Holy Communion 14th July 2019
Who is my neighbour?
Who is my neighbour? (Luke 10.29)
The parable of the Good Samaritan is deservedly one of the best known and best loved of all the stories Jesus told. For every generation the question ‘Who is my neighbour?’ opens new avenues for thought and new opportunities for service. Of course, the conversation begins with an even bigger question: What must I do to inherit eternal life? The lawyer knows the answer: Love God with all your heart and soul, and your neighbour as yourself. So far, so good, but when he tries to draw Jesus further, perhaps hoping to entangle him in a dispute about the legal definition of ‘neighbour’, Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan, which turns the question back onto the tricksy lawyer himself: Which of these three was neighbour to the man who was robbed?
The priest and the Levite in the story would both have known, as the questioner himself knew, that it was their duty to love God with all their heart and with all their soul, and their neighbour as themselves, but they also knew that they would be defiled by contact with a dead body, and would need to undergo cleansing rituals before they could resume their important functions. So they passed by on the other side of the road. They chose to elevate the practice of their religious duties above the substance of their most important religious obligations. Jesus chooses a Samaritan to make the point because there was no love lost between Jews and Samaritans, and he has not been well received on his way through. James and John want him to rain down fire from heaven, but Jesus deliberately overturns their preconceptions about who is good and who is not to be trusted by casting the despised Samaritan in the role of the kind man who tends and rescues the traveller who has been mugged and robbed, and left for dead at the side of the road.
The parable can be understood on so many different levels. We have seen that it has a point to make about the over-riding importance of loving our neighbour even if that gets in the way of other important obligations. It has a separate point to make about valuing people for what they do, regardless of whether they are ‘one of us’, whether they belong to our religion, our social or ethnic group, our class or gender. But the radicalism of Jesus’ call to follow him on the stony road that leads to Jerusalem runs much wider and deeper than either of these immediate considerations. Who is my neighbour?
For my birthday a couple of weeks ago, one of my daughters gave me a couple of books which throw some interesting light on what it might mean to be a good neighbour in twenty-first century Britain. She was surprised that I hadn’t read them already, and some of you may share her surprise, but they were new to me, and although neither of them mentions God, or regards religious affiliation as anything more than membership of a social group like any other, I have found both of them profoundly interesting from a religions perspective.
‘Spirit Level’ by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, first published ten years ago, charts the very wide inequalities of income and opportunity that have developed in some Western societies over the past thirty or forty years. Drawing on data compiled by others, they demonstrate rather persuasively that a smaller gap between rich and poor is better for everyone’s health and happiness than the extremes of inequality which have become characteristic of western developed economies, and particularly of life in the United Kingdom and the United States. Their analysis is widely accepted on all sides of British politics. ‘We all know, in our hearts, that as long as there is deep poverty living systematically side by side with great riches, we all remain the poorer for it.’ That was David Cameron, commenting on The Spirit Level in 2009. Ed Milliband said much the same to the Labour Party Conference a year later, adding that ‘if you look round the world at the countries that are healthier, happier, more secure – they are the more equal countries.’
Similar sentiments were expressed by Margaret Thatcher when she entered 10 Downing Street in 1979 quoting St Francis of Assisi, and now by Theresa May on the way out, but they do not reflect the outcome of the policies that have been followed in government. Over the past seventy years or more, governments of Left and Right alike have been heavily influenced by the Keynesian and neo-liberal models of the economy, both of which aim to raise standards of living for rich and poor alike by stimulating economic growth. I do not doubt the sincerity of their intentions, but in practice the evidence suggests that health and happiness have suffered as these policies have made our society more and more unequal.
My second birthday book, ‘Doughnut Economics’, by Kate Raworth, published in 2017, challenges this model, arguing that we cannot continue to grow our economies without putting an intolerable and ultimately unsustainable burden on the finite resources of our planet. Instead of relying on an ever-rising curve of GDP growth to deliver universal wellbeing, she proposes a new model of ‘doughnut economics’. Policies would be designed to raise the income of all households above the threshold represented by an inner circle, whilst further economic growth would be restrained within an outer circle defined by what is sustainable. To bring everyone into the doughnut’s ‘sweet space’ between these two rings will require a whole range of new policy approaches, which she begins to sketch in her book.
I do not know whether these authors are right, and neither of them is based in any significant way on a religious agenda, but I do believe that both books are attempting to address issues which should concern us profoundly as Christians. I have always felt uneasy about the Dives and Lazarus model which depends on crumbs from the tables of the rich – from our tables - to supply the night shelters and foodbanks on which increasing numbers of people depend. Even if the trickle-down model was working much better than appears to be the case, we would have to question whether it was an acceptable way to put into practice Jesus’ radical endorsement of the ancient command to love my neighbour as myself.
I am proud that this church does what it can through local and international charities, through our winter shelter and through our refugee support, to mitigate some of the consequences of the economic policies from which many of us have benefited very comfortably. That is the immediate task of the Good Samaritan. But we need more than oil and wine, bandages and sticking plasters. As stewards of God’s creation in the twenty-first century, we have to take seriously the view that perpetual economic growth will not deliver a way of life which is both sustainable in the longer term, and equal enough to make us healthy and happy. If these are serious risks, as many people now believe, we should welcome and encourage those who are trying to address them by looking for radical new ways to make adequate and sustainable provision for ourselves and for all our neighbours.
Who is my neighbour? Jesus pointed the lawyer in an unexpected direction. I commend both these books to your attention. They would make excellent material for a discussion group.
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