Maybe I am doing him a disservice, but the lawyer reminds me of one of those people who ask a question to which they already know the answer, so that they can demonstrate their expertise. He knows the right words to say, he correct formula, but he’s clearly struggling with the implications. He’s not quite grasping the all-encompassing nature of love. To attempt a definition of ‘neighbour’ is almost certainly to try to limit the sense of obligation and accountability and generosity that the Summary of the Law implies. Love has no limits, and the lawyer hasn’t really grasped that yet. Hence the story that follows.
But the story is all wrong.
Most people, when they hear a story, will gravitate to the first or main character, and assume, subconsciously that this is ‘someone like us’. Straight away we are wrong footed, because the person with whom we have begun to identify, albeit only briefly, turns out to be the victim and not the hero. His main role is to be beaten and then lie, passively, in the gutter, at the mercy, or lack of mercy, of whoever may see him.
We’d like the victim to be someone else. Secretly, we’d probably prefer it if the victim is ‘not like us’. The foreigner, the low-class outcast, the Samaritan – that’s who ought to be the victim, so that we can be the hero. We can do our charitable bit, reach down from our uprightness and respectability, and help those less fortunate than ourselves. And there’s nothing wrong with this. It’s one of the things that makes societies work.
But if we’re the ones in the gutter, it’s much less comfortable, much less satisfying. Lying there, beaten, who do we want to come to our aid? I remember once at theological college, I had just recovered from flu, and for some stupid reason I had decided to go for a run before morning prayer. It didn’t go well. Almost at the end of the service, I started feeling woozy, and tried to leave discreetly – I got half way to the back of chapel and then passed out. I remember coming to and hearing a particular person (whom I will not name) saying, loudly, ‘Don’t worry, I know first aid!’ and thinking, to my shame, ‘Oh no, anyone but you!’
Receiving help is not easy. Depending on the charity of others is not easy. It makes us vulnerable, it can chip away at our pride and self-respect, especially when have to look up from the gutter at those who are helping us from their position of benevolent power – a position that really should be ours…. Who would it be hardest to accept from, right now? We might all give a different answer, but each of our answers challenges us, through this best known of gospel stories.
And the end of the story is wrong too. Jesus’ closing question turns the definitions around. ‘Who is my neighbour?’ at the start is a question that assumes that we are strong ones, and the neighbour is someone who, in their weakness, needs our charity. ‘Who was a neighbour to him?’ assumes that the neighbour is not the victim but the saviour, the one who gives the love.
So, when Jesus says, ‘Go and do likewise’ he is telling us to get up from our gutter, where we had unexpectedly and uncomfortably found ourselves, and go and be the Samaritan, go and be the outcast, the low-life, the one who stopped and helped because he knows what it’s like to be at the bottom of the heap. ‘Go and do likewise’ Jesus says, ‘remembering that you, too, are dust, that you, too, come from the gutter.’
My son, who is nine, came up with an interesting theory about this a few months ago. He noticed that he can only see what’s on his laptop screen when he looks straight at it – if it’s tilted at the wrong angle, the image distorts and then disappears. He said to me: ‘It’s like God is the image on a laptop screen, and the screen is tilted downwards. You can only see God if you’re really low down. Like if you’re ill. Or if you’re not very important. The people who can see God most clearly are the ones who are right at ground level, not the people who can stand upright. So, if we want to see God clearly, we need to get down on the level of the people who are ill, or poor, or not very important. Helping people where they are is how we are most close to God.’
And he’s right, of course. If we really do get down on our hands and knees, as it were, and come alongside others in their hour of need, we are likely to find Christ already there. But if we look down from above, we’ll see no clearer.
The responses to some of the recent terrorist and other attacks around the world express this sense of solidarity rather clearly. It started with “Je suis Charlie” in the aftermath of the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris. And it has continued, more recently in Carol Ann Duffy’s poem, Gay Love, which you may have seen, in response to the murder of 49 people in a gay nightclub in Orlando. This, too, expressed the sort of solidarity that St Paul hinted at in 1 Corinthians 12: ‘When one member suffers, the whole body suffers’. This is the sort of solidarity, when words flow into loving action, that points to the fundamental truth at the heart of the Summary of the law: Love your neighbour. Be that neighbour. Be loved by that neighbour. These are all one command: mutual, reciprocal, humble, generous, joyful. The sort of love that allows help to be given and received without condescension. The love that rejects the pursuit of power, the preservation of hierarchies, and instead basks in the belovedness that we all have in God, which underpins all our own giving and receiving and invites us to see one another, to love one another, and indeed, to love ourselves, as God loves us.
In the nation at the moment, the question ‘who is my neighbour’ confronts us constantly. It is being asked in our local communities, in the news media, in the political arena, and implicitly in our awareness of the very many challenges that we face in our current political and social turmoil. We need the story of the Good Samaritan, together with the Summary of the Law, now more than ever, to teach us afresh what is means to be children of the same heavenly Father, builders of his kingdom on earth – a community of people who need each other. It’s been wonderful to see the grassroots movements that have been springing up in the last few days: #loveyourneighbour and #movementoflove spring to mind, encouraging ordinary people to go the extra mile for one another, in ordinary and extraordinary ways. The challenge is great, and the story is exactly what’s required, though it may be hard to hear it, and harder still to live it out – but there is no greater command than this: that we love God with our whole being, and love our neighbour as ourselves.