Jessa van der Vaart: Who is my neighbour?

Rene Boer

Imagine you were waiting in front of the Oude Kerk this evening. The door is still closed, the ticket-seller has been delayed, and suddenly it starts to rain. And not just a few drops, but it’s raining cats and dogs! A proper Dutch downpour. And there’s nowhere to shelter. But you aren’t standing alone there. Someone with an umbrella is standing next to you! He sees you standing there, but what will he do? You don’t know each other, so what happens then? And what would you do in such circumstances? You hope that this other person says: ‘Come and take shelter!’

This is an example of what the word ‘neighbour’ – naaste in Dutch – means in the Bible. In Dutch the word is sometimes still used to indicate the person who is standing closest to you. For example, we talk about our close relatives, or our close neighbours. However, in the Bible the word ‘neighbour’ isn’t so much concerned with how close or far away someone is. There your neighbour is someone who you encounter or have dealings with. Someone who you’re in the same boat with, for a short while or for the longer term.

Jewish philosopher Martin Buber translates this word in German as Genosse, which means ‘nearest’ – genoot in Dutch. This is also a common expression or suffix: a studiegenoot or fellow student, a stadsgenoot or fellow city-dweller, a reisgenoot or travelling companion, a klasgenoot or class-mate. These are people who share something with you, for shorter or longer periods. A course of study, a city, a journey. In the rain-shower example, it’s a regengenoot or ‘rain companion’. You’re briefly involved in the same – albeit unpleasant – situation. And this turns you into paraplugenoten or umbrella-mates! Each other’s deus ex machina.

And there happens to be a story in the Bible – you might have heard of it – about the good Samaritan. This is also about one’s neighbour: about the fact that you can suddenly be drawn into someone else’s sphere. But there’s a surprising and intriguing twist, a twist that prompts us to think about mercy and compassion in a different way.

The parable of the good Samaritan is told by Jesus. He addresses it to a lawyer, an expert on the Torah (the core of the scriptural texts that we call the Old Testament). This Torah scholar wants to put Jesus to the test, to see whether he knows as much about the Torah as he does. So he asks him a difficult question: ‘What shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ He’s talking about leading a life that has eternal value, also in the hereafter. That is a good and faithful life in the eyes of God. Hardly the least significant of questions. What could you possibly answer?

But Jesus won’t be so easily provoked. He very astutely refers the scholar back to his own books and Laws and asks: ‘How do you read it?’ In other words, what is the answer that you find in scripture?

And the scholar answers very primly and correctly: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself.’

Well, there’s a surprise. Primly and properly formulated, and wholly in line with scripture. But it’s hardly the easiest thing in the world: Love God and your neighbour as yourself. And the scholar wasn’t born yesterday, so he already has his next question ready for Jesus: ‘And who is my neighbour?’

It’s actually a really good question – a question that we also ask ourselves when it comes to mercy. So who is my neighbour? Is that you? Is that just my family? Is that the foreign refugee who ends up in the Netherlands? Or is that everyone?

And then Jesus tells the parable of the good Samaritan in response. Just in case you don’t know it in detail, I’ll read it out for you:

Jesus replied

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho

and he fell among robbers

who stripped him and beat him

and departed

leaving him half dead.

Now by chance a priest was going down that road,

and when he saw him he passed by on the other side.

So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him,

passed by on the other side.

But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was,

and when he saw him, he had compassion.

He went to him

and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine.

Then he set him on his own animal

and brought him to an inn and took care of him.

And the next day he took out two pieces of silver

and gave them to the innkeeper, saying,

“Take care of him,

and whatever more you spend,

I will repay you when I come back.”

Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbour

to the man who fell among the robbers?’

The scholar said,

‘The one who showed him mercy.’

And Jesus said to him,

‘You go, and do likewise.’

So what is Jesus trying to say with this parable? He tells us that there’s a man lying half dead and helpless at the roadside. Various people pass by. First a priest and then a Levite, two representatives of religion. The vicars and priests of today – people like me! And it is these people – and you might expect some merciful compassion from them – who glibly walk past this man.

Jesus is actually saying that you can’t really expect anything from the church, or any other religious institution – and that is fairly critical of institutionalized religion.

And then a Samaritan passes by. It’s useful to know that Samaritans were despised by Jesus’ compatriots. They were regarded as fake believers, because they didn’t worship God in the temple but on a mountain. And it’s this figure who is not taken seriously, an outsider, about whom Jesus notes he ‘had compassion’. He was touched, in his heart, his gut, in all his being, by seeing that man on the side of the road. And that prompts him to take action. He is going to do something. He steps across a boundary to the other and takes care of him. And it’s not stingy either, but profuse and generous!

And thus to Jesus’ question for the Torah scholar: Who proved to be a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of thieves? The answer: ‘The one who showed him mercy.’

And you’ve heard what happens! Does Jesus ask who is the neighbour – of the priest, the Levite or the Samaritan? Who is the person to whom they could have shown mercy? No, he asks: ‘Who proved to be the neighbour of the man who lay helpless at the roadside?’ He turns the roles on their heads!

So, in this little parable, the answer to the question ‘Who is my neighbour?’ is turned into something completely different to what we usually make of it.

In our mind-set, love of one’s neighbour resides in the sphere of charity, of benevolence. That’s the work of organizations and social workers, campaigns and contributions. And nowadays there are also all kinds of high-profile television and radio appeals: the Serious Request in the glass house run by 3FM radio in the Netherlands, or Children in Need in the UK. And however well-intentioned these campaigns may be, they possess something inequitable, something that maintains a distance to the other. There are rich and poor. Aid-givers and the needy. The well-heeled and the down-at-heel. Strong and weak. And they all live neatly in their own little pigeon-holes, their own little worlds.

But in the parable about the good Samaritan those pigeon-holes are smashed open. The roles are turned on their heads. The question ‘Who is my neighbour?’ boils down to this: Who, if I am in need of help, if I am surrounded by darkness because of ill health, the death of a loved one, or depression . . . who is there to help me to pick myself up or get back on track? Who will be my neighbour then?

So, as hearers of the parable about the good Samaritan, we are lying half dead at the side of the road together with the Torah scholar. And if we ask who our neighbour is, then Jesus says: You yourself know the answer to that question. It is whoever does not leave you lying at the side of the road.

This parable touches me profoundly because of this inversion, this reversal of roles. It contains a profound wisdom. It’s telling us that you and I, all of us, could all be reliant on mercy at some point during our lives. It’s not about the other; it’s about us ourselves.

And I think that is crucial if we want to reflect upon mercy and compassion. For how can we be merciful if we leave ourselves out of the equation? If we think it’s only the other who needs help? How can we be merciful if we don’t grasp that we also need mercy ourselves. Perhaps not right now, but at some point in the future.

So, when we’re talking about mercy and compassion, let us start with ourselves, by seeing ourselves as people who are just as vulnerable as that person lying helpless at the roadside. And at some point in their lives will all be just as reliant on mercy as he was.

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