Somewhere this week, I read that there is no more violence than before, just more reporting and sensationalism. As police, formerly thought of as peace officers, become militarized, both in appearance and in actuality, it is difficult to reconcile media coverage with reality. I remember a time when the police were thought to be friends of the community, the defenders of the vulnerable. I suspect many of those people still want to have that role, but as people are driven away from each other and into corners, coming together in the centre becomes more difficult and more dangerous.
In Luke 10:29, a lawyer asks Jesus, “But who is my neighbour?” Jesus responds with the parable of the Samaritan, the face of the “other”, who cares for the person who has been brutalized. Two others, a priest and a Levite, pass the victim, either intent upon their own business, afraid, or unwilling. When Jesus asks which of the passers by was a a neighbour, the lawyer responds that it was the Samaritan who had shown the victim kindness. So Jesus sends him on his way to do the same.
I want to ask a different question of this text. Who was not a neighbour? It seems to me that in a superficial sense they were all neighbours to each other.
The lawyer himself probably represents the Pharisees with their exacting interpretations of Torah.
The robbers might have been some of the people displaced by Roman occupation or heavy taxation.
The priest whose concerns were cultic, ritual actions and instruction in Torah. He would not be expected to be concerned with good works.
The Levite, also a Temple official, would perhaps have decided the risk was too great to reach out to the person in the ditch. Like the priest, he might have assumed it was either too late anyway, or that the person in the ditch, had somehow deserved his fate.
The Samaritan, a member of an alternative form of Judaism, might have had the same strictures and distaste as the other two. He, however, feels compassion and almost without thinking, gathers the victim up and takes him to an inn.
The inn keeper, not a reputable role either, since most people would never stay in an inn rather than the home of someone, takes a risk also. This inn keeper accepts the victim for a time of convalesence, trusting that the Samaritan would return and repay the cost.
Of course, all these people are neighbours. They live in the same geographical region. They have the same context of the Roman occupation, although they may have responded to it differently. They live in a society made violent by frustration, poverty, and the oppressive imperialism of Rome. They share a reality, although they would probably be surprised to hear it. They share shadings of the same religious convictions and practices. They are all victims in one way or another.
The model of the Samaritan breaks up not only the prejudice of the listeners to this parable. It also suggests that violence is only possible when people allow cultic, or political, or economic status concerns to blind us to reality. And this is the reality: a person is lying in a ditch for whatever reason. It is irrelevant whether or not the ditch is of their own making. It is irrelevant what this person’s religious, socio-economic status is or what their ethnicity suggests. There is only one pertinent question: How can I help?
The question is important because it does not demand answers on the rescuer’s part, but rather willingness to engage. Now if the victim were unconscious or rendered unable to speak, then perhaps the time for questions has passed. In that case, there is only immediate assistance to be obtained. But if the victim can still speak, then the rescuer has to allow that person the dignity of accepting help. Unless the victim sees the rescuer as a neighbour too, no healing can come.
So what are the ingredients of being neighbourly? Compassion initiates recognition of neighbourliness. Compassion renders difference irrelevant. Trust must be shared for help to be offered or received. Action must be undertaken to change the situation. Follow through beyond the immediate moment so trust can be extended into the future.
Our world needs quieter voices, more listening. Action that is undertaken before compassion or trust will usually be ill-advised. We can practice these behaviours with each other. Most of us feel powerless to change the world as we observe it, but we can change the world around us. Are we neighbours by conviction and practice?
Here is what Thomas Merton said about the costliness of healing the world: As long as we are on earth, the love that unites us will bring us suffering by our very contact with one another, because this love is the resetting of a Body of broken bones. even saints cannot live with saints on this earth without some anguish, without some pain at the differences that come between them. There are two things that we can do about the pain of disunion with others. We can love or we can hate. Hatred recalls from the sacrifice and the sorrow that are the price of this resetting of bones. It refuses the pain of reunion. But love by the acceptance of the pain of reunion, begins to heal all wounds.