August 2011

Going out of your way to find your neighbour

For John Muskovits, a recent summer school in the United States with world-renowned theologian and Dominican priest, Gustavo Gutierrez, provided new insights into the parable of the Good Samaritan.

BY John Muskovits

Recently two colleagues and I attended a summer school course at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana (USA) on political and liberation theology. One of the enduring highlights for me was Professor Gustavo Gutierrez’s reflection on the inspirational parable of the Good Samaritan found only in the Gospel of Luke (10:25-37).

It was an exhilarating experience ‘to listen with the ear of one’s heart’ to such an iconic figure in the theology of liberation. Warm and engaging, a humble man with a dry wit and a sharp mind; short in height yet immense in stature, Gutierrez unpacked the parable of the Good Samaritan in ways that I had not heard before.

Calling us to action

At the outset of his reflection, Gutierrez highlighted the significance of the parable saying it was authenticated by biblical scholars; one of the most important in the Gospels and one that calls us to action. Did you know that the word ‘do’ appears four times in the parable verses 25, 28, 36, 37?

For German Jesuit scholar, Gerhard Lofink, and Jewish philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, the central teaching of the parable is “to love your neighbour as yourself”. But the idea of loving the neighbour as you love your people – as you love your family – leads to the imperative of loving the stranger as you love the people around you.

The other and ‘doing’ neighbours

The parable of the Good Samaritan, explained Gutierrez, is about ‘the other’, an idea echoed intuitively by the Spanish poet, Antonio Machado, when he wrote: “Love your neighbour as yourself but never forget your neighbour as the other”. The ‘other’ in the bible are the widows, the orphans and the strangers. They are the last who will be first (Matthew 20:16), the little ones (Matthew 25:40), the anonymous in history, the non-persons and the insignificant in society.

Gutierrez responds to the central question in the parable “Who is my neighbour?” by saying, that strictly speaking, we don’t have neighbours, we are ‘doing’ neighbours. The neighbour is the one “in whose way I place myself just like the Samaritan did”. (Thus ideology moves to praxis.) When I go out of my way and approach the other, it is then in that moment that we both become neighbours. It is a movement from the ‘I’ to the ‘YOU’.

For many years I interpreted “Who is my neighbour?” as anyone who draws near. I waited passively rather than actively doing. Paradoxically, an approach to the other – my neighbour – is an approach to loving myself.

Going against the grain

The challenge of the parable was becoming clearer and more daunting. As I reflected on the parable, the words of the German-Jewish intellectual, Walter Benjamin resonated within me: “to brush history against the grain”.

So in this call to praxis, who am I doing neighbour for? Who am I going out of my way for: culturally, beyond my cultural norms; nationally, beyond my first world environment; and mentally, beyond my constructs of superiority, of Western civilisation over other civilisations, of men over women, and of one sexual orientation over another?

The parable of the Good Samaritan is provocative, contemplative and deeply nuanced!

The wounded man

By now the words of Professor Gutierrez were ringing loudly in my ears. Poverty is not a fate it is a fact! Poverty is not a destiny but a construction! A commitment to alleviating poverty demands not only helping the poor, but criticising and refuting the structures that cause poverty!

I read the concluding document of the Latin Americans Bishop’s Conference held in Aparecida, Brazil in 2007, in which they declared that the mission of the Church “is at the service of all human beings, sons and daughters of God” (31). But it was for the first time in the context of the Good Samaritan parable that I realised that this mission, this radical call to discipleship, means that “Everything having to do with Christ has to do with the poor, and everything connected to the poor cries out to Jesus” (393). The influential German political theologian, Johann Baptist Metz, would call this the eyes of Jesus going to the one who suffers.

It was in Aparecida, Brazil that the phrase “the Samaritan Church” was forged. As a member of a Good Samaritan school with a Benedictine charism, the notion of a “Samaritan Church” is powerfully obvious, yet deeply uncomfortable. I recalled the anecdote shared by Professor Gutierrez of the now retired Bishop of Milan, Cardinal Martini, who said: “My whole life I was afraid to deal with Matthew Chapter 25 because it was so challenging and I was not ready to confront that challenge”. His humility reminded me of the saying, “the more I learn, the more I realise how little I know”, and the reflection of the German biblical scholar, Ulrich Luz, that “the best way to read the bible is to actualise the text”.

Professor Gutierrez posed the question: “Who is the most important character in the parable?” I have often considered it to be the Samaritan, the Christ figure approaching a person in need. But we were encouraged to look further to the wounded man. We don’t know much about this man. Is he a merchant? Possibly. Is he a Jew? Probably. But what we do know is that he is anonymous, a human person in need, poor and insignificant. We also know that all the other characters in the parable – the bandits, priest, Levite, inn-keeper, Samaritan – were at some stage in relationship with the wounded man. Connecting with the poor can only occur in relationship.

The call at the end of the parable is to “go and do the same yourself” (37). This is a significant call to follow Jesus in the service of the other person without obligation. “I approach because he needs me not because it is my duty or that he is a good person”. Professor Gutierrez sees this action as a movement from ‘anonymity’ to ‘neighbourhood’ and rooted in the attitude we have and the love that we carry.

At its most profound level, the parable invites me to the water of the well (cf John 4:1-42) so I can be life-giving for others.

“Preferential option for the poor”

The phrase, “the preferential option for the poor”, emerged between the Latin American Bishops Conferences of Medellin (1968) and Puebla (1972). For me, if I am to live this belief then the option is not optional and the preference is for the protection of the weakest. No one person is outside the love of God. Just like the parable, “the preferential option for the poor” calls us to equality and universality.

While the “preferential option for the poor” is one of the distinguishing traits of the face of the Latin American and Caribbean Church, Pope Benedict XVI reminds us that “the preferential option for the poor” is implicit in our belief in a God who became poor for us so as to enrich us with his poverty (Inaugural address, No.3).

Perhaps mistakenly in my desire to help others, I have often held the notion of being a voice for others: the less fortunate in society or the students at school. However, the “preferential option for the poor”, read through the prism of the parable, is teaching me that my aim should not be to take the place of the poor, but for the poor themselves to have a voice or for the students themselves to have a voice. They are, as Professor Gutierrez reminds us, subjects of their own destiny.

Theology of the kingdom

What I find interesting about this parable is that unlike many others in the Gospels it does not explicitly mention the Kingdom of God, yet its meaning is enshrined in the very heart of the story. While there is no call to prayer, it is important. The call is to simplicity of action – to approach a person in need, to go out of one’s way, to find the other.

I have been reminded that all theology is contextual, that it derives from an historical context of time and place. What is significant for me is the timeless question of the parable “Who is my neighbour?” It points me to a God who calls me to discern the signs of the times so that I can strive to live the imperative of the Gospel: “whatever you did for the least siblings of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).

John Muskovits

John Muskovits is Assistant Principal (Dean of Curriculum) at Mount St Benedict College, Pennant Hills, in Sydney. He has taught Religious Education and Studies of Religion for many years and holds a Master of Religious Education. John is married with two adult children and has a love of learning and theology.

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