A certain Chas Grace esquire, known to this congregation and parish, hit the nail on the head at Tuesday’s study session on these passages. “Those four final words are the nub of it”, he said, “Go and do likewise.” And he was, of course, correct. But his insight set me thinking for the rest of the week, and I have ended up in a very different place from the one in which I expected to be.
Firstly, the lawyer – interpreter of the Law of Moses, not a solicitor or barrister – asks who his neighbour is, and Jesus tells a story in which an unexpected person does something.
Secondly, the rabbinic practice of answering a question with a question merely elicits from the lawyer a parroted response, as automatic a set of words as Pavlov’s dogs trained response to certain stimuli. The lawyer had not only given the answer to his own question, but he had given the only possible and permitted answer to his question – and Jesus knew that, and the lawyer knew that, and both knew that it was unsatisfactory. If the lawyer had left at that point in the conversation, then a shared truth would have been acknowledged and nothing more. So the lawyer needs to go further, and Jesus knows that he needs to go further, and so has the story ready.
The story has no answer to the “who is my neighbour?” question, because deep down, both men know that that is not his real search. The answer to “who is my neighbour?” is, of course, every human being who walks this earth, who has walked this earth and who will walk this earth. The lawyer wants to know if there can be circumstances in which someone might not be a neighbour. Jesus suggests two – busy, Temple-bound priests – but the lawyer knows already that this does not hold true, as the preservation of God-given life always trumps the holiness and purity laws – so maybe he was expecting the third protagonist to be a right-acting Pharisee – but to be presented with a right-acting Samaritan came as a bolt out of the blue.
Jesus says to this self-righteously hole-digging man, “A Samaritan knows better than you who his neighbour is and what he has to do for them.”
Many attempts have been made to render this parable relevant to the age. The Christian drama company Riding Lights produced a version called “The Good Punk Rocker” back in 1977, and both fascists and communists have found themselves inserted at various points in history. But at root, Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy 30 at the lawyer – “the word is very near to you: it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” To shock the man into realising his untenable position, Jesus says that the last person the lawyer would have imagined to recognise his neighbour and act upon that proximity is the one who knows the law of God, and puts it into practice.
This is fundamentally different from loving your enemy: this has nothing to do with seeing God in Michael Gove or Boris Johnson or whoever has wrecked their own political life or others in the last 24 hours. It is about our instincts, our assumptions, about how deeply ingrained in our consciousness is an appreciation of our God-given duty to care for absolutely anybody, if they are in need. All are our neighbours, all are worthy of our support. “Go, and do likewise.”
Now the next question is, “Do what?” There was no victim of mugging on the way here today, no starving child or penniless beggar. There wasn’t even a refugee or asylum seeker. If we passed anyone on our way here this morning, they were just ordinary local folk, normal, going about their business quietly and privately. So what are we supposed to do, if this neighbourliness is all to do with doing, with action?
There are a lot of people out there and in here who are hurting, who are angry, who are confused and fearful. This country has just thrown all the pieces on the board up in the air, and we still do not know how they have all fallen back down, what shape and future that represents and what it will mean on the national as well as the local scale. People who voted both ways in the referendum are feeling vulnerable and want to scream and shout about it. We cannot walk by on the other side. Let them rant, let them vent their spleen, at us – both sides, because neither is satisfied, neither has actually got what they want. For the good of our souls, of our psyches, of our spirits, we must let people open up to us, and we to them. Being a good neighbour, in Jesus’s description, is to clean up wounds and bind them up, then take the victim to a safer place for long term recovery. Ranting and listening to rants is part of that process.
There are a lot of people out there and in here who are hearing things that they never expected to hear in this country. The council officer who supports the borough’s InterFaith Forum, who is Sri Lankan in origin but was born here, has had words said to her in the last three weeks that she hadn’t heard in 30 years. Racist abuse and hate crime is to be reported – it is being a good neighbour to do so. This borough is restarting its Hate Crime Forum, at which our Safer Neighbourhood committee will be represented, so you do not even have to talk to the Police to report such abuse – tell Judi Braddock and she will pass it on to those collating the incidents. Or, you can ring 101 and report it to the borough Police.
Another way of demonstrating our neighbourliness is on Monday 18th July outside Bentalls in Kingston, where the local InterFaith Forum will be holding a “We Stand Together” event at 11am – an opportunity to celebrate our differences to build a stronger and safer country. Just turn up.
There are a lot of people out there and in here who are living with great uncertainty. Kew, Mortlake and Sheen have the highest percentage of mixed nationality marriages in the borough, and for those who will remain EU citizens after we finally get round to leaving, no one has yet provided any reassurance of their future position in this country. The good neighbour sits alongside, talks, encourages, loves and supports these individuals, these families, in our community and in the workplace.
This next one is hard, but here it comes. There are some people out there, but I trust not in here, who feel freed up to say things that previously they knew they never should. The good neighbour helps them to find again the value of welcome, of inclusivity, of our common humanity.
Amidst all the uncertainty, all the polemic and guesswork that will persist for months to come, we, the people of God, must be the very best of neighbours: doing the neighbour thing, not just thinking it, acting on neighbourliness, not just skirting round the issues. May we all, with the help of prayer and God’s indwelling Holy Spirit, be those very best of neighbours and so reflect our very best neighbour, our Saviour, Jesus Christ.