Deuteronomy 30.9-14 / Colossians 1.1-14 / Luke 10.25-37
Who are we? Who are they?
If I asked you to describe yourself in just one word, which one would you choose?
It’s a hard thing to do because we’re complicated people and we probably want to use many words to describe ourselves at different times.
But what about if I asked you to describe a stranger using just one word?
Somehow, it’s a lot easier to do that, often using a negative stereotype to do so.
For example, we might see a woman in a headscarf and think “Muslim” and then of all the negative images that there are at the moment of Muslims, like “terrorist” or “fundamentalist”.
But actually there’s a lot more to her than her headscarf.
This woman may be a wife, a mother, a doctor or a teacher, and a friend.
Like us, she has hopes and fears and dreams, maybe she loves rollercoasters and dogs.
Above all, she’s probably a person who just wants to get on with her life like we all do.
Or we might meet someone on the other side in the Remain/Leave debate and be tempted to dismiss them as idiots because they don’t agree with us about the European Union.
But there’s a lot more to them than the box they ticked in the referendum.
They too have families and friends, jobs, interests, hopes, fears and dreams.
In our Gospel reading today an expert in the Jewish law asked Jesus who his neighbour was.
He wanted to know, in other words, who he had to help and who he could ignore with a clear conscience.
Where were the boundaries of care and compassion?
In response, Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which a man is attacked and left hurt lying in the road.
A priest and a Levite go past without helping, even though they were the clergy of the day, and if anybody knew about helping people in need it should have been them.
Then a Samaritan appeared.
In Jesus’s time, Jews and Samaritans were enemies divided by a common religion.
Variations in the interpretation of the Scriptures led to massive hostility between the two communities, in a way that’s still familiar today to us Christians, not least in the history of Northern Ireland.
When Jews thought about Samaritans they tended to use words like “wrong”, “bad”, “enemy” and “unclean”.
So, when the Jews listening to Jesus heard him mention a Samaritan arriving they would have shivered in fear and been convinced that something even worse was going to happen to the injured man.
Was this story going to end in tragedy?
If you turn Good Samaritan into Good Islamic Fundamentalist you get an idea of what was going on here.
But then Jesus shocks everybody by making the Samaritan into the hero of the story, the person who goes out of his way to help the injured man.
This would’ve been completely unexpected, undermining every stereotype that the Jews had about the Samaritans.
The sting in the tale
Now, often people think this story is just about being nice, and of course it is – up to a point.
But there’s nothing new about saying it’s nice to be nice, and you don’t have to be religious or even Christian to be kind and helpful.
Many people of all faiths and none go out of their way to care for others and try to live as good people.
The Jews were also used to the idea that they had a duty to help other people, as social justice and protecting the vulnerable are strong themes throughout the Jewish Scriptures.
And, near the beginning of our reading the law expert himself talked about loving your neighbour as yourself being one of the two great commandments of the law, alongside loving God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind.
But Jesus introduces a new, radical and difficult bit of teaching because he tells his questioner that our neighbour is everybody.
This means friends, enemies and people we’re not much bothered about either way.
It means the people we’re tempted to dismiss with easy stereotypes as well as the people we appreciate for all their complex characteristics and personality traits.
The answer to the question “Who is my neighbour?” is everybody.
God’s answer to Cain’s question
In the lawyer’s question I hear an echo of Cain’s question back in Genesis after he’d killed his brother Abel and God asked him where Abel was.
Cain replied, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’
And the answer echoing through the pages of the Bible ever since is ‘Yes’.
We are our brother’s, and our sister’s, keeper because God created human beings to live in community and have responsibilities towards one another.
All people are made in the image of God and are loved by God, so all people are our neighbours and worthy of help.
This is where Christianity differs from just being a nice person.
However kind, good and helpful we might be, it goes against the grain to help an enemy, someone who’s hurt us or a representative of a despised group of people.
For example, if someone stole from this church and got injured in the process, how happy would you be about helping them?
But God still loves that thief, and even the terrorist, because he sees beyond the label to the complicated person underneath, with all their mixed thoughts, emotions and motivations, and he sees what they could be.
This doesn’t mean that we should just let people do what they like, because love sometimes means letting people face the consequences of their actions so that they can learn and grow into better people.
Love sometimes means standing up for the victims of cruelty and prejudice and defending those who have no voice.
But our desire to see God’s justice prevail shouldn’t push out God’s love for the world, which includes those who would consider themselves his enemies or ignore him completely.
Everything we do needs to be touched by mercy and compassion because that is how God acts.
We need to remember how much we have been forgiven and how much we are loved, with all our mixed thoughts, feelings and motivations, and extend that love to others.
And above all we need to remember that we ARE our brother’s keeper – and EVERYONE is our neighbour.