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"...and who is my neighbour?"

Opening Sermon at Thanksgiving Worship, Doorn, Utrecht, Holland, 14 June.

14 June 2009

at the 14 – 17 June conference "Churches responding to the challenges of racism and related forms of discrimination and exclusion"

Doorn, Utrecht, Netherlands

by WCC general secretary Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia


14 June 2009

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus
and who is my neighbour?

Luke 10:29

It seems the most natural thing in the world for a person to care about family members. A scientist points out that family is an extension of self, and argues that there is a "selfish gene" driving each of us to ensure the successful continuation of our family line. Perhaps this explains our concern for people who live in our own neighbourhood, as well: by watching out for the people who live close to us, we provide better security networks for our loved ones and ourselves.

But what is it that causes us to extend ourselves, and to take real risks, for people farther removed from us? Why, in the parable Jesus told, did a passing Samaritan put himself out for the sake of a Jewish traveller? The Jew was someone whom this passer-by would have regarded as "the Other", someone whose well-being had no immediate relevance to the well-being of himself or his family.

Yet the Samaritan offers hospitality to this utter stranger. He treats his wounds and supports his recovery from the wrong that has been done to him, perhaps by situations and practices that cash on human vulnerabilities. It is a form of hospitality that goes far beyond our experience of offering a modest round of food and drink; the biblical concept of hospitality is a true challenge, an entering into a form of intimacy with strangers and the unknown. Biblical hospitality has little to do with entertainment of one's friends and the convivial gathering of folk who are much alike ourselves. No, biblical hospitality has to do with the kindness of strangers - and that is just its problem, and its opportunity.

We are grateful that this form of hospitality, of breaking down the barriers that separate us from those whom we are encouraged to view as the Other, is practised in our time – although with varying degrees of success. On Friday, the day before yesterday, this nation observed what would have been the 80th birthday of Anne Frank; it is an occasion to remember the attempts that were made to aid those whom the Nazis were determined to destroy, as well as to regret that many such attempts fell short.

This is also a season in which we recall the inauguration 40 years ago of the ecumenical campaign to combat racism, and particularly to oppose the system of apartheid in South Africa and its satellites. Thanks largely to an initiative undertaken under the auspices of the World Council of Churches, people from all regions of the globe were enabled to join in the struggle for liberation wherever racism raged. We have come to discern afresh what this commitment to battle against racism implies in today's world. For indeed racism is still alive.

Some asked at the time, Why should white Europeans take sides in the internal politics of a far-away nation like South Africa? For Christians, surely, the answer lies in the parable we are considering this afternoon.

In our text, the person to whom we ought to pay most attention says not a word, and not the slightest clue is offered as to who he was, or what he did. Jesus simply says,

"A man was going from Jerusalem to Jericho,
and he fell among robbers."

That is all we know and that is why most sermons on this text ignore that man and concentrate upon the priest and the Levite, the Good Samaritan, and even upon the inn keeper. Preachers love to discuss the hypocrisy of the priest and the Levite, how doubtless they were on their way to meetings to discuss how to make the highways safer for pedestrian travel, and hence had no time to stop. More knowledgeable exegetes refer to the various laws and hygienic codes that would have to be broken for priests and Levites to engage in road-side rescue work. I want us to visualize this nameless, faceless and voiceless traveller from Jerusalem to Jericho. Who was he? And then there is the good and proper emphasis upon the Samaritan and his unhesitating and generous hospitality to the wounded man. Jesus uses the Samaritan to illustrate that one who was himself an outcast and one of the wounded of the society was more likely than the privileged to show kindness and hospitality, which is what compassion means. He is described by the lawyer to whom Jesus tells the story as "the one who showed mercy" (v.37), and we are asked to "go and do likewise".

Now, this word mercy is a bit curious in this context, for the word mercy suggests an unmerited kindness, the gift of something undeserved. When a judge shows mercy in a criminal case, he is not responding to the facts, or what custom or even justice requires. But in the face of justice he shows mercy, that is, he forbears to do what is expected to someone whom he has in his power, and who has absolutely no claim upon him of any sort, and instead he shows compassion. It is not simply kindness; it is kindness in face of an opportunity to do otherwise. Mercy is not less than justice done; it is more than justice requires.

