Monday of week 27 of Ordinary Time – Gospel

Commentary on Luke 10:25-37

As we accompany Jesus firmly on his way to Jerusalem we come across this beautiful incident which is only to be found in Luke. (Imagine our loss if this gospel had not been handed down to us. And what other treasures of Jesus have we in fact lost over the centuries?)

We are told that a scribe approached Jesus with the intention of putting him on the defensive and perhaps making him contradict the teaching of the Law. (Was this just a single attack or was it part of a conspiracy?) The question sounded simple, the kind that anyone would put to a religious teacher: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” As so often happens, Jesus throws the question back at his interrogator. In fact, as a scribe, the man should already know the answer and Jesus asks him his opinion.

He replies as a Scribe might be expected to, not in his own words, but quoting two passages from the Pentateuch, from the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus which say we are to love God with all our heart and soul and our neighbour as ourselves. “Well done,” says Jesus. “Do that and life is yours.”

However, the man is not satisfied. “Anxious to justify himself”, he asks for the meaning of the word “neighbour”. For him the word meant, of course, only other Jews like himself but did it include every Jew, even those who did not follow the Law? Was he supposed to love them also?

The answer Jesus gave must have come as a surprise, not to say a shock. And it came in the form of a kind of parable. It is the story we know as the Good Samaritan. In the eyes of most Jews of the time such a term would be a contradiction. It would be like speaking in not so distant days of a “good Communist” or in more recent times of a “good terrorist”.

It is most likely (for the story to have meaning) that the man who was set upon by robbers and left half dead on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho was a Jew. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was a distance of about 30 km and involved a drop from about 800 metres above sea level to about 150 metres below sea level. It ran through rocky and desert country providing ample opportunity for hidden robbers to waylay unwitting travellers.

In the story three people saw him there. Two of them were religious people, people expected to be lovers of God and neighbour. Yet both carefully passed by on the other side. It is most likely that they were going in the opposite direction, that is, they were on their way from Jericho to Jerusalem and the Temple. The injured man would have been covered in blood. No one intending to go to pray in the Temple would dare to contaminate oneself and become ritually unclean by coming in contact with blood. In other words, they ignored the man for religious reasons.

But then a Samaritan came by. He was, in the eyes of the Jews, an alien and a heretic. There was strong hostility between the two neighbouring peoples on historical, geographical, racial and religious grounds. The Samaritan was regarded as a half-breed both physically and spiritually. They were ethnically related and shared some of the Jewish beliefs but were seen as heretics, ‘half-Jews’. We remember how surprised the Samaritan woman by the well of Jacob was when she was spoken to by Jesus, who would have been expected to ignore her.

This despised outsider, presumed to have nothing of the spirit of God’s mercy and compassion, gives the Jew lying on the ground the attention that the two other religious-minded men refuse to give. In fact, the Samaritan went to extraordinary lengths to take care of the injured man, sparing no expense. Two silver coins may not seem very much but it represented two day’s wages and would have been enough to keep someone for up to two months in a wayside inn.

It is difficult for us at this distance to understand the impact that such a story would have had on the traditional Jewish listener, not to mention a scribe. In our world today it would be something like a Palestinian terrorist coming to the help of a militant Israeli who has been abandoned by fellow-Israelis (or vice versa); it would be something like a violently anti-Catholic North of Ireland Protestant being helped by an IRA member while two ardent Unionists do not want to get involved.

Perhaps the reader can think of examples closer to home.

The question of Jesus is interesting: “Which of the three was a neighbour to the man who was waylaid?” The answer of the scribe is equally interesting: “The one who showed compassion towards him.”

The answer then to the question, “Who is my neighbour?” is not, as we learnt in our catechism, “Everybody”, though that is true. The answer of Jesus is: “A neighbour is someone who shows compassion to another in need – irrespective of who the helper or the person in need may be.” It is less a question of seeing every other person as my neighbour but, much more importantly, of my being actively a neighbour to others, not on the basis of their race, nationality, occupation, gender, skin colour, personality but on the basis of need. And who does not need love and compassion?

Finally, in answer to an academic, theological question, “Who is my neighbour?” Jesus tells the scribe not WHAT or WHO is his neighbour but to go and BE a neighbour.

The story has a secondary lesson for us about stereotyping. For the Jews there was the negative stereotype of the Samaritan (which was probably reciprocated). Our world today is full of stereotypes. We have stereotypes of practically every race and ethnic group and skin colour and they can influence our attitudes deeply and often unconsciously.

Certainly, each race can have recognisable characteristics – Jews, Italians, Irish, Germans, French, Chinese, Indians, Japanese, Africans – arising from language and traditions but it is an irrational jump to attribute to every member of a group generalised characteristics.

We can never say that “Irish are…”, or “Chinese are…”, or “Africans are…” There are too many exceptions. Every individual person has to be approached individually and there are good, bad and indifferent people to be found in every group, including our own. But they all have one thing in common: they should be confident of being helped by good neighbours in their time of need.

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