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Go and do likewise (Luke 10:37)

Who is my neighbour? This is a pressing question in a world without the old boundaries to separate us from others.

The parable of the Good Samaritan remains perhaps the greatest inspiration for loving service in existence. At face value the story is disarmingly simple: we should take the risk of caring for the victims of this world and not be distracted from it. This commitment is so fundamental, and appeals so intuitively to our emotions, that it might be said to be written on our hearts. Dig a little deeper, and the story opens up a rich seam of commentary on the weakness of the human heart.


I think this parable presents us with three modern challenges, concerning impulse, environment and scope. Let’s deal with the human impulse question first. Evolutionary biologists would suggest that we are hardwired only to look after our nearest in life, thus securing our genes for posterity. In other words, family first, tribe second, and the rest we can shout ‘Ingerland’ at over a lager in a continental bar. We might feel uncomfortable with such a parochial attitude, but we can’t deny its power.


We should look after our families - in fact scripture suggests that those who fail to are ‘worse than unbelievers’ at one point. And we can’t easily pretend otherwise that if there is news of twenty people dying in a coach crash in Ecuador, we will feel a deeper stab if they turn out to be British rather than Ecuadorian, even if our outward response suggests differently. Our news programmes are built on this implicit understanding – otherwise we would have a lot more international news on TV than we do. This parable is calling us to something more challenging, because the idea of a Samaritan looking out for a Jew was breaking precisely those tribal boundaries our deeper instincts bind us to.


The global reach of the Christian Church means that Christians usually understand the nature of this commitment to the stranger – but there are still uncomfortable questions we face nationally. What does it mean to be British? What are the limits of our commitment to the welfare of strangers who try to come and live here? The parable of the Good Samaritan doesn’t tell us how to make immigration law, for instance, but it does say something important about the kinds of principles which might underpin the response of at least a nominally Christian country to complex humanitarian issues, either at home or abroad.


The second question concerns human environment. One of the intriguing aspects of the parable is that the dying man was lying on a relatively deserted road. You might have thought the occasional passer-by would have felt an onus to help. Contrast this with the dilemmas of living in an over-crowded urban setting, a question most poignantly shown by the following case from 1964. Kitty Genovese was a young New Yorker who died of stab wounds after being chased by an assailant. She was attacked three times over the course of half an hour while 38 neighbours watched from their windows in the suburb of Queens. During that time, none of the 38 witnesses called the police. There were terrible recriminations over this failure by so many people to be a Good Samaritan and a New York Times journalist wrote a book about the case, concluding:


Nobody can say why the thirty-eight did not lift the phone while Miss Genovese was being attacked, since they cannot say themselves. It can be assumed, however, that their apathy was one of the big city variety. It is almost a matter of psychological survival, if one is surrounded and pressed by millions of people, to prevent them from constantly impinging on you, and the only way to do this is to ignore them as often as possible. Indifference to one’s neighbour and his troubles is a conditioned reflex in life in New York as it is in other cities.


We don’t make eye contact in cities; we mind our own business; we don’t talk to strangers unless we have to. These environmental conditions are a recipe for failure in the calling to be a Good Samaritan today. At least by being aware of them, it means we might be in a better position to counter a similar failure one day – but I don’t think any of us can be sure we will.


Environment can play a big role in less demanding circumstances also. An unusual piece of research I came across recently highlighted this. A group of theologians at a Bible College were given a talk to prepare. Some were asked to prepare one on the Good Samaritan, while the others were given different topics. When they had prepared their talks, some were told to hurry to get to deliver the lecture on time, while others were told they could make their way more slowly. On the way over to the lecture hall, a man had been planted in an alleyway slumped on the ground, coughing and spluttering. The researchers wanted to see if the ones who had prepared the talk on the Good Samaritan would be more likely to stop. They found it had no bearing. The biggest factor of all was how much time the person thought they had before they had to give the lecture. If they were in a rush, they walked by; if they thought they had time, they stopped to help. And we are talking here about Christian leaders.


In this experiment, time was the enemy of grace. We have made a modern virtue of being ‘focussed’, because we think it is the foundation of success. Yet we can only focus hard with our eyes on one sight at a time, which is a potential weakness if you are trying to look with the eyes of faith. I suspect also that being rushed isn’t the only enemy of grace. People who are only in the mood for a party or a celebration may miss the cue they are being given by their neighbour or their God to reach out in love. When we are celebrating, we need to make a special point of keeping our eyes open for the person in need, because God sometimes has other plans to the ones we carefully make.


The third issue this parable raises concerns global scope. Who is my neighbour? is a pressing question today, given we have 24 hour news channels able to bring us news of human need from any part of the world within minutes of it transpiring. And that is a heavy burden for anyone with a sensitive conscience. In spite of our calling to be Good Samaritans, there must be limits to our commitments, surely? And yet it is difficult to know where they are. In practice most of us impose fairly arbitrary boundaries to keep our consciences from being overwhelmed by human need. None of us would wish to rule out a response just because a crisis has arisen more than a thousand miles away from us, yet it is probably also true that we are able to make more of an impact on the outcome of a local or national crisis than an international one, simply because we have more influence the nearer home we engage with a problem.


The advent of globalisation, whereby we are more connected to other people through the liberalisation of trade, free capital and labour flows, and new information technology means, whether we like it or not, that more people have a claim to be a neighbour of ours than ever before. How we cope with this, from lowering trade tariffs to preventing genocide, from creating asylum laws to supplying humanitarian aid, will indelibly mark the new kind of world which is unfolding. Just how in keeping with the heart of the teaching of Jesus it proves, however, should surely be a matter for deeper engagement than we have made it so far.



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