduce the numbers resorting to such drastic action. Recognising no boundaries of creed or colour, nationality or political affiliation, like the good Samaritan of Jesus’ parable the compassionate instinct is to hasten to the rescue of the afflicted.

 

The name ‘The Samaritans’ was not originally chosen by Chad Varah, but was part of the headline to a newspaper feature on the work of the movement.

 

Looking the Other Way

The Priest in the parable might well have justified himself in hastening by. The man was probably dead anyway, he might have reasoned; besides, a priest must not defile himself by touching a dead body. His duty to God required that he keep himself ceremonially clean for the Divine service. The Levite was also a servant of God under the Law, more in matters bringing him into contact with ordinary people. He hesitated briefly, but perhaps reasoned that he could not be expected to disrupt his regular duties to attend to a stranger, even a fellow Jew.

 

That it was a despised Samaritan who took pity on the robbers’ victim was embarrassing, not only to the learned lawyer, but to most of the others standing around. And when Jesus asked him ‘Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’ The expert in the law replied, ‘The one who had mercy on him.’ Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise’ (Luke 10: 36, 37).

 

That was the answer to the lawyer’s question, and it is essentially our own guide to attaining a place in eternity. Having the confident expectation of Christ’s Kingdom on earth and the eventual blessing of all mankind, it is all too easy to close our eyes to human distress in these last days, persuading ourselves perhaps that prayer is enough. Yet we have positive assurance in another parable that loving one’s neighbour is the criterion by which all are tested – for life or death – at the final judgement: ‛I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me’(Matthew 25: 40).

 

The Neighbourly World to Come

The Samaritan, Jesus taught, was the one whose conduct manifested the essence of the Law, qualifying him for eternal life. There was no question of reluctance or impatience on his part. Loving one’s neighbour is not merely an obligation – not something paid in anticipation of a reward or favour. It is the human reflection of the divine quality that prompted the Heavenly Father to send His only-begotten Son into the world, that all might have the opportunity of gaining eternal life.

 

As Jesus’ disciples we are committed to continuing the work He began on earth doing good to all, as we have opportunity, a part of our training for our future work of world conversion. Not all are gifted as ministers, expounding the Divine Plan to eager listeners, but our sympathy toward human distress and our willingness to render practical relief will help to shape our characters into the likeness of Christ.

 

The plan of God envisages a world where all men are brothers – and all women sisters, a world in which the welfare of all will be the individual concern of each. Not until all people love God supremely and their neighbours as themselves, will they find peace, security and happiness. And it will only be as a man or a woman comes willingly and intelligently into harmony with such principles that the former process of sin and death will be destroyed, and the inheritance of the faithful human family will be life everlasting.

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[fn1] John Donne (1572-1631), Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII: Nunc Lento Sonitu Dicunt, Morieris.

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[fn2] <http://www.samaritans.org/> retrieved March 14, 2011

 

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Copyright March 2011 ukbiblestudents.co.uk

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