Who is my neighbour?
A sermon on Luke 10: 25-37 by Nathan Nettleton, 8 February 1992

To identify the ways we avoid being neighbours and to encourage service of neighbours.


One of the things that frequently happened to Jesus was that groups of intellectuals would take him on at debating. If you ever catch a group of lawyers in the pub together it can be the same. A good round of intellectual one-up-manship. Jesus was the new champion on the block and every good lawyer wanted to knock him off. What's more Jesus had this infuriating habit of taking the debate off in directions that meant that you ended up not only losing the debate, but feeling like you're whole life had been exposed in the process. You ended up feeling like you'd given away far more about yourself than you'd ever intended and usually managed in the process to prove to the entire audience that although you knew the law backwards, you didn't really practise what you preached. Blokes like Jesus don't stay popular with the debating, religious and legal sets, but the more angry everyone gets the more determined they are to turn the tables on him, so the challengers keep on queuing up.

The story we are looking at tonight comes in just one of these situations and is told to us by Luke in chapter 10. Apparently Jesus was sitting around having a bit of a yarn with a bunch of people when one of these hot-shot lawyers stood up to pop a clever question. The question probably seemed innocuous enough to most ears. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” A fairly straight forward question, but there were rumours around that it was a question that Jesus had been giving some very unorthodox answers to, and so the strategy was to trap Jesus into giving an answer that conflicted with the legal prescriptions handed down by Moses. Jesus could then be proven beyond all reasonable doubt to be a heretic and they had him on a plate.

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus, in conventional rhetorical style, throws the question back to the inquirer and asks, “Well, what does the law say, what do you read there?”

The lawyer, of course is given no choice but to give the correct answer from Deuteronomy and then hope that Jesus wants to disagree with it. He certainly can't take the risk of giving a questionable answer to spark the debate; it might backfire on him. So he plays safe and hopes that Jesus won't. “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 you shall love the neighbour as yourself.”

Perfect answer; no danger there. A string of great rabbis including Jesus himself had argued that those two commands summed up the entire law, and that all the rest was mere commentary. “Good,” says Jesus, “You have given the right answer. Do this and you will certainly live.”

A bit of a chuckle goes round the room and the lawyer is left standing there looking a bit foolish. Asking kindergarten questions and getting kindergarten answers. Every Jewish kid recited the “Love the Lord your God...” every morning and evening. It was the Jewish equivalent of the “Hail Mary” or the “Our father”. It was certainly not the kind of answer that set you apart from your peers as some kind of genius. So the lawyer is somewhat embarrassed and somewhat desperate to redeem the conversation and get it back on to some good debating material so that he can draw on all his talents and training and cut Jesus down to size a bit. He wasn't going to just sit back down with egg all over his face; all his peers were watching! So as quick as he could he shot back another question, “And just who is my neighbour?” Another question that Jesus was well known to have some unorthodox views on and on which he had been observed to have some highly irregular practices. “Who is my neighbour?” If this didn't elicit any controversy then at least Jesus would give the orthodox answer, “Your neighbour is you're fellow Israelite, your relative and your friend,” to which the lawyer could answer “I have always loved these,” and walk away basking in the approval of Jesus and the crowd. But the real hope was for a scholarly debate.

I've got an extended quote here from Robert McAfee Brown, which I'll read because it is a brilliant expose of the lawyers second question, “Who is my neighbour?” He says,

By asking the question that way, the lawyer gets the discussion back onto safe territory. The discussion need not involve being a neighbour but only defining a neighbour. An academic exploration can ensue, and the lawyer, his own life-style now exempt from scrutiny, can do brilliantly in the ensuing verbal exchange. It is the kind of terrain on which lawyers excel.
Let us explore the lawyer's inner reflections: should the discussion prove fruitful, perhaps a (conference) can be organized around a theme like “The concept of Neighbourliness” and a really comprehensive definition arrived at. The lawyer, in fact, sits on the board of a small foundation that might be persuaded to finance such a project. There could be a series of papers: “The Stoic concept of Neighbourliness,” “Neighbourliness in Recent Mid-East Fiction”(a very short paper), “The Cultural Implications of Neighbourliness for Improving Trade Relations with Greece,” “Neighbourliness: A Woman's Perspective”(written by a man in order to maintain the desired objectivity), and finally, tapping the local Ph.D thesis market, “Neighbourliness as Seen by Members of the Slave Class, Being a Series of Interviews Conducted in the Alexandrian slave Market for the Purpose of Attaining Contemporary Data on Satisfaction/Dissatisfaction Ratios.” The papers (the lawyer continues to reflect) could then be published, perhaps edited by the lawyer himself, and the contributors could add the volume to their list of publications as a way of assuring that they get academic tenure — rather than their neighbours.
The fantasy (which I regret to report is far from fanciful) illustrates the skill with which we use thought to avoid action. A classic ploy. (Robert McAfee Brown, Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes , The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1984, p.107.)


