In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, A Good Neighbour, I’ve been talking about the amazing story recorded in Luke 10, which we know today as the parable of the Good Samaritan, a story told by Jesus himself when he was talking to an expert in the Law, who was wondering how to get eternal life, and he said the rule was, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind and love your neighbour as much as you love yourself”. Jesus said he had answered correctly, but the man wasn’t satisfied. He asked, “OK, well, who is my neighbour?”.
Then Jesus told the story of the man who was travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho (a very dangerous road) and was robbed and beaten up, and almost died. Two religious leaders passed by and didn’t help at all, while a man from Samaria stopped, helped, and paid for his accommodation. It was a most unlikely thing to do—but Jesus said he was the best example of being a good neighbour. Jesus said, “Well, you go and do likewise”. It was not what the average Jew would expect to hear.
What lessons can we learn from this story that will help us to better understand how a Christian should respond to the needs of the people around us? I can think of two:
First, I think this parable shows that Christians like you and me must learn not to be afraid to help people.
As I said in Part 2, two religious people, who should have known better, passed by on the other side. They didn’t want to get involved—and isn’t it true in life often we ‘pass by on the other side’ when we encounter people who obviously need our help? And we do this because we are afraid that their needs will be greater than our resources. We know that being a neighbour is costly.
Our experience has taught us that there is risk involved. We think we don’t have the time. We don’t have the money. We fear that meeting the needs of others will make us needy ourselves. And it very well might do that. I mean, we often talk sentimentally or idealistically about compassion—but getting close to those who are hurting almost always costs us money or other resources.
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Working with other people’s wounds invariably gets very messy. Investing in the lives of hurting people will take us off our normal schedule. ‘Crossing over to their side of the road’ will inconvenience us and subject us to entanglements that can go on for a long time. In other words, crossing over requires denying that very self which we’ve often protected and maintained. Crossing over requires dying to self. It means walking as Jesus walked. We ‘pass by on the other side’ because we fear that if we stop it will cost us more than we can afford to pay.
In 1966, theologian Langdon Gilkey wrote a book called Shantung Compound: The Story of Men and Women Under Pressure where he shares his reflections on what it was like to be in a Japanese internment camp for three years during WWII. Gilkey was teaching in China during those years and, after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese placed all allied citizens in the region in these camps.
Gilkey was sent to a former Presbyterian mission in the coastal province of Shantung where the living space was cramped, the food supply unpredictable, and the future uncertain. He was astonished at the pervading fear and insecurity which haunted some 1,500 American, Canadian, British, and European citizens. When it was a matter of their own welfare or that of their children, even they lost all concern for the common good.
A dramatic example occurred when the American Red Cross succeeded in sending 2,100 food parcels into the compound. The Japanese guards decreed that each prisoner would receive one parcel, and because the shipment had come from their country, the Americans could share the remainder, which meant the Americans would have 600 extra food parcels to share—three parcels each. Well, when this decision was announced, the Americans were unhappy and formally protested. They proposed that since the parcels came from the American Red Cross, each of the 300 Americans should receive seven packets and the remaining 1200 prisoners should receive none!
This taught Gilkey that in life there are two extremes—love and fear—and each has the power to negate the other. The Bible says in 1 John 4:18, “Perfect love has the power to cast out fear…” but Gilkey saw that the reverse is also true. Fear has the power to cast out love. And he was right, for we can become so afraid of our own needs not being met that we walk by others who have needs.
As Christians, we must mature to the point that we realise that we can trust God to meet our needs, even as we use our own resources to meet the needs of others. We must learn to trust in the promise of Jesus in Matthew 6:8 when he said, “…your Father [in heaven] knows what you need before you ask Him.” And, as Paul wrote in Philippians, God will “…meet our needs according to His riches in glory.” The dynamic that led the Christians in the early church “to hold all things in common” (Acts 4:32, 34-35) undoubtedly resulted from the security that they came to feel in God’s care.
So, one thing this parable can teach us is that we will be more likely to reach out to the needy people around us if we learn to trust in the provision of God. We don’t need to be afraid to minister to a neighbour God puts in our path.
And then, a second thing this parable can teach us is that as Christians we must learn to see each and every person in need as our neighbour.
Today, the word ‘neighbour’ has lost much of its meaning. Usually we don’t even know the people who live next door to us. We tend to spend our time with people we enjoy and end up defining a ‘neighbour’ as someone whose company benefits us in some way. But Jesus’ parable overhauls this philosophy. It literally changes our view of the world because it teaches that our neighbour is someone we see who has needs, not someone who offers us something.
In fact, I think the main reason Jesus told this story was to point out that as Christians—as his followers—we are automatically neighbours to the whole human race. It doesn’t matter whether we know the person, or whether his race or lifestyle is like our own. It doesn’t even matter whether the person appeals to us or repulses us—if they like us or hate us. If someone lives on this planet and has a need, he or she is automatically our neighbour.
God became involved in meeting the needs of all mankind and he calls us to follow his example. He wants us to feel the pain of all those around us as if it were our own.
So, the question this parable should initiate in us is not Who is my neighbour? but rather, Whose neighbour am I? Our need is not to define neighbour but to become the kind of people who cannot pass by on the other side. I know this sounds overwhelming. After all you and I cannot possibly help every single needy person in the world. What we need to do is be ready and willing to help the needy people God places in our path.
I think this is what Ephesians 2:10 is getting at when it says, “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” God has custom-designed us to meet the needs of the hurting people we encounter. He has prepared in advance for us to help them. With that in mind, when we see a ‘neighbour’ in need we should trust our Creator and reach out to help them.
You know, the words to the old hymn text are absolutely correct when they say, “Out on the highways and byways of life many are weary and sad…” In other words, as Autrey’s experience shows (see Part 1), you can’t go about your life without encountering hurting, needy people. And when you see them you must learn to do as the hymn text says. You must, “…give as was given to you in your need…love as the Master loved you…Be to the helpless a helper indeed…unto your mission be true!”
This is indeed the way God has loved us for, just like that foolish traveller on the road to Jericho, you and I travel down a road of sorts, the road of life. The journey we make from birth to death is a road of great peril. In fact we can’t make this journey without being attacked from time to time by thieves.
Anyone who has travelled this road knows these thieves well. Their names are: despair, loneliness, fear, lust, anger, defeat. Whatever the name, they are part of the kingdom of sin. They spring upon us when we are least ready and eventually they beat us and leave us half-dead and their attack is such that, unless help comes, we surely will die. But, the wonderful news is that Someone has come to our aid! He has helped us when we were unable to help ourselves.
Like the Samaritan in this parable, our Rescuer was despised and rejected, a man of sorrows, and well-acquainted with grief, yet he saw our need and has made it his own. He did not pass by. Even now he stops and offers to bind our wounds and pay the debt that we cannot.
Redland Baptist Church, Rockville, Maryland USA