Five Jewish students, two from New York, travelled Hebron to visit the Cave of the Patriarchs, revered by the Abrahamic faiths as the resting place of Abraham. It seems they took a wrong turn and drove into the Palestinian part of the divided city. As the lost students travelled through the West Bank, their car was set alight with fire bombs and they were pelted with stones. They frantically left their car and began running away, desperate and hopeless. A Palestinian man heard the cries from inside his house and ventured out. He saw them running in fear from other Palestinians. The Palestinian man, Fayez Abu Hamdiyeh, rushed to them and spoke in Hebrew, reassuring them and ushered them into his house to protect them. He called police and protected the students until they arrived. When it was suggested he was a hero, Abu Hamdiyeh said, “I did what needed to be done,” he added, “That’s how everyone should behave. We have no problems with the Israelis and we don’t want to have any.”
I wonder what the students first thought when they saw a Palestinian man rushing at them whilst they were trying to escape other Palestinians. I imagine that they felt threatened and more fearful and scared of him, one of the ‘enemy’. There are many risk-taking stories of people crossing over social and other divides to provide help and support to someone who is ‘different’ and perhaps a natural enemy. In the midst of a divided world there are many barriers and much fear – there are many ‘enemies’ and Jesus’ call to love is a profound challenge!
In contemporary Australia it is unsurprising to encounter fear-based anxiety and the exclusion of those who appear or sound different, those who are not understood and those are ‘not like us.’ From Indigenous Australia to asylum seekers, to those who look different, have a different faith system or those who are impoverished – economically, educationally, socially or who live with mental illness of physical disability. Those who appear different are either ignored, rejected or treated with suspicion and excluded from ‘our world,’ out of fear, judgement or some sense of superiority. Some of this is conscious and some exists in our subconscious minds. None of it is love, as Jesus calls us to live.
This week we have before us the well-known tale of ‘The Good Samaritan’ (Luke 10:25-37). This story and our traditionally mild interpretation have entered into the vocabulary of the wider society. A ‘good Samaritan’ is a common reference to anyone who does a kind deed to a stranger. The phrase is even part of the legal system that protects people doing a good deed to a stranger they believe injured or in urgent need of help – it is s ‘Good Samaritan Law’. The phrase is used broadly in naming institutions and places where care and mercy are offered, where kindness is expected to be practiced to friend and stranger. Good Samaritans are, apparently, people who practice acts of charity, care or kindness and this comes from a rather simple, even simplistic reading of Jesus’ story in Luke’s Gospel.
The story is part of a section where a lawyer comes to Jesus seeking wisdom about how he could ‘inherit eternal life.’ This is not about getting into some future heaven beyond death but the deep experience of God’s presence in life, now. We might ask: How do I find deep, rich meaningful life here and now? It is an existential question and one that underlies the deep anxiety and sense of yearning that pervades our materialistic and increasingly superficial Western World. Despite our increasing wealth and the capacity to have more ‘stuff’ than ever before, we are, on the whole, less satisfied, less hopeful and more depressed, anxious and afraid. Despite having access to more information about more of the world and having access to more of the world through travel (or perhaps because of it?), we seem to be more cut off from people and more suspicious and frightened of those who are different than ever before. We yearn for an answer to the lawyer’s question.
Jesus throws it back at him, asking what he believes and his response is that which is known as the Great Commandment, found in the first 3 gospels – ‘Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, you mind, your soul and your strength. Love your neighbour as yourself.’ These words are derived from the Old Testament books of the law, Leviticus and Deuteronomy and were apparently often connected.
Jesus affirmed the lawyer and told him that this is the way into God’s heart, the way into deep and richly meaningful life – that which is eternal and lasting! The lawyer wants to justify himself and define his actions – how far does this call to love extend? Where are the boundaries and limitations of love? How far do I have to cast the net of love and who is ‘in,’ who is ‘out’? Jesus then tells a story of a man who falls victim to robbers and is left to die by the roadside. In a typical story ‘of three,’ two people come past and set their priorities of love in one direction, whilst a third expresses his in another direction. Two pass by and the third gives exceptional care. The sting in the tail is this – he is a Samaritan!
If this were merely a story of example, Jesus would neither bother with priest and Levite in the first two, nor Samaritan as the exemplar. Any three people would do – go and emulate number and care for one of your own in need. That would be challenge enough possibly, except that the point of love, love for God and neighbour is that we are challenged to go beyond the natural bounds. We are challenged to break down the barriers of hatred, enmity, suspicion, fear and rejection – we are to incorporate everyone into our circle of love! This is hard!
When the Jewish man in the gutter looked up and saw priest and Levite coming he possibly believed he was safe but they passed by. They were bound by other legal priorities and would not allow themselves to become unclean by coming into contact with one who was bloodied and beaten. Ritual cleanliness was their imperative and defined how they would act. We also find all manner of ‘legal’ or other ritual reasons to exclude, deny and avoid the path of loving those on the other side of social and other divides.
When the Jewish man looked up and saw a Samaritan, a sworn enemy of his people, he probably expected a knife, a boot; the logical conclusion of his beating – death. He looked into the eyes of another human who offered grace and care, crossed barriers that divided their people for centuries. He was caught up in love that transcended barriers and boundaries and Jesus invites us to take up this challenge of busting through boundaries on the way to love. We are challenged to embrace the ‘other’ as friend and neighbour as offensive and difficult as this might feel and be!