Sermon Pentecost 6 (Ordinary Sunday 15) Year C [RCL Resources Index]

Who is our neighbour?

Everybody knows the story of the Good Samaritan, more or less. Not everyone knows how Jesus came to tell the story. This great parable which illustrates so much of Christian concern with suffering humanity, followed a question about eternal life:

So life beyond this world is linked firmly with what we do in this life. A few weeks ago [I spoke of the relationship between spiritual communion and social action when] we read of Elijah's experience of the still small voice of God, a sound of sheer silence, and we refected upon the relationship of inward and outward expressions of the faith. There is always a link between the quiet inner voice of the Saviour and strong social witness. At that time I was emphasising the importance of that quiet relationship with God. The gospel today relates humble service of a suffering neighbour to everlasting communion with God.

As so often happened, when Jesus was being questioned, he pointed people back to the Jewish scriptures:

So, "love God and love your neighbour" summed up the law of God. When Jesus spoke of gaining eternal life by keeping the law of God he was extending to what were then relatively new ideas among the Jews about life beyond death a principle of the old law that keeping the commandments was the way to ensure a good life on the earth, especially in the promised land:-

The commandments were the way for people to live in good relationships with one another and with God, thus pleasing God and living in harmony with the way he made the world and was related to prospering in his creation. Jesus applied this principle to living in the Kingdom of God and life beyond death. "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" "Do this, and you will live."

[re Lev 19:18 See Luke 10:25-28. In its original there is an element of love being the fulfilment of the law, but it was necessary for Jesus to extend the teaching from one's own family and community to others: so the good Samaritan is neighbour to the one on whom he showed mercy. So we have the parable of the `good Samaritan' - Jesus would probably not have called him good - for only one is good = God alone (Mark 10:17,18) ]

Let us reflect for moment on what happened. The heart of the matter is "And who is my neighbour?" The questioner is concerned with the limits. We owe a duty to our families; friends may call on us for understanding and assistance. People everywhere acknowledge that people close to us have some claim upon us. That was clearly the way it was understood in the old law:

It was intended to keep the peace within communities. But how far does it go? Do the obligations we owe to family and people close to us extend to the tribe or the nation or even beyond? Who is my neighbour? To whom should I show loving kindness; and who will show loving kindness to me? In Papua New Guinea, where I know some people who live in traditional villages, they refer to "one-talks" - people of one's own tribe who speak the same local language - one-talks have many obligations to one another and must share many things - neighbourly obligations are not exactly limited, but understood especially, as the mutual obligations of family and local community. It was something like that originally in biblical times when Jesus spoke about loving your neighour, extending it beyond "your people". It was a profound change in our understanding of relations between different people, and in our relationship to God. Our obligations went beyond "one-talks".

The story Jesus told is more than an example. He did say, "Go and do likewise," but its purpose was more than simply to encourage similar behaviour. Beyond moral teaching it is a parable which opens people up to a free experience of reality. We are enabled to see the world differently. The priest and the lawyer were doing their duty. Like Australian banks, they were not in the social equity business.

A few years ago there was a commentary in the business pages of The Age (Melbourne newspaper) on the churches submission to the (former) Prices Justification Tribunal enquiry into bank charges. "The banks are not in the social equity business", they said; their purpose was to return a maximum profit to their shareholders; it was the responsibility of someone else to look after the interests of the poor. I wonder who the writer (Stepehen Bartholemuse) thought was in the social equity business! And what if social equity is not a business at all? We have heard more of this issue since and no doubt we will hear more in an election year, but it is clearly becoming unacceptable for large corporations to dismiss all calls for considerations of fairness in dealing with those less able to look after themselves. Merely keeping within the limits of the law in a technical sense is not enough.

The priest and lawyer did not consider it their job to bind up wounds. They were defending their understanding of what God required of them and probably in so doing they were avoiding ritual defilement. Indeed they were tireless fighters for God, but they failed to see God within and behind the person who had fallen victim to robbers. They could see the injured victim but not God. That insight which changes our view of reality came to us in the story Jesus told in the character of the Samaritan.

