As the Warumpi Band put it, in a notable song:
Black fella, white fella./Yellow fella, any fella./It doesn't matter, what your colour./As long as you, a true fella./As long as you, a real fella. Isn’t this at the heart of Jesus’ teaching in our Gospel passage today?...
Let’s remember the question Jesus was asked: ‘but who is my neighbour?’ That is the core of the matter. The questioner had no problem with Jesus’ affirmation of the heart of all biblical faith, Jewish and Christian: that we should love God with all that we are and love our neighbour as ourself. What however does ‘neighbour’ mean? What is the definition? What are the limits? The questioner probably wanted to be directed to certain groups of people he could deal with: certain groups with whom they probably had some potential capacity and interest to assist. However the answer Jesus gave turned that upside down. The Jesus reality is that our neighbour is everyone. Indeed, not only is everyone our neighbour, whom we are called to love. Our neighbour, including those of whom we are suspicious, is also capable of wonderfully loving us too.
In the recorded biblical parable, Jesus mentions a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan, as possible good neighbours to the man who was in need. That was powerful talk for the people of Jesus’ day. For a priest was typically a person of high status and a model of supposed holiness. A Levite was also a high status lay person, equivalent not just to a church warden or Christian leader today, but to a very high-ranking public figure, like a politician, business leader, or other civic personality. In contrast, a Samaritan was, publicly speaking, among the lowest of the low: an unclean outcast from a different culture and a different religion. So who do you think Jesus would talk about in the parable if he were telling it afresh for our own generation? Who would he choose to highlight today? Who do we most despise, or find uncomfortable?
‘One day’, said the desert monk, ‘the world will go mad. When they meet someone who is sane, they will point at them and say “they are mad: they are not like us.”’ Do we see that happening in our world? It is the very reverse of what Jesus is teaching us in our parable today. Indeed, at the end of this NAIDOC Week, I met an Aboriginal man by a riverbank yesterday who had a similar message. He told me that he was ill, and not to come too near. I am sick, he said, and he partly meant with 'flu. I know however that he also meant he was sick with what has been done to his people and culture, and what continues to be a struggle for health, for Aboriginal people and all of us. He also said that a greater sickness was coming. Again, he partly meant another illness body bug he had heard about. He also meant a sickness of mind and heart and soul: the kind of sickness, of lack of compassion and fellow-feeling, which threatens us at this time and which Jesus was addressing.
For: “They are mad: they are not like us.” We have had a great deal of that kind of talk in our world in recent times, haven't we? - and, I suspect, we are going to have a great deal more. If, like me, you have had any interest in what has been going on in the USA and in UK and Europe in recent weeks, you will certainly know what I am talking about. First we have had the rise of Donald Trump, who tells his people that so many other Americans are mad and ‘not like us’. Insulting and demeaning anyone he doesn’t like, his list of mad people includes successful women, the US establishment, Mexicans, refugees, Muslims, and even esteemed members of his own political party. Then the divisive Brexit referendum on membership of the European Community highlighted and exacerbated deep rifts of class, race, age, location, political party, education and wealth: divisions which exist not only within the UK but across the western world Then, most recently, we have seen the disquiet in the USA over the slayings of black people, the deaths of police officers, and other civil unrest. Meanwhile, for our own part, Australia has had two months of political aggravation, leading to our current situation of ill-feeling and unhappiness in many quarters.
So how might we move forward positively together? Jesus’ parable is a challenge to us all: not just to the Donald Trumps, those having a go at one another because of Brexit, or our leading Australian politicians. It is a challenge to each and every one of us to recognise the image of God in each and in every person we meet. It is a challenge to be true neighbours to one another: in thought, word, and deed.
The political and religious divisions in our world today have many causes and these can lead us to lose our own sanity. They have certainly done so in the past. For they are fueled by a whole mixture of economic and historical injustices, the arrogance of elites, the ignorance and sheer bigotry of others, and the misuse and abuse of religion, to name but a few things! We ourselves, even in this one congregation, do not agree about everything, do we? - and some things will remain painful and uncomfortable to us. Our own Anglican Communion, as you will be aware, is also riven by deep conflicts over theology and order, sexuality and gender. Yet we simply cannot afford to regard others as simply ‘mad: not like us.’ It is to the credit of so many Anglicans, and many other Christians, and many other people of other faiths and none, that we do strive to keep our sanity, and we show another way.
It is so easy to go mad, and divide, isn’t it? For those on the right of society, the tendency is sometimes to stereotype, neglect, and even outright denigrate, the poor, refugees and asylum seekers, Indigenous people, LGBTI people, and those who speak for and with them. For those on the left of society, the tendency is sometimes to stereotype, neglect, and even outright denigrate, the rich and privileged, successful business people, others among the less educated, religious people, and those who speak for and with them. The reality however is that those distinctions don’t hold up, above all in God’s eyes. Life just isn’t that simple, whatever the loudest mouth politicians and religious fanatics say. That reality is central to Jesus’ parable. Sometimes, yes, the high status people – the priests and the Levites, today’s politicians and the publicly acceptable – do let us down. Sometimes, and more often than we think or acknowledge, the low status people – the Samaritans, and today’s culturally challenging people - show us much more how it is to love our neighbour as ourselves. The point of the parable however is not simply to reverse things: as if today’s politicians and business leaders for example, cannot do any good; or as if today’s culturally challenging do not also have their own issues to face. The point of the parable is to expand all our horizons, and open all our eyes and arms - so that we do not see others as ‘mad: and not like us’, but as our neighbours: not just with differences we need to work through, but as sources of care, healing and grace for us all.
So may the God of all Creation, who loves all the children of earth, help us grow in that same love, so that we are truly neighbours to one another:
Black fella, white fella./Yellow fella, any fella./It doesn't matter, what your colour./As long as you, a true fella…
In the name of Jesus, the truest fella who ever lived, Amen.
by Jo Inkpin, for Pentecost 8 Year C, 10 July 2016