The reason why the Samaritan is called "good" and is described as "showing mercy" is that, as a stranger in Israel, a foreigner, he had no obligation to show hospitality to Jews, who were his sworn enemies; in fact, he might have been taught that a dead or dying Jew was one less Jew about whom to worry. Likewise, Jews traditionally were not encouraged to help a Samaritan; the law that tended to apply in this relationship was the law of the jungle. The Samaritan acted contrary to universal expectations and against his own cultural history and community interest; he showed mercy in spite of it all.

What this story demonstrates to us is that, if justice is the tool of the powerful, then mercy is the power of the weak, for herein is the power not simply to change conditions but to change minds and hearts. The Good Samaritan showed mercy when he could have exacted rough justice. And Jesus upholds him as one who, living beyond what the law requires, has a clue of what righteousness and eternal life are all about.

Now let us remind ourselves that Jesus was talking to a Jewish lawyer who, having knowledge of strict schools of biblical interpretation, may have had a narrow understanding of who his neighbour was. Jesus invites this learned friend to expand his perspective, and the model for mercy that Jesus offers him is that of an outcast, one of the wretched of the earth and despised by many in the lawyer's own community, but - and this is an interesting turn - Jesus does not bid the young Jew to love the Samaritan for what he did; he bids him to do what the Samaritan did for love.

It is the stranger who is commended to us, the foreigner who has no claim of kinship or obligation upon us to whom we open our hearts, not simply because it is expected in the way of minimal civil hospitality but because in the new law that Jesus offers the expected is not enough. Simple justice simply will not do. The old definitions of justice and hospitality will not work. It is a new and radical day that Jesus proclaims. In showing mercy, hospitality to the strangers among us, we expand the circles of God's providential and refreshing love and thereby free ourselves as well as others from the bondage of our own narrow limits.

The story of the Good Samaritan told two thousand years ago has become a touchstone for those who ask not merely, "How am I to treat my next-door neighbour?", but "To whom am I called to be a neighbour?"

The heroes who reached out to Anne Frank and her family, and to all those who have been demonized and harried throughout the past century, lived out their calling as neighbours and rejected the doctrines of hatred encouraging us to look at any group as the Other, the suspect, the reviled. As Nelson Mandela said of such worldviews, "Because these beliefs are patently false, and because they were – and always will be – challenged by the likes of Anne Frank, they are bound to fail."

Neighbours from many nations found common cause in Nelson Mandela's struggle, too, neighbours who knew of him only through reports from a distant land, and as they began to take action together to combat racism the system of apartheid was indeed "bound to fail".

Today, I see the parable of the "good" Samaritan as a classic text within the "ultimate immigration handbook", the Bible. It is as applicable to our situations today as it was in the actual context when Jesus told it. It speaks to us in this week after virulently anti-immigrant parties made unprecedented gains in European elections. This parable of Jesus calls us again to consider, "Who is my neighbour" and how are we to live out that relationship? Christ calls us to be neighbours of immigrants, of oppressed minorities within our own nations, of all who are in need of a neighbour. Christ calls us to be neighbours of people of other races who come to be a part of our community. Christ calls us to be neighbours of people of other faiths who become part of a society where Christianity is the majority. To do this we are called to oppose all systems and structures, all policies and practices that discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity or religion. We are called to reiterate our clear position that racism is a sin against God who determines the colour and race of all those God creates.

For churches and Christians in the Netherlands and across this world, reaching out to the strangers in our midst or advocating with the government in an increasingly difficult climate is not easy. Sometimes the ordinary Christians in the pew are confused or even hostile to refugees who are often of a different race and colour. The backlash is not something that is happening "out there". It is also happening in the communities where most of us live.

In the Epistle to the Hebrews, the author writes, "Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares" (Heb. 13:1-2).

In our text this afternoon it is the stranger and the battered Jew who is the means of entry into the new kingdom that is revealed in Jesus Christ, for the truth is that the neighbour and the stranger are one, that a commitment to unity overwhelms our differences. The neighbour is that person with whom we share not simply the cup of water and the crust of bread, but the adventure of life itself, given by God and lived to God's glory; and when we discover that, we will discover not only who our neighbour is, but who and whose we are. Amen.