This morning, we are invited to consider again what must surely be one of Jesus’ most familiar parables, one which allows us to imagine ourselves in the role of any of the characters. It is a very rich story, with many subtle aspects, and Jesus tells it in response to a question from a teacher of the Jewish law. It seems that the test the lawyer sets before Jesus is an opportunity for Jesus to prove himself, rather than being some sort of trap intended to undermine his authority. The interaction feels mutually respectful.
In reply to Jesus’ probing response to his initial question, the lawyer seems to say something quite innovative. He combines the two great laws of love into one law, saying effectively that you cannot love God without loving your neighbour, and vice versa. Jesus approves of this, but points out that the challenge is to actually do both, and that doing so is the way to fullness of life.
This just leaves the question of who qualifies as neighbour. Those listening to Jesus might have been taught to define their neighbour quite narrowly as one of those within the community of their kinship group, that is, those who were like them. Jesus challenges any such assumption with his parable involving an anonymous man, that is, any person.
Amongst other considerations, it is a parable about seeing. All three of the people who encounter the person in need of help see him, but I think they differ in how they see. The priest and the Levite seem to see a problem to be avoided, something that will complicate their lives if they engage with it. The wounded man is a possible source of ritual uncleanness for them, and might even represent danger. What if the robbers are still around, hiding and waiting for more victims? We can have some sympathy for such a concern, I think.
John MacMurray (Reason and Emotion) writes:
We have a marvellous capacity for failing to notice what stares us in the face, if it is not immediately related to the purpose and interest that dominates our minds. … If we are to be full of life and fully alive, it is the increase in our capacity to be aware of the world through our senses which has first to be achieved. … The education of the emotions consists in this cultivation of a direct sensitiveness to the reality of the world around us. The reason why our emotional life is so undeveloped, is that we habitually suppress a great deal of our sensitiveness … It might seem strange that we should cripple ourselves so heavily in this way. But there is a simple reason for it: we are afraid of what would be revealed to us if we did not. In imagination we feel sure that it would be lovely to live with a full and rich awareness of the world. But in practice sensitiveness hurts. It is not possible to develop the capacity to see beauty without developing also the capacity to see ugliness, for they are the same capacity … We soon find that any increase in our sensitiveness to what is lovely in the world increases also our capacity for being hurt. That is the dilemma in which life has placed us. We must choose between a life that is thin and narrow, uncreative and mechanical, with the assurance that even if it is not very exciting it will not be intolerably painful; and a life in which the increase in its fullness and creativeness brings a vast increase in delight, but also in pain and hurt. … If we choose to minimise pain we must damp down human sensitiveness, and so limit the sources of possible delight.
The Samaritan also sees the person in need of help, but sees differently, sees with greater human sensitiveness, even sensitiveness to pain and hurt, the pain and hurt of simply another human being in distress. He was moved with such compassion that it seems he could not stop himself from doing everything he could to help, regardless of the risk to his own safety and security.
How do we learn to see like that? If we cannot love God without loving our neighbour, I think it is also true that we cannot love our neighbour without loving God and so learning to see as God sees and to care about what God cares about.
The apostle Paul commends the Colossian community for the loving faith they have in response to the hope found in the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Their understanding of the grace of God and their experience of love in the Spirit has changed them. Having been brought into the kingdom of God, they have been strengthened to endure everything with patience while joyfully giving thanks for the goodness of their lives together and of the work that they can do that is worthy of the Lord.
Truly, they have found that the commandment to love is not too hard for them nor too far away. The loving word is very near to them, in their mouth and in their heart as they turn to the Lord their God with all their heart and with all their soul. May the same be true for us as the gospel bears fruit among us, fruit that is pleasing to God and helpful to our neighbour, whoever that may turn out to be.