The story we have just heard is one of the most famous in the Bible. It shocked its hearers when Jesus told it and fully understood it should do the same to us.

It originated with Jesus being questioned by a scholar of the Jewish Law, the spiritual, moral and social code that governed Jewish life. He first asked how one attains life eternal. When pressed by Jesus on what the Law required, the lawyer quoted from the Book of Deuteronomy on need for wholehearted love of God and love of neighbour. The verse he quoted forms one of the most important prayers in Judaism and, still to this day, is recited twice daily.

The lawyer then asked Jesus to define what ‘neighbour’ meant. For most Jews, one’s neighbour was limited at most to fellow Jews, although some would restrict its definition even further to family or fellow members of a small community. To a Jew then, neighbour would never include people who were not Jews. So in the society of Jesus’ time, with its distinctions between Jews and Gentiles, men and women, clean and unclean, asking Jesus to define neighbour was putting Jesus on the spot.

This led Jesus to then tell a story that is known today as the Parable of the Good Samaritan. It begins with a man being attacked on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. This road descends 3,300 feet in just 17 miles. Its narrow passes and rocky terrain made it an easy place for bandits to lie in wait for travellers. After the attack, the man in the story is left for dead, naked and bleeding on the side of the road.

The first two people who come across the victim are devoutly religious Jews who perform duties in the Temple. They always would have observed their religion’s requirements concerning purity, especially the rule that touching or even coming near a corpse would render them ‘unclean’ and unfit for their religious duties. Thus it would have been no surprise to Jesus’ hearers that these two men passed by on the other side – after all, they were just doing what the Law required.

The listeners would have expected that the third person in the story to come upon the Jewish victim would also be another Israelite. Instead, and to their shock, Jesus named the third man as a Samaritan, an Israelite’s most hated neighbour. The hostility between Jews and Samaritans went back centuries and ran very deep. Samaritans were descendants of Jews from the northern part of the country, who had intermarried with Gentiles and did not worship in Jerusalem.

The Samaritan had every excuse in the world to mind his own business and to keep on moving when he saw the victim’s body. As a Samaritan in Jewish territory, he would have been an automatic target for hostility; and if he was caught near the victim he would be considered a likely suspect for the attack. Yet, Jesus says he was ‘moved with compassion’ and, in spite of the risk to his own safety, went to the aid of the victim.

The lawyer originally asked Jesus to define neighbour. Now Jesus asks him which of the three people in the story proved to be a neighbour to the victim. The lawyer admits it was the hated enemy. Now, said Jesus, if you want eternal life, you need to become the Samaritan in that story.

Our Lord’s radical teaching here is that we should not ask ‘who is my neighbour’. This is restrictive. Instead, he asks that we become neighbour to anyone in need – whatever their race, religion, gender or culture – and thus be compassionate with them as the Samaritan in the parable.

In the next hymn for Mass today – In Bread We Bring You – we sing: ‘we do not ask you, Lord, who is my neighbour?’  To ask ‘who is my neighbour’ is to limit our compassion whereas for Jesus it must be limitless.

The word compassion means ‘to suffer with’. Jesus asks us – literally – to suffer with others who are in difficulty or need. He teaches that social distinctions such as class, religion, gender, or ethnicity must not determine who is to be helped.  For him, the point is not who deserves to be loved as I love myself, but that I become a person who treats everyone with compassion.

Our Lord’s story about a hated enemy helping his fellow Jews truly shocked his hearers. If Jesus told the equivalent story today, what ‘enemy’ of religion, gender or ethnicity would he choose to play the role of the Samaritan and highlight his teaching to you?

Michael Campion
Holy Name, Jesmond
10 July 2022

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