A man was journeying through the heart of Kings Cross and he got mugged – beaten up, robbed, and left for dead at the side of the road.
Yes, we’re in Luke chapter ten and I’m sure you know the story well enough!
I’m adapting the story slightly, of course. In the original version the man is travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho, but it doesn’t really matter where he travelled. The point was that it was a trip he was ill-advised to make!
Perhaps he was walking from Dulwich Hill to Redfern, or from Dulwich Hill to Bankstown (as that may be the more dangerous journey nowadays). It was, at any rate, dangerous territory, just as a trip between Jerusalem and Jericho today can still be treacherous.
If you take the direct route today you’ll be heading through both Israeli and Palestinian territory and depending on whose side you’re on, there’s every chance that you’ll either be detained at a checkpoint or pelted with rocks!
In the case of this particular guy he is mugged – stripped, beaten up, wallet gone, credit cards, money, the lot! Moreover, he’s taken a knife wound or two, and so he’s curled up at the side of the road, in bad need of help.
And people see him there, we are told – religious people; exactly the type of people you might hope would see you there, people from whom you might expect real help!
In Jesus’ version of the story it’s a Rabbi and a Levite, but in our version let’s make it an Anglican priest, a Catholic priest, a Pentecostal pastor and a Salvation Army officer as well, just to round out the picture! The point is that all the kosher people – all the upright and respectable religious people – see the man in his miserable state and all, we are told, they respond by avoiding contact with him!
Now we’re not told why these people do nothing to help but the truth is that there are always good reasons for doing nothing.
I don’t know if you’ve ever found yourself in a situation like this, where you’ve seen some poor soul lying in a crumpled heap on the footpath but if you have you’ll be familiar with the sort of self-talk that inevitably finds its way into your head.
“He’s probably just drunk!” That’s the first rationale we tend to give ourselves for not interfering.
Of course it’s not the only excuse available. It’s easy to come up with others:
- How do I know he’s really hurt? He could be trying to lure me over to him?
- Perhaps the muggers are still around. They’ll jump me too if I go near!
- And I don’t have a clue what to do! I don’t know first aid. He needs a doctor!
Mind you, if you know how these situations work, we don’t, for the most part, need any excuse. Finding ourselves in this sort of situation, most of us just take our lead from other bystanders. We notice that they are doing nothing, so we do nothing too!
This phenomenon is called ‘deindividuation’ in social psychology. That’s the term for the appalling social phenomenon wherein people who don’t know how to respond to someone in crisis take their lead from the rest of the observing crowd.
There was an infamous case in America that I remember studying while I was at University many years ago – a case of a woman who was assaulted in a courtyard in the middle of a block of flats, where she screamed so loudly that lights went on everywhere and scores of people watched as the woman was raped and beaten and eventually killed, and no one did anything to intervene. Everybody, it seems, took their lead from everybody else, and so rather than do anything, they all just watched and did nothing as this poor woman met her grizzly fate!
There are always good reasons for doing nothing, and for whatever reason the good religious folk who come across this injured man do exactly that – nothing. And then a Muslim guy comes along, and not just any mosque-going Muslim but a full-blown Wahhabi guy with a big, square beard! And the guy by the side of the road is thinking “I’ve got enough problems as it is without a Wahhabi coming to finish me off”.
But to everybody’s surprise the bearded gentleman stops, stoops over the man, assesses the extent of his injuries and applies first aid. He then gets the man into his car and drives him to the nearest private clinic. Given that the injured man has no Medicare card, the Wahhabi guy gives the doctor his own credit card and says “keep the details of my card in case he needs some extra medication” and then he goes his way, without seeking thanks or recognition.
Thus ends the story of “The Good Muslim” or, if you’re a Muslim listening to this, substitute “The Good Jew”, or, if you’re a Jew, substitute “The Good Christian” or “The Good Samaritan” – you get the idea. The protagonist in the story represents that group that we least identify with. He is the archetype of our fears. In terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’ he is the ‘them’, and yet he is the hero of this narrative.
And so this story challenges our prejudices … sorta.
Certainly it suggests that not all of ‘those people’ are as bad as we might have thought. For indeed, every rotten bunch of apples has at least one decent one in it. It’s just that the 99% give the 1% a bad name, though even then, it’s just a story. And so we go comfortably home with all our prejudices squarely intact … NOT!
I think we’ve missed the point!
In case you didn’t pick it up, there was a problem in the way I just told the story, and it’s a problem we regularly come across when we deal with the stories of Jesus, and it’s the fact that we’ve told the story without looking at the context in which the story was told, and, as we like to say around here ‘a text without a context is a pretext for a proof-text’, and we can’t have that!
Context is everything! I was reading an archaeologist responding to someone questioning him about how he knew whether artifacts he discovered were important. He said “it depends entirely on the context in which they are discovered”.
There’s no point in just coming up with a bone or a piece of a statue. Did it come from a burial site or from a temple? What was the soil-type, the site type, the layer that the artifact came from, and what else was found in the layer where that artifact was discovered!
