Toorak Uniting Church

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"Neighbors and what to do with them"

Luke 10: 25 – 37
Rev. Ian Brown
11 July 2004

How has your week been? For me it's been school holidays, five days at the beach - in Queensland, and then back to the very cold. Where it's people in need, meetings with people, sharing tasks, hospital bedsides, coffee and chat.
And the media has been full of pre-electioneering muck, do we really have to face the full blown thing again this year? Promises and more promises, accusations and counter accusations, debate about what is best for us, what is best for the community.
What is best for people? What gets between us and causes the problems in our community and world? What makes good community, good neighbors? This is a question Jesus addressed with quick creativity and sharp insight.

When you think of Jesus teaching, about the key stories and the central themes, out of all that Jesus said and did, the ones that seem - at least for me - to capture the essence of what Jesus stood for are the stories we know as the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan. These stories have infused our culture and language - which in one way is wonderful, but I suspect that it also stops us really hearing what they have to say to us today.

To be a "good Samaritan" is to be a kind helper, a nice guy - Christians are meant to be nice guys, and girls too of course. The traditional way of unpacking the meaning of Jesus story is to say. there are things that stop us being good neighbors, there are prejudices, racism, sexism, greed and selfishness and the like that get in the way of us being who we should be "we ought to be good Samaritans" is the moralistic teaching most often drawn out. We need to do better - and that's right! We do, but heaping guilt and "do good-ing" burdens on us has never worked and will never work.

Remember that this is a lawyers' question. I know no one could question the integrity or probity of a man in such a profession, but it is interesting that Jesus peoples his parable in reply, with other respected professionals.
A priest is the first on the scene - he sees, but passes by on the other side. Now the role of a priest is to represent God to the people and the people to God. If the nature of God is to care for the widow and the orphan, the stranger and the oppressed, surely God's priest ought to somehow reflect this in his actions. There is room for any excuse imaginable, but in Jesus story the priest fails to fulfil his most basic role; to represent God to a man in need. It is a scathing critique of uninvolved religion. The priest does not fulfil the law that Jesus is illustrating, the priest does not provide the example which is fundamental to his position. All the more damning because he knows what is right and fails to do it.

Next comes the Levite and he does exactly the same as the priest He registers the man, the need, the predicament. The role of a Levite sits somewhere between the role of priest and lawyer. Levites were the priestly officers and judges connected with the Temple. If anyone knew the law and what it required, it would be a Levite. But no, this is another scathing indictment of the leadership of Jesus day.

It's little wonder then that this parable is paired the prophet Amos, with his scathing words against Israel's leadership. To this herdsman and tree pruner God shows a plumb line showing Israel's crookedness. Amaziah, the king tells Amos to keep quiet, to get lost effectively! But God will not be silenced! This God of the Israelites is a God for whom our actions are of deep concern. God is not disinterested in the affairs of the world. God cares about how we care and what we do, hence the villains of Jesus parable.

These are people who know what God requires, they are two who should clearly know better, in many ways they are people just like us. People who see needs - the poor and homeless, the refugee and asylum seeker, the depressed, the addicted, the sick, the lonely and the oppressed - and who fail to do what we can. The doing is what Jesus seems to be most concerned with so often.
It's how the father treats the returning prodigal son, how the judged had treated the hungry, thirsty and imprisoned, whether the son says yes to the father asking for help and then does nothing, or says no and then helps, it is always the action Jesus is concerned with.
And the Good Samaritan is of course a complete contrast to the first two characters in the story. He is an outsider, a man of a different faith, a fellow who would not be welcome to many. Somehow though, in Jesus story, the bounds of nationality, custom, prejudice and creed are transcended.

This story has been part of our collective psyche for so long we are well aware who our neighbor is and we know we should treat them with kindness. We well know that loving and caring for those in need is the most fundamental fulfilment of God's law, so I wonder why don't I, why don't we all do better at it?

It would be all too easy to recast this story as an indictment on our current leaders. If we look at religious leadership today, we are easy targets. As a category, there is much worse than mere inaction to criticise. The church is dealing with the abuse of the most vulnerable and the covering up and mishandling of damaged victims. If we look at leaders in society at large, they are easy targets. We get the impression of political leaders more interested in personal mud slinging than in working for the common good, corruption amongst officers of the law - not mere inaction in the face of violence, but using violent means for personal gain and protection.

