Loving Our Neighbour

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An opinion piece in the Nursing Times last week said this:

"Simple kindnesses can and do make a huge difference to a patient, and to their family's experience… I think the subtle art of a simple act of kindness, compassion, or a soft word or gentle touch to a patient is often underestimated. The transformational difference this can and does make to a patient's mood and wellbeing is often forgotten."

I'm not given to reading the Nursing Times, but my daughter Hannah who is a nurse drew my attention to it – because she wrote it! It's a good piece, in my completely objective and unbiased opinion; but nonetheless, it's a striking thing that kindness needs to be encouraged among nurses. And it's not just nurses. Kindness is in short supply. And the followers of Jesus need to be supplying more of it.

My title, as you'll see from the outline on the back of the service sheet, is Loving Our Neighbour. Last month we thought about Loving God, and we learned afresh then that loving God cannot and must not be separated from loving our neighbour. So I have three simple headings: first, We are called to a life of loving our neighbour; secondly, We need to repent of any failure to love; and thirdly, We need to put love for our neighbour into practice. And I'd like you to turn to Luke 10.25-37, the section headed 'The Parable of the Good Samaritan'. So:

1. We are called to a life of loving our neighbour

I must say first of all that I have misgivings about the traditional name for this parable – 'The Good Samaritan'. It has often lead to this fictional Samaritan being seen as the ultimate Mother Teresa figure – compassionate care personified. But is that really justified? The main thrust of the parable lies in a different direction, and if we're going to get to grips with it, we must first consider this lawyer who is tangling with Jesus. What is really going on here in this conversation between the lawyer and Jesus? Verses 25-29:

"And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, "Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" He said to him, "What is written in the Law? How do you read it?" And 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 answered correctly; do this, and you will live." But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, "And who is my neighbour?"

What's really up? Well, there are two possible scenarios. The first is that this lawyer is an honest, straightforward seeker after truth. That is one scenario. But there is another. It is that he is not interested in the truth at all. He just wants to score a point against Jesus, because ultimately he wants to destroy Jesus' growing reputation. And it's this second scenario which fits the bill better. What we have here is a war of words. This is not a cosy fireside chat. The knives are out. The lawyer wants to put the knife in Jesus' back. And Jesus wants to do spiritual surgery on the lawyer. And come to that, on us too. This, then, is the beginning of a life and death conflict that ends with Jesus going to the cross. That's confirmed in three ways.

Firstly, Jesus' view of these religious lawyers in general becomes crystal clear soon after this. Luke 11.46-52 contain his considered – and devastating – opinion. Verse 46 is very much to the point:

"Woe to you lawyers also! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers."

There is not an ounce of kindness in them, according to Jesus. Secondly, the view of the lawyers about Jesus becomes clear too. Luke 11.53:

"the scribes [that is, the lawyers] and the Pharisees began to press him hard and to provoke him to speak about many things, lying in wait for him, to catch him in something he might say."

The lawyers hated Jesus. Then thirdly there is evidence in our passage itself. Verse 25 says that the lawyer "stood up to put [Jesus] to the test". That is the same word used of testing God out of a griping unbelief and disobedience. And then in verse 29 the lawyer is wanting to "justify himself". He wants to vindicate his own position by crushing Christ. He wants to catch him out and knock him down. So there is a battle on, but Jesus is turning the tables. That is the purpose of the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus is showing the lawyer three things. First, that he – the lawyer – doesn't understand the most basic things about salvation. It is not something you can do anything to earn, precisely because none of us is good enough. Eternal life can only be a gracious gift of God. Secondly, Jesus is showing the lawyer that he doesn't love God. After all he is wanting to stamp on the Son of God who is standing there before him. The lawyer's heart is a million miles from the heart of God. Thirdly, Jesus is showing the lawyer that he doesn't even do the more easy thing of loving your neighbour.

In other words Jesus is cutting the ground right away from underneath the lawyer's feet, and confronting him with the truth about himself. And we can watch the process and be glad that Jesus is not confronting us. Or can we? Do we, like so many, believe in our heart of hearts that eternal life will come to us as long as we're occasionally kind to our neighbours? If so, we too are on a collision course with Christ. The lawyer had a point to prove. Jesus had a lesson to teach about a life filled with a love that has no limit – a limitless love for God that leads to a limitless love for our neighbour. We are called to a life of loving our neighbour. That's the first thing.

