Luke 10:25-37 – ‘Seeing our neighbours with compassionate eyes’

Reflection by Anne Stewart

One of my favourite things about Jesus is the way in which he answers a seemingly easy enough question by taking us off somewhere wider with a story. It’s almost as if, if we were to ask him what the weather was doing, he would respond with well, it’s like this…and off he would go on a yarn that may never even refer to the weather, but with a bit of work on our part will take us to the answer we needed. Jesus uses this particular parable to teach that the term neighbour is not to be constrained to someone over the fence from us, or someone of the same area or race, or even in any way like us. In fact, he points his listeners to the person they least expect to call a neighbour, in this case a Samaritan!

If you were here a few weeks back, on Pentecost Sunday, you might have heard our intern minister Josh Olds talk to his six-year-old daughter, Harper about what diversity is. She was, unsurprisingly, unsure of what it meant, so he had her help him to put together a fruit salad. It wasn’t a parable, but it was close! He asked her if a plate of sliced bananas was a fruit salad, and Harper very wisely responded, no! However, she did look a little concerned that he would not know the answer to such a simple question. Josh went on to explain that a fruit salad doesn’t become one until a whole bunch of different fruits are thrown into the bowl together. Then the diversity of the fruits makes a wonderful enriched and flavoursome dish. All of the fruit despite the differences, are needed to make the whole. We might not like one particular fruit as much as the others, but the dish is lessened if we take one flavour out. Our ‘neighbourhood’ is a little like this too. We need the differences; the range of colours, styles, ways of being, to enrich all of our lives. And we are called to be neighbours to them all, whether they are like us or not. The Prime Minister’s now famous words that she offered after the mosque shooting, ‘they are us’, should always be ringing in our ears. The fruit salad falls apart when we lessen anyone by treating them as ‘they’ and not us, just because they might be different from some of us.

Who do you consider to be in your neighbourhood? Some will say that ‘charity’ begins at home, others take a literal dictionary view of the people next door, and still others prefer the hands-off experience of sending money away to be used in a world very much unlike the relatively easy and safe one we are fortunate to live in. There are arguments to be made for and against all of these approaches, and it can be that a mixture of these options is preferred. It is surely a matter for each of us to discern for ourselves. Jesus, though, doesn’t make any distinctions about neighbourhood, anyone can be your neighbour, both to be helped when needed, and to help you when you need it. The American pastor and author, Tony Campolo tells the story of a woman whose marriage had ended leaving her feeling lost and rejected. And, although she was left financially cared for, she felt that her life was now without any meaningful existence. After a lot of talk, her pastor suggested she take a few months and go to Calcutta in India and work with the sisters from the Missionaries of Charity and Mother Teresa. He explained that they needed the help and perhaps in serving others she might find meaning for her own life. The woman took the advice and wrote to Mother Teresa, and then waited anxiously for a response. Weeks went by and then one morning a letter arrived postmarked Calcutta. She rushed inside and tore the letter open. She was stunned by what she read. The letter simply said, “Find your own Calcutta! Love, Mother Teresa”. The message was clear; you don’t have to travel halfway around the world to find people who are in need. Each of us can find a Calcutta close at hand where there are neighbours in need. Sometimes a nearby Calcutta may be invisible to us because our near surroundings are too familiar and we can no longer see for looking.

Many, years ago when the visiting system Flybys began, in what was then St Stephen’s, I remember being fascinated at the effect visiting our neighbours had on the group doing the visiting. They visited to help those who couldn’t get out so much and who were beginning to feel distanced from the church family. What the visiting did for the visitors was not the initial purpose, but the effect on them was a very good additional outcome. The visitors became a tight and supportive community and they buzzed about those they visited. I often wondered if they recognised what a gift this was for them, as well as the gift they were to those they visited. I watch as connections are made across The Village and see the selfless care that feeds and enriches both the carer and the one being cared for. We don’t have to go far to find a neighbour.