Samaritans were thought by the Jews to be sinners as group because they did not keep the law as the Jews believed they should, although they were, like them, descendants of Abraham. The Samaritan is as free as Jesus himself to have compassion. So love anticipates the law and fulfills it. It is not a mere emotion, this love, but practical help -- binding up wounds, administering soothing oil as ointment, carrying him to a safe place and paying for him to be cared for. He is neither heroic nor neglectful, doing just what is necessary and going on his way. The Samaritan was neighbour to the one who fell among robbers. He did for him what a member of his family or perhaps a neighbour in the common sense would have done if he had been there. The Samaritan illustrates the absence of those limits of neighbourliness which were implied by the question the lawyer asked of Jesus: a neighbour is whoever happens to be there.

Note that the Samaritan did not go out looking for someone to be the object of his charity. He did not define certain classes of people as needing or deserving care; that would leave the door open to humiliation. The Samaritan was not motivated by a need to express his own goodness; indeed Jesus would not have called him "good", for he said "only God is good". The Samaritan was motivated by the person's need as he found him.

Life in the New Covenant is linked with Christ

Jesus himself is the neighbour we serve [Matt.25] in the suffering face of humanity. It is by faith that we establish that relationship.

Where in the story of the Good Samaritan is the character of Jesus?

Many would say that they see Jesus in the Samaritan, the traveller how showed kindness to the one who was robbed; and in a sense that is true: he picks us up and restores us to health and wholeness; but he is also in the one who fell among thieves. If we do not recognize him there we miss the point of the story - it is he whom we serve in the one to whom we show mercy and treat as a member of our family.

AND It was through falling into the hands of sinful men that he offered the final sacrifice by which we are redeemed. We know that through faith. Our relationship with him in faith and obedience is the relationship that brings new life. That is the life in which we share at the Lord's table.

So what are we to do?

I believe that our discipleship today requires us to move in two different ways. Although different ways of moving, they are not movements in different directions. One movement is towards the enrichment of our spiritual lives, knowing God more personally, and sharing that knowledge openly with others, naming the name of Christ and not being afraid to witness to him as we were thinking about these things last week in regard to the mission on which Jesus sent his followers. Some of us have readily confessed that we are not used to talking about such things. Is it not a strange thing that many people today can more easily talk about sex than they can talk about God? Well, perhaps not: which is the more deeply personal? But there is something wrong. The renewal of our personal relationship with God and having confidence in Christ which we can share is one movement that will change us and the church. We know that the days of the social friendly church are over as a model of success. Many in this generation are finding all the social support they need elsewhere. If the church has anything worthwhile to offer it must be something more than that, and we do have it: knowledge of God and his presence in the world. So one movement for renewal is a movement towards God. Prayer and Bible study are helpful in this movement, and locally we arrange such things prayer groups, Bible studies in homes or day retreat. But that is not the only kind of approach to God.

There is another way. Besides moving toward God in that intentional way of devotion we can move towards our neighbour and in that way also know God. There is no point in setting up an isolated holy club which knows nothing of corruption in the world. We deceive ourselves if we think we can move towards God without moving towards our neighbour. These two movements are in fact in the same direction. The word and the deed belong together. As we seek to renew our relationship with God we need to become increasingly aware of the suffering in our community. Some of our people have spoken of special needs in our neighbourhood. We need to know more and to be better equipped.

So two movements are necessary: towards God and towards our neighbours. They are movements with the same objective. Both are steps along the way of discipleship in our pilgrimage to eternal life, for in both these ways, which are together the way of Christ, we develop a lasting relationship with God, our Creator and Redeemer. What must I do to inherit eternal life? Love God and love your neighbour. And who is my neighbour? A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers .....

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APPENDIX -- Bible Study

Jesus was asked on other occasions about the first or greatest commandments.

Matthew 22:36-40 "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" He said to him, "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, "Which commandment is the first of all?"

Mark 12:29-31 Jesus answered, "The first is, 'Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.' The second is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these." Then someone came to him and said, "Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?"

[See also Luke 18:18.]

