“How’s the flat you’re living in in London, Aidan?” asks his mother when he calls home to Aberdeen. “It’s okay,” he replies, “but the woman next door keeps screaming and crying all night, and the guy on the other side keeps banging his head on the wall.” “Never you mind,” says his mother, “don’t you let them get to you, just ignore them.” “Aye, that I do,” he says, “I just keep playing my bagpipes.”
“Who is my neighbour?” is the central question in the passage from the gospel story that we heard read a couple of minutes ago. After so many generations have grown up with that story, we know the answer. But do we? I think that question still resonates in our time, and supplying your own answer might be more complicated than you think. Before we try to do that, I’d like to invite you to look a bit more closely at the parable.
Who is the central character of the story? Traditionally we call it the Parable of the Good Samaritan, so supposedly that’s him. But it’s not. The central character is the one we know the least about; we know neither his profession, nor his nationality, nor his religious affiliation; we know neither his age nor his name. What we do know is that he’s been beaten, robbed and left to die at the side of the road. The story is built around him and the treatment he gets from the people walking past him. Then we have a priest and a Levite, two representatives of the Jewish religious officialdom. Each is walking down from Jerusalem, so they must just have completed what their faith required of them. And then a stranger, a foreigner – a Samaritan – from the nation despised by many Israelites appears at the scene and offers the victim practical help. He isn’t propelled to action because the victim is his compatriot or because he is a fellow believer. The driving force behind this act of mercy is his deep sympathy for his fellow human being. The religious aspect of that response is not mentioned.
Do we need religious faith in order to do good deeds, to get involved in helping others? No, we don’t. There are many people in our society who declare themselves not to be ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’, but they are perfectly capable of being sympathetic and helpful. It also has to be admitted that we can find some devout Christians whose capacity to show empathy and get involved is dodgy – to put it mildly. So what is this parable about? I think there are two messages here. The first one is a call to recognise and acknowledge everyone as a human being equal to you. It’s not as obvious as you might think. Just recall some of the reports of the abuse and downright persecution of non-British nationals immediately after the referendum… The second message is that we are to offer practical help. This might be a bit tricky in the era of ever-growing Health and Safety regulations. So I’m not necessarily talking about getting involved with looking after the sick lying in the gutter on a Friday night – though I am barring you from that! The most specific and distinctive service we can render to people around us is to show them Jesus. There are so many needy people, wounded, hurt and lost. Jesus can heal them, lift them up, bring sense to their complicated lives. The best thing we can do for our neighbours is to share with them the Good News of Jesus.
So now I’m making my promise regarding my neighbours: If I ever win the lottery, all of my neighbours are going to be so rich! I’m going to move to a rich neighbourhood.
This sermon was delivered at Speyfest Celtic Kirk Service in Fochabers.