We learn by asking good questions. Often our questions require other questions before the right answers can be given. Parents and teachers can recall the memorable questions children have asked. In Jesus’ brief earthly ministry he often asked questions and was asked questions. At times his questions left his hearers puzzled or angry, at times his answers led to argument. The gospel of Luke records an incident when an expert in the law asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” ( Luke 10:25 ). This is always a vital question. There are commandments, laws, regulations and rituals, but which among them answers the yearning for eternal life? Like a good Rabbi himself, Jesus answers the lawyer with another question. Then the man quotes from Deut 6:5 and Levit. 19:18. These two verses command us to love God with our whole being and also to love our neighbour as ourselves.
The lawyer wanted to justify his questioning so proceeded to ask Jesus a basic question. “Who is my neighbour?” (Luke 10:29) It is a question which still challenges individuals, societies as well as global interests and issues. Jesus does not answer the question with a neat definition or description but with a story. It is a story of a wounded man, left half-dead by robbers. A priest and Levite saw the man as they came along but chose to pass by on the other side of the road. Then a Samaritan came. He rescued the man, bandaged his wounds, paid for his lodging at an inn and promised to do even more if needed. At the end of this story or parable, Jesus asked, “Which of the three do you think was a neighbour to that man?” The law expert answered, “ The one who had mercy on him.” (v 37 ) In other words, it was a member of the despised race and religion who became the man’s neighbour. The average Jew in Jesus’ day would have been surprised or even offended at such a parable. It is interesting to note how a question about eternal life ultimately led to an answer which was unexpected or disturbing.
Who is a Samaritan to us? There are persons we find it difficult to befriend, upon whom we heap derogatory epithets, about whom we have fixed prejudices. For many the world is divided neatly into ‘us’ and the ‘others’. In a book of essays, entitled Uncommon Gratitude, written by Sister Joan Chittister and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, the sister describes her visit with a team to Russia. The group was warned in advance to be prepared for the worst. This was a nefarious, godless and bearish people who would eat them all alive if they could. Soon after their arrival, the visitors began receiving gifts from their Russian hosts, a man went at his own expense and inconvenience to lead them to a particular place, villagers laid out food while musicians played and danced around them. Some one asked, “Who would we not love if we only knew their story?” The world is not only us. We do not sing all the parts. We do not have all the gifts. We are not the stars of the show. We must become neighbours to those in need and we must see the ‘other’ as a neighbour. Do this and you shall live.