But Jesus sees right through it and he's in no mood for academic games. Jesus had this wonderful technique for cutting through all the pretentiousness of the intellectual jousting set. He'd wait until they'd finished their clever question and impressed everyone with their beautiful flowery rhetoric, and then he'd sit down on the floor and say, “Once upon a time, there was a little boy named Johnny and a dog. . .” and so on, and everybody would laugh and then get sucked into the story and usually by the end of the story the smart alecs had slunk out the back door with their tails between their legs.

Well that's exactly what Jesus did on this occasion. He sat down and told a story, and left the lawyer to see if he could spot the answer in the story. And since our lectionary reading tonight just happened to be that story I reckon we'd better all sit down and listen to the story too. So here we go; I'll try and tell it in a little bit more detail than what Luke wrote it down, because he, of course, was working for Readers Digest at the time and only gave us the condensed version. The story as Jesus told it went something like this:

Once upon a time there was this bloke going down from Jerusalem to Jericho on foot. Going down is the only way to get from Jerusalem to Jericho because it is one heck of a steep road and you just about need a chair-lift to get back up again. Any way as he was coming down he got to a hairpin bend in the road where the surface was broken and very rough. As he picked his steps carefully so as not to twist his ankle or anything, a gang of drug crazed hoods leapt up from beside the road and grabbed him and gave him one heck of a hiding. In a matter of seconds he lost all consciousness and lay in a crumpled bloodied heap on the road. Quickly the hoods ripped his clothes apart in search of his wallet and anything else of value he might be carrying, and then, mission accomplished, disappeared as quickly as they had arrived, leaving the bloke lying almost naked and soaked in his own blood. A pretty ugly scene, one we've all seen a thousand times on our televisions, and which many of us have perhaps seen in reality.

Now it just so happened that about twenty minutes later, a Jewish Rabbi happened to come down the same road. As he reached the hairpin bend he couldn't help but see the battered bloke on the road. Now the Rabbi paused for a moment, and thought, I should do something. But immediately the words of the law, which he'd spent so many years studying, came flooding into his mind. Numbers 6: Those who are separated to the LORD he must not go near a dead body. Even if his own father or mother or brother or sister dies, he must not make himself ceremonially unclean on account of them, because the symbol of his separation to God is on his head. And Numbers 19: "Whoever touches the dead body of anyone will be unclean for seven days. He must purify himself with the water on the third day and on the seventh day; then he will be clean. But if he does not purify himself on the third and seventh days, he will not be clean. Whoever touches the dead body of anyone and fails to purify himself defiles the LORD's tabernacle. That person must be cut off from Israel.” The Rabbi was in an obvious dilemma. He couldn't tell whether the bloke was dead from a distance, and orthodox teaching held that if you came within two metres of a corpse you were defiled and if you were a man of the cloth that meant a week off work without pay. I don't think priests conducted funerals in those days! “People are depending on me to turn up and do my job,” he said to himself, “I can't sideline myself. People need teaching and pastoral care. There is bound to be someone else come along any minute now who will take care of this unfortunate soul.” And so he passed by on the other side of the road and continued his journey.

About quarter of an hour later an elected member of the City Council came along the road. She had been inspecting a new council funded Day-care Centre and was now heading back to the Municipal Offices. Her mind was buzzing from all the attention she had got at the centre and she was just thinking of things that she should have said to the reporter if she'd thought of them on time. Coming around the corner she caught sight of the battered body still lying unconscious on the side of the road. “Blast it,” she thought to herself, “That sort of thing really gives our municipality a bad name. Here we are trying to convince people that we've improved safety in the streets and then there are smashed up drunks lying in the street. I'll call the depot and arrange to have him picked up and the street hosed down. It's disgusting; we must have the street lighting improved down this road and see if we can't get the frequency of police patrols increased as a deterrent. Hopefully that will get these social undesirables to move off to another area. We certainly don't need them in this municipality. This is a respectable family area.” And she passed by on the other side of the road and contacted the council depot from her office an hour later to see that the man was picked up.

A few minutes after she had gone a lawyer came along that road carrying his brief case with several case files in it. He reached the hairpin bend where the bashed victim was lying and felt a surge of indignation that despite the best efforts of the legal system these sorts of incidents still went on. He stopped and looked carefully at the man, noting the evidence of boot marks around the ribs and the obviously smashed nose and broken teeth. “Definitely an assault,” he thought to himself, “this is not just a drunken derro. It would be nice if I stopped and did something about him I guess, but I'm not really in a position to do so. For one thing I've got clients waiting for me at the office and if I get involved I'm going to be stuck here all afternoon giving statements to the police and all kinds of things. More importantly I could end up having to represent either the victim or the perpetrator in court and if I get involved now it would be a clear conflict of interests then, so I really shouldn't. I'm sure someone else will be along any minute now.” And he passed by on the other side and went on his way.

