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What Jesus Really Said part 2: Who is my Neighbour?

The term “good Samaritan” has fallen into such popular use that we can forget its origin. We might assume that the original Samaritans were rather like the Salvos, going about doing good and helping people altruistically. Nothing could be further from the truth. The term as originally coined was an oxymoron, a shocking contradiction in terms to the original audience. It comes from a parable that Jesus told, in answer to a cynical question from an opponent who wanted to trap him. You can read the account in Luke 10:25–37. An expert in the Jewish law asked Jesus what he had to do to be worthy of eternal life (spoiler alert: no one can do anything to be worthy of eternal life, it’s a gift of God’s grace). Jesus turned the question back on him, asking what the Jewish law said. The lawyer correctly answered, that one should love God with all one’s heart and one’s neighbour as oneself. “That’s right,” said Jesus. “Do this, and you will live” (knowing that no one can do this perfectly). The lawyer, wanting to justify himself, because it seemed a pretty obvious answer, asked, “And who is my neighbour?”

Jesus’ reply was the story of the “good” Samaritan, who went out of his way to help a Jew who had been mugged. If Jesus were replying to Jews in Israel today, rather than 2000 years ago, he might have told a story about a Palestinian Arab, perhaps a member of Hamas, helping a Jew. Or if the audience were white nationalists, the hero could have been a Muslim immigrant. If the audience were Muslim extremists, the hero might have been an American Jew. If the audience were moralistic right-wing Christians, the hero would perhaps be a socialist, green-voting, homosexual. The story is that radical. First century Jews hated Samaritans, on racial and religious grounds, and the feeling was mutual. A story of a Samaritan stopping to help a Jew, administering first aid and paying for his recuperation would have been totally unbelievable to the point of being offensive. When Jesus asked which passer-by had truly been a neighbour to the victim, the lawyer could only, with great reluctance, reply, “The one who showed mercy on him.” He couldn’t even bear to say the word, “Samaritan”! Then, even more outrageously, Jesus told him, “You go, and do likewise.”

That’s right, you heard him. Go and do likewise! Christians, followers of Jesus, are commanded by our Lord to love and serve even those we fear, dislike and most vehemently disagree with. There is no room for racism or religious bigotry, none at all. Anyone claiming to be Christian who speaks or acts against a person of different ethnicity or religious belief blatantly disobeys Jesus. That means, putting it bluntly, that person is no friend of Jesus. “You are my friends,” Jesus said, “if you do what I command you” (John 15:12) and the greatest commandments are to love God and to love our neighbour (Mark 12:28–31). Jesus really said that, and wouldn’t the world be a far better place if more people did this?

What’s interesting is that Jesus used a Samaritan as his shocking hero, even though he himself disagreed with Samaritan theology and practices. In John chapter 4 Jesus has a conversation with a Samaritan woman and gently, graciously, but firmly corrects her theological position and challenges her personal immorality. Yet he shows no hate whatsoever in doing this. In fact, she is one of the very few people in the Bible’s record to whom he actually explained who he is. Our society has lost the ability to love someone if we disagree with them. Instead, we feel obliged to hate, denigrate and even abuse those with whom we disagree. But loving our neighbour does not mean we have to agree on all points, nor does it mean we necessarily condone what they do. Conversely, disagreeing with someone’s religious or political beliefs or actions should not mean we have to hate and denigrate them as people. Jesus makes it clear that all people, even those with whom we find no common ground, are our neighbours. And we are to love our neighbours, period. By the way, Christian love is not about emotion, it’s about treating others as you would have them treat you; it’s active, it’s self-sacrificial, and it doesn’t require us to agree or even "like," only to act.

Samaritans feature in another episode in Jesus’ ministry, and this time the situation is real, not a parable. Jesus and his disciples, who were all Jewish, wanted to stay overnight in a Samaritan village, on the way to Jerusalem. The Samaritans refused to host him. Some of Jesus’ disciples reacted with retaliation; “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven and consume them?” Picture this; Muslim extremists bomb Christians, or westerners. In retaliation, a white supremacist shoots peaceful Muslim worshippers. In retaliation for that, Muslim extremists bomb churches and hotels where westerners stay. Sound familiar? But what did Jesus do? He rebuked his foolish, hate-filled, bigoted disciples. Then he simply went off and stayed somewhere else (Luke 9:51–56). Ironically, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Samaritans were the first non-Jews to embrace the gospel message and become Christians, and those same, chastened and wiser, disciples preached to them and accepted them as brothers and sisters (Acts 8:5–17, 25).

