‘And who is my neighbour?’

‘And who is my neighbour?’

The Reverend Dr Gregory Seach | Warden | Wollaston Theological College

In recent weeks, some people around the world have been amazed by the continuing saga of the so-called ‘Brexit’ vote in the United Kingdom. At the same time, our own recent Federal election – another continuing saga for a week or more! – saw the re-election to the Senate, after some years’ absence, of Pauline Hanson. 

At first glance, one thing common to both of these elections is a sense expressed by some voters that there is too much diversity in the populations of the two countries. Those who voted to leave the EU felt that too many people from different parts of continental Europe were choosing to make Britain their home. Senator Hanson also argues that those coming to live here come from places and cultures that are too different from Australia’s for them to settle here without causing disruption and disturbance. And the results of both elections were revealed against a background of increasing racial tension in the United States. Inclusion and diversity, it seems, may be acceptable in the abstract, but the reality of what such values means is just a little too unsettling for some people to accept.

In reflecting on the questioning of diversity that such events show, it was helpful that a recent Sunday gospel reading was ‘the parable of the Good Samaritan’. Helpful, because what provokes Jesus to tell that parable is the question of a lawyer: ‘And who is my neighbour?’ (Luke 10: 29). Jesus answers this question by telling the famous story of the traveller who is robbed, beaten and left for dead. And, as we know, it is a passing Samaritan, not two religious figures, who offers assistance to the wounded traveller. At the end of the tale, Jesus rephrases the lawyer’s question: ‘Which of these three was a neighbour?’, and the answer seems clear: it is the Samaritan. It is important to know that, in Jesus’ day, ‘the neighbour’ was someone you chose for yourself. One’s personal enemies hardly needed to be included, which is why elsewhere Jesus will insist that following him means we must love our enemies. But it went further than that. Some Jews (the Essenes, some Pharisees) regarded even other Jews – those ‘less pure’ or ‘less clean’ (like shepherds – which, again, is why Luke has them as the first witnesses to the birth of the Messiah) – as outside the circle of neighbourliness. As for aliens and foreigners, especially the despised Samaritans, they were utterly beyond the pale. So, part of Jesus’ point in the parable is to shock the lawyer into recognising the infinite extent of that question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ But there’s a further shock in this parable, one seen by the third century theologian Origen and by Mother Julian of Norwich. For both of them, the real ‘Good Samaritan’ is Jesus. He comes from heaven and makes himself our neighbour. That means, in a way, we can only be ‘good Samaritans’ because he has made us all neighbours.

Jesus takes a neighbourhood of wounded travellers – that is, all humanity – and, by becoming our neighbour, expands our vision and understanding of what it is to be a neighbour. All people, of whatever diverse background, culture, origin, culture, become included as neighbours. So, whatever Brexit or One Nation might argue, (and those who agree with such views are also our neighbours, of course), living as members of the church of the true Good Samaritan, the one who reconciles ‘all things… making peace through the blood of his cross.’ (Colossians 1: 20), means we recognise all as neighbours.