Thursday, 7 July 2016

The Neighbour: Proximity or Affinity?

The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 10  
Year C
Luke 10:25-37

Jesus asks a lawyer to summarize the Law and the man obliges: We are to love God and we are to love our neighbour, he says.

Jesus commends the lawyer for having come up with the right answer.  The man then asks Jesus: “So who is my neighbour?”

Our lawyer is not merely being difficult.  This matters rather a lot.  Luke tells us the story of their exchange in the Greek language and the word used for neighbour (plesios) merely describes “One who is near”.  In a similar fashion, when St Jerome translated the Bible into Latin from Greek the word he chose to use here in this passage was proximus (“the one beside me”).  Luther’s German New Testament uses the word nächster (as in “the nearest") Our inclination, however, is to love those who are attached to us by blood, affection, background or common purpose.  We will go out of our way to find some biblical warrant for it.  So when the Greek Old Testament uses the word neighbour (plesios) to translate a Hebrew word, the word is most often a Hebrew word (re’a) best translated as “compatriot”.  That’s better.   Instead of referring to whoever happens to be standing next to me or living in the house next door the earlier word seems to refer to “One with whom one has something to do”

You shall not take vengeance or bear any 
grudge against  the sons of your own people 
but you shall love your neighbour (re’a) 
as yourself.
                                                                           Leviticus 19:18 
We might conclude that the Greek language here is the odd man out and ill equipped to express the natural loyalty I feel towards those who are like me - towards the sons and daughters of my own people.  This might have been the case except that Jesus then proceeds to tell a story which indicates that natural loyalty itself is the problem he wants to address.

A Jewish man was set upon by thieves. Those with a natural kinship to him gave him a wide berth and left him lying wounded in the road while an ethnic enemy – the Samaritan for whom the parable is named – dressed the man’s wounds and paid for his lodging.  Who then, asks Jesus, was neighbour to this man?

I don’t need to tell anybody reading this that the events dominating our news media for the past few weeks in Britain, America and around the world are all wrapped up with the very question which the lawyer poses to Jesus:  Who is my neighbour?  Who am I connected to?  Who can live in the place where I live?  To whom do I owe love, protection and the assurance of their wellbeing.  While I would not presume to oversimplify questions of migration, national identity or religious pluralism as they apply to the countries of our birth, I can’t help pointing out that Jesus goes out of his way to say that this natural inclination towards those who are most like us is wholly insufficient. 

True neighbourliness will extend to the stranger too.