2. We need to repent of any failure to love

I remember once driving up the A1 late at night, and I found at one point that the road was totally blocked. The emergency services were on the scene, and there had clearly been an accident. The driver of an articulated lorry had, it seemed, decided to do a U-turn on the A1 and was turning from the slow lane across the central reservation when a car he hadn't seen coming up the fast lane was smashed underneath him.

Now imagine a scene like that but in a world with no emergency services. No ambulance to call. And you were the first on the scene to find the half-dead car driver, with no one else around who could help. What would you do? Would you just leave him there in a spreading pool of blood and drive on by up on the verge, averting your eyes, so you could arrive on time for your meeting, or get home early for a good night's sleep? Surely only the most callous, calculating, loveless character could act like that. But that, says Jesus to the lawyer through this parable, is the kind of man you are. And you don't even realise it.

This is not only the story of the 'good Samaritan' but also of 'the bad priest, and the bad levite' – who pass by the robbed, beaten and half-dead man on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho in Jesus' story. Even a Samaritan, says Jesus, would stop and help. Only a short time before this – in Luke 9.53 – Jesus had been refused entry into a Samaritan village because he was a Jew. The Samaritans were sinful people. But faced with a dying man, robbed, beaten and all alone, surely anyone with a smidgen of common decency would help. 

'But you,' says Jesus to the lawyer, 'you with all your resources and advantages, you would not lift a finger to help. Your heart is hard. You don't begin to know what it means to love God. You don't begin to love your neighbour. You don't really want to know who your neighbour is that you should love. You want to know who is not your neighbour, so that you can walk on by with a clear conscience.' Love is a matter of the heart, and the lawyer's heart is hard as stone. Hard against his needy neighbour. Hard against Jesus. And hard against God. But he could not see it.

And what about us? What about you? Has Jesus opened your eyes to the truth about your heart? Has he exposed how cold and hard it is? Has he done his miracle of grace, and softened and warmed your heart so that you can begin to love your neighbour, as Jesus calls us to do? Jesus has come to give us new life, and to fill that new life with his love. When he does that, then we can begin to love God and to love our neighbour, without grinding to a halt with compasson fatigue. Jesus uses the parable of the good Samaritan (or the bad priest – whichever) to do spiritual exploratory surgery on that lawyer. He is convicting him of his sin – showing him the depth of his lovelessness. He is challenging him about his attitude to Jesus himself. How can he love God if he rejects the one who is the Son of God? And when Jesus says to the lawyer, 'You go, and do likewise', it is as if he is saying 'Go and live like me'.

How do we respond? Maybe feelings well up inside us which say, 'Hang on a minute – if we love like that, where will it end? What will we have left for ourselves? We'll end up giving away our whole lives for others!' Well, yes. That, after all, is what Jesus did for you and me. Out of love for us, Jesus gave himself up to take upon himself all the anger of God against sin. And he died, giving up his soul to his Father, and with forgiveness on his lips. How did that lawyer respond to Jesus? We don't know. But we can respond in one of two ways. We can close our hearts to Christ and to the needs of those around us. Or we can open our hearts to Christ, and find his love in us. Love for God; love for our neighbour – without limits. The real issue for each of us is the state of our heart. If our lives are turned inwards on ourselves, no amount of common sense advice on the practicalities of caring will count for anything. We need to repent of our failure to love. If we learn, by the grace of God and by the power of the Spirit of Jesus, to love God, then our lives will also be turned outwards towards others, and we will search out opportunities and ways to make our caring count. So:

3. We need to put love for our neighbour into practice

Certainly it is right to see this Samaritan's example as a model of love in action – practical care in a world of virtually infinite need. Verses 33-35:

"But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, 'Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.'"