Jesus defines the neighbour in the parable as the one who showed mercy, or compassion. I think that looking at the world around us with a compassionate lens is a vital part of living the Christian life. Most of us have little trouble feeling concern or sympathy with someone who is struggling or in need of help, we would after all recognise the man of the side of the road, wouldn’t we!!
We would at least, ‘see’ him, in the sense of noticing him. Maybe we would see enough to feel concern about what to do about him. Perhaps we would care enough to wonder how he found himself in that state. Enough to wonder what he did, and what choices he made to get himself there. We might even want to help but have no idea how, so we might deal with our helplessness by looking the other way. Maybe, we might even cross to the other side of the road to avoid what we don’t know how to attend to. Can you see the truth of the human condition in Jesus’ storytelling?

People who work with the homeless on the streets say that often all they really want is someone to make eye contact and to say hello. To speak to them as though they are still human beings. To acknowledge they are real and of value despite where they have found themselves and to do this without judgement. In other words, to be a neighbour and to see them with compassionate eyes. I think we often baulk at this because the plea for help in their eyes pulls on our heartstrings and we don’t know where to start, or we fear that we will start something that we won’t be able to manage. It can feel patronising too, to look down at them in their depleted state as though we somehow can even begin to know how it must feel to be living that way. While we might feel some pity, I am not sure this is as helpful to them as our respectful acknowledgment and care of them.

There are people who genuinely believe that here in this country everyone has the same chance to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. That belief might be a helpful justification for those who choose to walk on the other side of the street. Social scientists tell us that there are many people who are only one link in their chain of survival away from ending up homeless on the streets. A job loss, a relationship break-up, a car accident or breakdown, might be all it takes to crash a delicately held financial balance, meaning people can hit their tipping point through a simple change of circumstances. It’s even more desperate for many in these current challenging times. Most of us, on the other hand, were born with either enough cushioning to keep us from this or the wits or mechanisms to avoid such an outcome, but not everybody had the same start or the support systems around them that we so often take for granted. Sadly, how easy it is to access help in this country can still vary according to skin colour, race, religion, how we identify ourselves in a gender or sexual sense, and so on. I just wish we could focus on what is the same in each of us, the need to be loved, to feel valued and accepted, and be offered basic dignity. For me, that is founded on understanding ourselves as all created, in the image of God. I believe that when we use our differences to exclude, we are rejecting the God who loves us just as we are.

In this parable, Jesus gives a clue to those who seek him, as to where to find him. He is to be found in the very last place we might expect him to be. He is there in the eyes of the hated Samaritan who sees and attends to brokenness with compassion. Jesus is there to be seen when anyone acts as a neighbour. But his absence is felt when judgements and assumptions are made that those struggling made choices that brought it on themselves. These things are all evidence of a dark side of our humanity which doesn’t see any issue in kicking someone when they are already at their lowest. Here’s an example, I have heard people criticise the homeless for their propensity for having a dog alongside. How can they afford that? Yes, there are costs and responsibilities involved in owning a dog, yet the comfort these furry friends bring should not be used against those who need some warmth and love and who find a non-judgemental neighbour in canine form. Sadly, all too often a dog can also provide some much-needed protection – that’s how vulnerable the homeless are.

Back to Josh and his fruit salad illustration, we are all different, and together we make a tasty fruit salad. But the taste fades and then turns to bitter when we try and distance ourselves from the fruit that may not be like us. We don’t need to go to Calcutta, or very far at all to find those who need a neighbour. You might be sitting next to someone right now whose needs you can’t even begin to imagine. The greatest need might be connection, someone to notice them, to see them with compassionate eyes. Acting with compassion takes away the reflex to ridicule or judge. A compassionate person doesn’t cross the road to avoid another’s pain. Acting with compassion doesn’t have hooks in it, it doesn’t say I’ll give you this, if you behave this way or that. It just cares. In Finland they don’t ask the homeless if they can prove their need for state housing; they make the housing available in the belief that being safe and warm will enable those who struggle to make their way to a better life. I like that approach. The Good Samaritan didn’t ask anything of the beaten and robbed man, there was no means test of his income, or proof required that he deserved help. Just a hand up onto the animal ambulance and a ride to comfort and safety in an inn. It’s a great story to keep nearby to help us to constantly attend to whether our eyes reflect the compassion deep within or betray an unhealthy reflex to judgement and blame. May the eyes that look on you be compassionate eyes too!