Reflections from habitat uniting church's minister, Rev Joan Wright Howie.
- Proverbs 27:1
The words of the proverb continues to resonate when we are reminded of a very familiar story Jesus tells to a lawyer who asked him the classic question ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’
in Luke 10: 25- 37.
We are all connected and our hearts all reflect that same kind of question ‘what must I do to live well? Connect with the eternal? Receive abundant life? What’s life all about? How then shall I live?
The Lawyer’s got the right question and Jesus provides the right answer – it’s an answer we all know very well ‘love the lord you God with all your heart and all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind and your neighbor as yourself’.
It’s the answer any good Jew or Christian, or for that matter, any good human being would give. We all know that connecting in loving relationships is the core to most world religious systems.
But it’s not enough just to be able to give the right answer, Jesus challenges the lawyer to live out the law ‘do this and you will live well’.
The exchange could easily have ended there, but the lawyer continues to engage Jesus with another question: Who is my neighbour? Yes, a brilliant question. Who are the neighbours we are called to love by every legal and religious system world wide?
And then comes the twist and the challenge that’s powerfully present in Jesus’ ministry – the story of the good Samaritan. The story is so familiar it’s almost dangerous. We all know the moral of Jesus’ famous story “The Good Samaritan”. After all, that’s what happens here. A man is traveling on a dangerous road when he’s attacked by bandits, robbed, and left for dead. Two people come by who we believe should care for this man, but don’t. Then one comes who shouldn’t care, but does. It’s a call to us to care. Clean and simple, right? Simple, maybe, but then again… Maybe there’s also something more to this story….
Yes, firstly the story is a call to care for people we see who are in need. But there’s also another layer, God calls us not only to care for our neighbour, but to see as neighbour anyone who is in need. In many ways, that’s the issue at hand here: the priest and Levite don’t see the man in the ditch as a neighbor, but as a burden, as a problem that will delay them from accomplishing whatever task or duty has put them on this road in the first place. The Samaritan, however, wherever he may be going or whatever time pressures he may feel, sees this man in need as a person, as a child of God, as someone who inherently deserves his time and attention.
In many ways, we are clan-oriented people, just like the original audience of Jesus’s story. Most often, we look out first for our immediate and then extended family, and then close friends, and then those who are most like us or share our values or associations. Like the priest and Levite, we tend to overlook and avoid those who are different from us. Does this ring true to you? It’s much easier to be neighborly to the people we like. God created all people in the image of God. At the heart of the Christian faith is the belief that all people have inherent worth and dignity.
This is a valuable message to hear as our communities, schools, nations, and world are increasingly diverse and we are more likely than ever to run into people who look different, or believe differently, have different sexual orientation or observe different cultural customs than we do. The fact that we are having a debate about same sex marriage in this country I think highlights this clan type mentality where people use fear tactics to dehumanize groups of people denying rights to some on grounds of sexual orientation.
Some of you may know that my sister in law is gay and has a wonderful partner and two beautiful boys. This very ordinary little family life together in a house with a garden, they go to work and school and contribute to the life of the community with the same diligence and care you’d hope of anyone. They live an ordinary life and don’t ask for anything different from any other Australian household would ask. And yet, they are denied the legal status of marriage and all the securities that follow from there.
‘What do we need to do to inherit eternal life?’ Who is my neighbor? Asks the Lawyer, and Jesus tells a story pointing calling us not only to care for the people we know who are in need, but also to open our eyes see the people on the road side we would prefer to ignore.
But, I think there is something more going on in this story than the call to compassion and inclusivity. There’s a part of this story right at the end, where it seems like Jesus shifts the terms of the discussion he’s been having with this lawyer. The lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?” That is, who counts, Who am I responsible for? Who are the people God command us to care for as neighbor.?
Well, the answer to that question is pretty clear: whoever is in need is your neighbor. But then Jesus goes and does something different, right at the end. He doesn’t ask who was the Samaritan’s neighbor; rather, he asks, who acted like a neighbor. Who acted like a neighbor?
The answer, of course, is obvious to the lawyer and to us: it is the Samaritan, the one who went out of his way to help another.
But do you notice how this changes things? Jesus does not say that the injured man was the neighbor who for whom we are called to care. But that the Samaritan is the neighbor. The neighbor is the one who provides for our need, the one who takes care of us. Not only are we called to be neighbourly to others, we are also called to receive neighbourly care from others.
So, here is another question: who has been your neighbor by caring for you? This is an uncomfortable question because we spend so much of our time, energy, and money trying to protect ourselves. We try to need as little as possible from those around us. Perhaps it’s a fear of being a burden, or a concern about “owing” others, or that we are just afraid of being vulnerable because if we show our need that need may not be met. Many of us are absolutely mortified by the idea of showing our deepest needs to others and have a hard time receiving a compliment let alone serious aid or help.
Yet if I’m reading this parable right, it seems that according to Jesus, being neighbor involves not only giving help but also being willing to receive it, even and especially to and from those we don’t normally see as “like us.”
So perhaps the call isn’t only to invite us to imagine those we should be helping, but those who might help us … if we gave them a chance.
Perhaps the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community have something important to help us all with as they call for marriage equality. Perhaps, it’s not so much about us being inclusive of them, but they teaching us what couples need in order to live in long term committed relationships of fidelity mutuality and trust. We are a community bound together by our shared need, by an awareness of our common vulnerability, we’ve all been the traveler left for dead in the ditch by the road, we’ve sensed God working through the, sometimes unexpected, people who care for us. We are neighbours when we are vulnerable enough in ourselves to receive the care we need from others, and when arise to reach out to others in their need.