Practical care requires thought and forethought. You have to see the present need and predict future need. Practical care requires time. If 100% of our schedule is built around our own needs, how can we possibly be available when others need us? Practical care requires the giving of money. We cannot allow compassion fatigue to close our wallets and seal up our bank accounts. Practical care is inconvenient. It means getting involved in other people's messy lives, not just coping with our own messy lives. And practical care requires effort: plain, unattractive, mental, physical and emotional effort. Thankfully, in fact Christians do give this kind of care. Roy Hattersley wrote a column in the Guardian in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 that inundated New Orleans, caused $80 billion of damage to property and killed over 1800 people. It was titled: 'Faith Does Breed Charity', with the sub-heading 'We atheists have to accept that most believers are better human beings'. Christian believers, he argues…

"are the men and women most willing to change the fetid bandages, [and] replace the sodden sleeping bags… Good works, John Wesley insisted, are no guarantee of a place in heaven. But they are most likely to be performed by people who believe that heaven exists. The correlation is so clear that it is impossible to doubt that faith and charity go hand in hand."

There's nothing new about this. Right from the early days of the Christian faith the church community has become known for its compassionate service and generosity towards those in need. For instance, in the Second Century Christians would collect unwanted children, left on rubbish dumps to die, and bring them up themselves. Justin Martyr, in his 'Apology' addressed to the Roman Emperor, said:

"But as for us [that is, Christians], we have been taught that to expose newly-born children is the act of wicked men; and this we have been taught so that we should not do anyone an injury and so that we should not sin against God.

From two centuries later there's a remarkable letter from the Roman Emperor Julian who tried to revive paganism but found that Christianity was on the rise. He wrote to a pagan priest:

"It is disgraceful that… while impious Galileans [that is, Christians] support both their own poor and ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us!"

Today, as then, the statistics of material and social need globally are overwhelming, as we know. Anglican International Development has been teaching us about conditions in South Sudan. 1 in 3 of the population suffer from chronic hunger. 1 in 9 mothers die in pregnancy or childbirth. From where we sit, that is almost unimaginable material need. In practice no individual or church can help everyone. But in principle there should be no one who we regard as beyond our sphere of responsibility – no one who cannot be our neighbour. When our faith in Christ is real, we will care, because we find ourselves wanting to care, because the Spirit of Jesus lives within us. And, though imperfectly, that is our experience. So there is much that already happens through the life of this church, and that is encouraging.

The Navajeevana Healthcare Centre in Sri Lanka works to give affordable healthcare to the poor of Sri Lanka. We help to support that work. For thirty years we've been in partnership with St Philip's Community Centre, Mburi in rural Kenya, helping to build, staff and develop the centre. We make a significant contribution to the creative work of AID in partnership with the Anglican church in South Sudan. We have close links with Andy and Rose Roberts who lead a work called ReVive in North-east Brazil amongst exploited and abused young girls. We send teams to help at Nokuphila School in the South African township of Tembisa. In our region, dozens of us are involved in one way or another with Safe Families for Children, supporting families at times of need. Collectively we've supported 50 families and over 120 children in that way. For the future, next year we're planning to start a Christians Against Poverty Debt Centre to help people with debt problems.

Those examples just scratch the surface of what happens through JPC. But we need more and more social entrepreneurs with a vision for what God can do through us and the drive to make things happen and the perseverance to see things through in the long term. All of this caring brings with it all kinds of costs of course, not least financial. I thank God for the generosity that he inspires in this church, and for the tens of thousands of pounds each year that are given to help the needy. That grace and gift of giving is one in which we need to grow and grow, as we follow the example of Jesus. And what is more, we need to cultivate simple kindness. Tim Chester strikingly says:

"Perhaps the most powerful tool in Christian social involvement, a tool with the potential to make a huge impact on our communities, is the humble teapot."

He tells how many needs can be met in some measure by simple human contact. "It can simply involve sharing a cup of tea," he says. And he quotes a Marxist who had no sympathy for Christianity and who thought that a lot that the church did was a waste of time. But this Marxist said…

"… if you took away all the kindnesses and neighbourly acts that Christians do – visiting the sick, shopping for the housebound and so on – then this community would fall apart."

Let that be true of us. Let's put love for our neighbour into practice.

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