It was another half an hour before anybody else passed that way. It was a social worker, employed by the Brotherhood of Saint Lawrence. She came to the corner where the bashed victim was lying, the blood now beginning to dry on his skin. She paused only for a momentary glance at him as he lay there. “Another stupid alco,” she thought out loud, “Or is this one a junkie? It's sometimes hard to tell. You get young alcoholics and old junkies these days. You get pretty sick of them all after a while, and there is never anything you can do for them. You clean them up, give them a meal and a change of clothes and they go straight back out and do it all again. A thankless task. Well I'm not at work now, it's somebody else's job this time. I've spent my whole shift attending to people like him. I've done my bit. He's brought it on himself anyway, he can just lie there for a while.” And with that, she too passed by on the other side and continued on her way.

A short time later a young university student came by on his mountain bike. He had knocked of classes for the day and was on his way to his girlfriend's place. Seeing the man their on the road he hopped of his bike and went over to have a look. He checked the man's chest was still moving to show that he was breathing. But then he started to worry. “I don't really know anything about first aid,” he thought. “What if I make things worse? They say you can do a lot of damage if you move someone wrong when they've got a back injury or something and I don't know how to tell what he's got. I could get sued if I do it wrong and make him worse. I don't really want to get blood on my new white jeans either. What can I do. He's still breathing and the bleeding seems to have mostly stopped so, as far as I can tell, he's not in any immediate danger. There are experts who are trained to handle this sort of thing. I guess someone will have called the ambulance by now; it looks like he's been here for a while. They'll be here any minute, for sure.” And so he got back on his bike and continued on to his girlfriend's place.

Minutes later a primary school teacher came down the road and reached the corner. Seeing the man lying on the road she immediately stopped and felt a wave of compassion for the poor man. She knelt down and checked his pulse and his breathing, and as she did he began to stir; the first faint signs of consciousness for several hours. But as he moved something was disturbed and the blood started flowing from his nose again. The teacher jumped back alarmed, not really sure what to do. “What if he's got AIDS?” she thought, “There's blood everywhere. The ambulance guys all use those disposable rubber gloves nowadays, when they're in a situation like this. He could well be a gay. He's almost naked. This could be one of those bizarre jealously attacks you sometimes read about in the papers. I think there are other things you can catch too and I sure don't want to catch anything. I've got the kids in class to think of, I can't risk picking up some infection that I might pass on to them. Especially AIDS. I could get sued by the parents.” And so she hurried off to find a phone booth to call an ambulance. The first one she found was being used by someone who didn't speak any English and the second one was out of order. “Oh well,” she thought, “I'm sure someone has already called the ambulance, or else somebody soon will. No-one can say I didn't try.” And she too continued on her way.

Soon another man came down the road. This man was one of those characters that I've never met anyone who actually liked. That's right. A Jehovah's Witness. One of those really full-on super self righteous Jehovah's Witnesses who wedge their foot in your door and then beat you over the ears with all their memorized versions of how the world's going to end and how only 144,000 are going to get into heaven, and nothing short of a doberman and a sub machine gun will get rid of them until they've finished telling you every thing they've ever learned. I had one tell me one time that I was so damned that he wouldn't even visit me any more! It had taken him eight visits to work that out though.

Any way this guy came down the road, on his way back from the Kingdom Hall. He'd just signed up for a commitment to doorknock an extra one hundred houses a month and he'd learned an extra five verses to harrass people with. He saw the body lying on the road and knelt down beside the victim, and checked his breathing and pulse, and the man began to stir again. He wasn't carrying a first aid kit or anything like that, but he took of his own shirt and tore it into strips and began to wipe the blood away from the victims face and finding a little water began to clean up the caked dried blood. The water helped bring the man back to consciousness a bit more. The JW tore more strips from his own shirt and used them to bandage the worst of the mans cuts. The having cleaned him up and collected up what little was left of his belongings, he gently helped him into the back of his car and lay him down on the back seat and made him as comfortable as is possible on a car seat. He then drove as smoothly as he could down the hill until he arrived at the Jericho Regional Hospital. The JW then assisted the victim gently into the casualty ward and checked him in. He then waited for a couple of hours while he was checked over and patched up by the hospital staff. The doctors recommended that he be kept in for a couple of days for observation so long as he was covered by health insurance. Well the victim's Medicare card had gone missing with his wallet of course and in Jericho, it was a bit like America, if you can't prove you're covered it's a bit hard to get a bed. So the JW pulled out his Bankcard and gave it to the hospital admissions desk. “Here, take this and charge all his expenses to my account. I'll cover it for now and we'll worry about Medicare later when he's properly recovered. I'll be back tomorrow to see how he's getting on.”

And Jesus concluded his story and turned again to the lawyer. “Which of these seven, do you think, on this occasion was a neighbour to the man who got bashed and robbed on the side of the road?”

With his voice shaking, unable to bring himself to even say the name, the lawyer replied, “The one who showed him mercy I suppose.”

And Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

And Jesus says to us, all of us, “Go and do likewise.”