If the story were a real one, and happened lately, can you imagine a Senate inquiry or a Royal Commission being set up to examine the behavior of the professionals involved?
We could spend a few moments reviewing the findings of the committee report on the events concerning the professional conduct of those involved in the incident on the Jericho road.

"the inquiry is satisfied that the priest acted in a proper manner, he is an upstanding man of high profile, with important duties. If the man had been dead, the priest would have rendered himself unclean and unable to work, the half dead man may also have been bait for the robbers to plunder further victims, his robes would be spoilt, we find that he acted in carefully prioritised manner to look after the needs of the many, surely a fine example.

- of the Levite we find that he acted commendably in following the example of his superior and maintained a suitable distance from the uglier realities of this evil time. As he faced the same danger to his own person and probably had little practical help to offer we commend his adherence to the nonintervention clause of his work place safety regulations.

- to the matter of the actions of the third party, the inquiry became suspicious as to the motives of his actions. Local sources speculated that the man was himself the robber, and paraded the unfortunate victim into town as intimidation to all who might travel the road. We find his use of oil and wine to be an alarming prank, designed perhaps in mockery of the actions of the priest in the temple, or as a direct spoof of God's action in Hosea chapter 6. We find that he was a Samaritan and not to be trusted. A later and more charitable spin was put on these events by one rather excitable lawyer. He proposed that the action of the Samaritan was a "Christlike" act of compassion, who simply put himself at risk and gave with no thought of return. We think this unlikely."

And it's not hard is it to let ourselves off when we pass by a person in need, or to excuse public leaders who don't respond to the needs in our community.

I don't believe Jesus offered his story as a means of social commentary or a way of undermining social fabric. His parable is addressed to it's hearer - to a lawyer then, to each of us just as much now. So how can we do better? How can we be more open to the needs of the neighbor?

Perhaps it might help us to see ourselves, and the rest of the broken world as the beaten and helpless traveller instead of the lawyer or one of the important but negligent characters in the story.
The plain truth is that we and our world are in need. We all know that there is much that is wrong in our community and in the world. We and our world have real needs and real trouble seeing the way forward. We have been damaged from the ideal of God's good purpose for humanity. To greater of lesser degrees we are broken and in need of help ourselves.

Then perhaps we should see Jesus as the good stranger who comes unexpectedly with compassion to comfort us, to mend our brokenness and to restore our faith in humanity and in life.

It is only Jesus, the Christ who comes, as if from out of the blue, to pick us up and give us new hope and shows us a way forward. And then only as we are renewed by Christ, are we told to go and do likewise, to be Jesus helping hands out there.

Hear the story again now in a modem key.

"As I was driving home that night through
seedier parts of town,
three car - jackers knocked out my lights,
took my wheels for their own.
They left me battered, bleeding sore,
An awful mess in the gutter.
I had no phone, no friend, no hope
help me!, who, - didn't matter.

A preacher came by, down that way, and saw me in great need.
Pity, he said sadly, a result of modem ills,
A graphic illustration, no doubt.

But I'm trained to save in other ways,
No first aid badge, sorry mate, too big a risk for me
I'm late for a meeting and really shouldn't stay.

A state MP came rushing by
and saw the sorry sight.
Times are tough, he said , it's sure,
We've got many more police too right,
But our budget can't give more.
Must remember, next time on the news
to encourage more philanthropy
But since it's just your own sad fault,
I'll go on, no point to halt.

The news crew found me bloody,
the cameras zoomed in close.
That's great TV, and local too,
the producer said, how lucky!
Pity, though, no crying crowd,
Pay some if we have to!

Next, to my dizzy scene then came
a turban wearing Afghani
the prejudice inside my brain
said, "illegal nasty man here."
But he it was who stopped and helped
and bandaged up my wounds,
he it was who saved my life
was Christ to me, put me in good hands
I went back, to say my thanks
for generous kindness done,
I went back to meet the man,
after weeks I had recovered.

Sent back home my neighbor was,
not good enough to stay here.
I went home, left wondering,
"Who now is my neighbor?"

Jesus says to us, "who was the neighbor to the one in need? Lighten up and lend a hand, for God's sake. Go and follow my example."
Amen.

© Rev. Ian Brown, 2004


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