Who is my neighbour?

Imagine someone you can’t stand? Imagine someone who you find it almost impossible to think of them as having any redeeming qualities?

If we can think of that person then we start to get an idea of how shocking Jesus Parable of the Good Samaritan would have been to his audience.

The parable was told in response to a question by a lawyer who had a very narrow concept of neighbour. He wanted to know the limits of his responsibility and expected Jesus to give credence to his long-held views that it only applied to his own race. This understanding came from the Old Testament Leviticus 19:18 where as far as the Israelites were concerned their concept of neighbour was restricted to their own race.

Jesus answers the lawyer’s question by relating the story of the Good Samaritan. This parable would have shocked his listeners on two levels. Firstly, he portrayed their own revered leaders as being inactive and unhelpful because they allowed themselves to be limited to the bounds of their own cultural norms. The second level was the portrayal of the Samaritan as compassionate, who was prepared to break cultural norms, and did everything possible to help the Jewish man in need. ‘He is more a blood brother than you would expect a blood brother to be.’ (Bredin, Eamonn, Jesus of Nazareth Lectures given at Loreto House, Dublin, Ireland, 2nd – 4th October 2002).

At the time Jesus told this story Jews and Samaritans had been in conflict for hundreds of years. The historical background highlights differences in how both races developed, religious beliefs sometimes leading to defilement of each other’s temples, religious purity and different concerns. It also raises matters of a sense of identity and land. All these differences had conditioned them to hate each other. It was part of their upbringing.

In leaving them with the question “which of the three proved neighbour” he asked his listeners to express the inexpressible. The inexpressible for them was to connect Samaritan and neighbour. The lawyer when giving his answer could not even say the word Samaritan.

In this story Jesus uses an extreme example of people from different races conditioned to hate each other in order to illustrate ‘that one who loves seeks not limits but opportunity’ (Boucher, Madeleine I. 1981The Parables New Testament Message 7 Dublin: Veritas Publications, page 120).

I think it is fair enough to say that when we reflect on this passage, we begin to realise the implications are huge.