He either quoted the formula called the Shema, or had the questioner say it. Deut. 6:4-5;

{4} Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. {5} You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. -- Deuteronomy 6:4-5

and then he added another piece of the old law from Lev 19:18.
{18} You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD. -- Leviticus 19:18

There are other similar accounts
Luke 18:18 (NRSV) A certain ruler asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"(4)
Matthew 19:29 (NRSV) And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life.
(Mat 19:29) `Inherit' eternal life parallels gaining or having eternal life in Luke 10:25-29 and entering the kingdom.

Mark 10:17-21 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: 'You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.'" He said to him, "Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth." Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."

It was a clear part of the early Christian teaching, Paul's and other letters speak of love being the fulfilling of the law:

Romans 13:8-10 Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.(5) The commandments, "You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet"; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, "Love your neighbor as yourself." Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

Galatians 5:14 (NRSV) For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

James 2:8 (NRSV) You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, "You shall love your neighbor as ourself."


The sense of justice emerged with the keeping of the law and covenant. The prophets recalled people to God's will, and contrasted it this devotion with the worship the outward form of the sacrifice. This led to the later doctrine of the grace of God. Judgment was seen first by the prophets(6)

Isaiah 1:11 (NRSV) What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.

Isaiah 1:17 (NRSV) learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

See also Jeremiah 6:20; 7:21ff; Hosea 6:6

When Jesus taught about the right relationship with God being dependent upon a right relationship with people, he was bringing forward the same insight into the nature of God and his covenant that the prophets had spoken of previously.

Amos 5:22-24 (NRSV) Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.

Micah 6:6-7 (NRSV) "With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?" He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Psalms 40:6 (NRSV) Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required. Then I said, "Here I am; in the scroll of the book it is written of me. I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart."

This came out often in Jesus' teaching, especially in his conflicts with the interpreters of the Jewish law.

Mark 12:31-33 The second is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these." Mark 12:32 (NRSV) Then the scribe said to him, "You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that 'he is one, and besides him there is no other'; and 'to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,' and 'to love one's neighbor as oneself,'--this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices." (7)

When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." After that no one dared to ask him any question.

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1. (Luke 10:26) cf Matt 22:23-40; Mark 12:28-31; Matt 19:16; Mark 19:17; Luke 18:18. (Luke 10:27) The Shema, Deut. 6:4-5; and Lev 19:18. Love God and neighbour.

2. See parallels: Matt 22:23-40; Mark 12:28-31

3. `justify' - wanting to prove himself qualified to enter the kingdom

4. 4 Matthew 19:17-19 (NRSV) And he said to him, "Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments." He said to him, "Which ones?" And Jesus said, "You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself." (Luke 18:18) see Mark 10:17 ff. Note that Matt 19:16 has `good' in ref. to the deed, which is more like Luke 10:25 and parallels.

5. (Rom 13:8) cf Luke 10:25-28 and Parallels; and Gal 4:14; James 2:8

6. (Isa 1:5) Fulfilling the law is a matter of love. See Luke 10:25-37 and

notes on Mark 12:34. REF Is. 1:5-17 Isaiah 1:5 (NRSV) Why do you seek further beatings? Why do you continue to rebel? The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint.

(Hosea 6:6) see law-love.inx. Ps 50, 51, Is 1:11-17; Mark 12:34; Luke

10:37; Gal 5:14 (Amos 5:22) cf Micah 6:6. See Luke 10:25-37; notes on Mark 12:34;

Law-love.inx. Love of God and neighbour, fulfills law and promises life in

the kingdom. (Jer 7:21) see ps 50 and 51; Is 1:11-17; Mark 12:23. Law and covenant

make promise.

7. (Mark 12:33) cf. Ps. 40:5-7; ps 50:8-23 re preference for love of God and service of others over burnt offerings. Se also refs above to Is., Jer. Hosea and Micah. Psalms 51:16 (NRSV) For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. (Psa 51:16) see note to Mark 12:34. A sacrifice of the heart implies love of God. Jesus linked this to love of neighbour. See how vv 18,19 here put service to the community before sacrifice - cf Jesus teaching about leaving your gift before the alter and first being reconciled to your brother and then coming and offering your sacrifice. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

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