Retaliation is evil. It is stupid and wholly unproductive. It perpetuates hate and never solves anything, but only ever makes things worse. Retaliation is wholly un-Christian and opposed to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The ancient Jewish law of “an eye for an eye,” which a certain misguided American politician once said was his favourite Bible passage, is often misunderstood, misquoted and definitely misapplied. But Jesus rescinded that whole principle of retaliation. When “eye for an eye” was originally established as a legal principle, it was for the fledgling theocracy of ancient Israel and was intended as a huge step forward from the sort of overreactive practices of the ancient near east. Practices like killing someone in retaliation for a theft or minor personal injury, or in more recent history, cutting off the hands of thieves, or sentencing someone to seven years in a penal colony for stealing bread to feed a starving family, or putting political rivals in concentration camps. Rather than permitting you to murder someone in retaliation for knocking out your tooth or poking you in the eye, this law set a limit on retaliation and actually laid the foundation for the modern western principles of punitive law, where the penalty is graded according to the crime. In its day, this law was a huge step forward.

But Jesus always took things deeper than the legal minimum. Whilst laws are needed for the good ordering of society, laws don’t prevent sin, the cause of crime and evil. In terms of personal behaviour and accountability, Jesus addressed motive and the sinful inclinations of our hearts. It’s not enough to not murder, don’t hate anybody either, for without hate you won’t get to murder. Don’t just avoid adultery, but stop lusting, and you won’t ever reach the stage of adultery (Matthew 5:21–28). Likewise, Jesus said,

“You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matthew 5:39–45).

Following these teachings of Jesus will break the cycle of retaliation, the hateful call to vengeance that tries to make two wrongs into a right. “Do not be overcome by evil” said the Apostle Paul, “but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). Jesus himself gave us the example. People accused him of being illegitimate, being a law breaker and sinner, being demon possessed, and he was hunted down, betrayed, unjustly tried, tortured and brutally executed. Yet he never retaliated, either by word or deed. He endured those things because his God-given task was to take all that evil and sin and hatred and retaliation upon himself and put it all to death on the cross, for our salvation. Even as he was dying, he prayed that God would forgive his executioners (Luke 23:34). At his arrest, surrounded by armed guards, religious rulers and his supposed friend Judas, who betrayed him, Jesus rebuked one of his disciples for trying to defend him. Recently, this passage was quoted out of context by an Australian politician, who implied that Muslims, who had recently been the victims of a white supremacist attack, should have expected retribution for the violence of Islamic extremists, for “those who take the sword will perish by the sword.” This was a horrible misapplication of the passage, Matthew 26:47–52, in which Jesus’s betrayer leads “a great crowd with swords and clubs” to arrest him. The mob seized Jesus and one of Jesus’ disciples drew a sword and slashed off someone’s ear. Jesus rebuked that disciple, saying “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Then Jesus healed the severed ear (John 18:10–11). Jesus didn’t rebuke those coming to arrest and execute him, those who hated him. Jesus rebuked his disciple for attempting violent retaliation in order to defend Jesus! Jesus Christ forbids retaliation, even for what might be seen as the most noble of purposes, the defence of God and religion.

The good news, or “gospel,” of Jesus Christ is utterly counter-cultural. Followers of Jesus are forbidden to hate, to retaliate, to slander, demean or act violently against our neighbours. We are to love our neighbours and treat them as we wish to be treated. Even if they are ........................ (insert your preferred target of hatred and/or mistrust)...! Neighbours includes everyone, whether they set themselves as our enemies, whether they slander, hate or do violence to us, whether or not we agree with their politics, lifestyle, practices or beliefs. The command to love does not negate the search for truth. The gospel of love toward God and our neighbour teaches us that none of us is better than another, that we are all sinners in need of forgiveness and mercy and grace. We have no right to retaliate. We have no right to denigrate or wish anyone ill, even on social media, for that is not the way that friends of Jesus Christ behave.

This does not mean that God countenances injustice. God is just. Jesus so hates sin that he died to destroy it. Nor does it mean that those who murder, rape, pillage, commit terrorist acts, falsely imprison and persecute will not be judged and will not receive due punishment. God has assured us that they will face terrible judgement, but it will be at his hands, not ours. The same Jesus who bore our sins and made possible our forgiveness, and who commands us to love even our enemies, is the only truly righteous judge. God has committed all judgement to him, not to us. Leave it to him, and get on with the task he’s left us. Here’s Paul with the last word, from Romans 12:17–21.

“Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

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