Neighbour defined

Pentecost 8

Luke 10:25-37

Marian Free

Gulf oil disaster from space

In the name of God who shocks us out of our complacency so that we might see the world in a new and different way. Amen.

During the week I caught the end of a programme called The Gruen Transfer, in which a panel of experts critique advertisements and discuss the art of selling a product. I don’t know about you, but I love a good ad. I think that a well-executed advertisement is a testament to ingenuity as well as being interesting and fun to watch. As part of the programme each week two advertising companies are give the task to sell the unsellable. The challenge last week was to promote a huge international energy company Petroleum Brilliance which was responsible for a huge undersea oil leak! It sounds like an impossible task, but both companies did an amazing job. The first company decided that PB were not the bad guys but the good guys who were generous and altruistic. They tried to sell this message by showing how the oil spill was creating jobs, building communities AND sharing 60,000 barrels of oil a day with those less fortunate. The ad concludes: “PB – Let’s share the spoil”.

The second company looked for a truth to sell and a credible spokesperson to promote the message. They found the latter in Tim Flannery the Chair of the Copenhagen Climate Council. In their footage they had short visuals of the devastation followed by Tim Flannery saying “brilliant!”. The ad concluded with pictures of small clean cars and a voice-over saying: “We are driving the world to environmentally clean energy sources.” (The idea being that the horror of the spill was leading vast numbers of people to rethink their use of energy.) (Google “iview” and look for Panel and Discussion, Gruen Transfer, Series 3, Episode 4, fast forward to 17:26).

Both ads were very clever, but they were also shocking – “brilliant” and “devastating oil spill” are ideas that DO NOT go together. Even though I could admire the mastery of the ads, I still found the pitch utterly offensive. An event which has such destructive and horrendous long term consequences as the Florida oil spill cannot be brilliant no matter which way you look at it.

For the first century Jew, “good” and “Samaritan” were as offensive as “brilliant” and “oil spill” are today.  Hostility between Jews and Samaritans went back as far as the exile to Babylon. Such was the antagonism between the two that a Jew would travel miles out of his way rather than pass through Samaria, contact with a Samaritan would leave one ritually unclean and Jews viewed the Samaritan religion with utter contempt.

It is difficult to think of an Australian example of a Samaritan and therefore to retell the story in such a way that it would have the impact that Jesus originally intended. There are three main problems. First of all the parable is contextual – in order for it to make sense we first have to understand the situation between the Jews and the Samaritans. We also have to understand the Jewish laws of ritual cleanliness to understand why it is that the priest and the Levite not only avoid the injured man, but need to avoid him. Secondly, the parable of the Good Samaritan has been so misrepresented and misinterpreted that we often miss the primary point which is to make us rethink the question; “according to the law, who is our neighbour?”. Thirdly, we have become so familiar with the parable and so used to our interpretation of it that it has lost its sting – it would have been impossible for a Jew to imagine a Samaritan as a hero. The conclusions to the parable would have stunned Jesus’ listeners.

The parable that we know as the “Good Samaritan” is Jesus’ attempt to confront stereotypes and prejudices and to challenge a particular way of seeing the world. If a Samaritan can be a neighbour then anything is possible. You can imagine the lawyer and Jesus other listeners. As the story unfolds they would have been sympathetic to the priest and the Levite because, unlike us, they would have understood the law which says to the priests: “No one shall defile himself for a dead person among his relatives, except for his nearest kin. (Lev 21:1) and “The priest who is exalted above his fellows shall not go near where there is a dead body; he shall not defile himself even for his father or his mother (Lev 21:11). Had the priest or Levite gone to the aid of the injured or dying man, they would have been contaminated, worse still, it would have meant breaking the law which bound all observant Jews.

In the parable, Jesus exposes the limitations of the law. The law did not allow the good, law-abiding Jews to go to the aid of the dying man. The lawyer with whom Jesus is in debate knows the law – “You shall 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 your neighbour as yourself.” It is in response to the lawyer’s question; “Who is my neighbour?” that Jesus tells the parable. By making the Samaritan the hero, Jesus reveals that the interpretation of the law has, until now, restricted the definition of neighbour. Until now, all good Jews had been able to excuse themselves from any relationship with the undeserving, unclean, Lawless Samaritans.

At the same time, the parable exposes the law as flawed – instead of resulting in good it actually leads to harm. The injured man is left to die. A literal interpretation of the law has turned out to be a misinterpretation. Love of neighbour which presumes to define who neighbour is, has been shown to be not love at all – a law which prevents a person from going to someone’s aid contradicts and even opposes the law of love.

The problem with all laws is that they are bound by history and culture and they are open to interpretation. Overtime laws need to be re-examined, re-interpreted, re-written and even dismantled. Laws that are devoid of compassion, love and understanding lead to more harm than good. Laws that protect the interests of one group and limit the potential of another group do not reflect the spirit of the gospel. Laws that prevent one person or group from helping another are life-denying rather than life-giving.

Jesus reveals that it is the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law which is important. What will see us through, and lead to our salvation is an understanding of the depth of God’s love for us and for others, a willingness to be led by the Holy Spirit, an openness to God’s new revelations in every generation, a determination to wrestle with God’s word until we truly understand it and a resolution to: “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 your neighbour as yourself” without argument, without definition and without limit.

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