It’s the context that gives meaning to the individual bits you find there, and that’s as true of language as it is of an archaeological dig. What was the context in which this story was told? Why was it told? Who was it told to, and what sort of response was Jesus expecting from the people He told it to?
Thankfully we don’t have to look too far to find the answer to these questions as they are supplied in the very same chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke.
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” (Luke 10:25-29)
Someone is playing a game with Jesus.
It may not have started as a game. The initial question – “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” – might have been quite genuine, but by the end of the conversation the questioner is “wanting to justify himself”.
Jesus has told His questioner that it’s all about love – love of God and love of neighbour – but the questioner wants to justify himself by getting some parameters from Jesus. He knows that he must love his neighbour as he loves himself, but how do we interpret that? Who is my neighbour? Who is my brother? Who is my sister? Who are the people I am responsible for and where does my responsibility end?
This is the big question. It’s a big question for all of us! We know that life is all about love, but who are we supposed to love. We can’t love everyone, surely, so where does our responsibility end? And the obvious answer to that question – the answer that has been given by almost every religious group and culture throughout history – is that your responsibility ends with your own tribe.
That’s what patriotism is, isn’t it? It’s feeling pride in your own tribe from your own country. It might seem a little artificial at first – the idea that your love ought to stop once you hit the edge of the land-mass you were born on – and yet patriotism is flouted as a great virtue. Without patriotism how would we convince our proud countrymen to go and kill people from other tribes and countries? Why would we bother if we didn’t believe that our tribe is better than theirs?
Patriotism, mind you, has its limits, and experience tells us that loyalties to family, race and religion are generally far more powerful than any loyalty to any nation-state. And indeed that is the essential context in which this story is told. We are dealing with a group of Jewish men asking a Jewish rabbi whom they should consider as their neighbour and the obvious answer to that is that it’s their fellow Jew!
This is not just a racial issue or a religious or a family issue. It’s all three combined! It’s your fellow Jews who are your sisters and brothers. These are the people who are of your blood and of your race. These are the people to whom you are responsible and for whom you are responsible. It is with your fellow Jews that your responsibilities start and it is with your fellow Jews that your responsibilities end!
Who is my neighbour? Who is my sister? Who is my brother? These were pretty much synonymous terms in the culture of the time and the answer to each of them was identical. Your fellow Jew is your sister, brother, neighbour and your friend. It was your fellow Jew that you had to love, and it’s not as if you have to consign the rest of them to be damned, but they are not your responsibility!
And Jesus says ‘let me tell you a story’ and He tells them a story that begins with an account of a guy who was beaten up by his fellow Jews.
Or maybe they weren’t Jews who beat him up. It isn’t specified, and maybe that’s important because it may be that the key to the whole story is that race and religion don’t seem to have any effect on the way the story turns out!
We weren’t expecting that! We were expecting a religious story, particularly when a priest and a Levite turn up as characters in the story.
It’s a bit of a surprise actually – how brief their cameo appearances in the story are! They are the only obviously religious figures Jesus mentions. We might have expected them to do something religious – to say a prayer at least for the poor man at the side of the road – but they say nothing. No sooner do they appear on the scene than they disappear back into the obscurity from which they emerged.
The Samaritan is the only figure who gets any real attention in the story, and beyond his label that designates him as a representative of a foreign race and alternative faith there is nothing particularly religious about his performance. He doesn’t call upon the name of his alternative god just as he doesn’t perform any strange ritual. He just gets on with doing what needs to be done. There seems to be something strangely secular about Jesus’ story!
Or maybe it’s not about being secular as such. Maybe it’s just that the religious labels – Priest and Levite, Christian and Muslim, Samaritan and Wahhabi – aren’t all that relevant when it comes to doing the work of God in acts of love!
Indeed, if you read the text carefully you’ll realise that Jesus doesn’t actually give any direct answer to the ‘who is my neighbour’ question, which is a question that is asking for some sort of method for distinguishing between us and them.
Instead of identifying who is and who is not my neighbour, Jesus treats neighbourliness as a verb. In response to the question ‘who is my neighbour?’ Jesus asks ‘what sort of neighbour are you?’
In the process of reconfiguring the question Jesus makes all distinctions between Jews and gentiles, Christians and Muslims, Samaritans and Wahhabis, us and them completely irrelevant when it comes to who we are supposed to target with our love!
Does that mean that we’re all the same or that our beliefs are all the same or that there’s no room for arguments between us? None of the above! What it does mean though is far more important than any of those things. It means that our responsibility to show love and mercy doesn’t stop with our own tribe!
Tribalism is the deadly enemy of the church. Tribalism the deadly enemy of all religion! It’s not theological issues that start so-called religious wars. It’s tribalism! It’s tribalism that’s tearing apart Syria at the moment. It’s tribalism that turns people of faith into terrorists, and it’s tribalism that Jesus was confronting when He told us this story of an act of love that showed no respect for tribal boundaries.
“Go and do likewise!” Jesus challenged his questioner, and the same challenge still lies before us today! Go and do likewise – acting in love with a strident disregard for all the distinctions that categorise and divide us up into the good, the bad and the ugly, into us and them. For in the end there is only one tribe, one God, one love. Amen!
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on July 14, 2013.