Who is my neighbour?

“Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “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.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, 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 while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

“Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”  

                             Luke 10:25-42

These are the Gospel readings from the past two Sundays. The latter follows immediately on from the former in the Gospel according to Luke, and I wonder why Luke felt these stories go together? I wonder too, how these stories apply in our lives today?

I would like us to turn initially to the story of Mary and Martha and to journey back in time to the original Greek. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the reading of Mary and Martha is thus:

“Now as they went on their way, he [Jesus] entered a certain village, where a certain woman named Martha received him. And she had a sister called Mary, who also having sat at the feet of the Lord was listening to his word. But Martha was distracted about her service; she came and asked, “Lord, does it not concern you that my sister has left me to serve alone? Therefore, speak to her that she might help.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled by many things; one thing however is necessary, and Mary has chosen the one thing, a good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”     

The differences are subtle but the nuances and way in which the story is told changes our understanding of the story. Many generations of scholars, teachers, and preachers have read so much into this story and have made it quite a gendered story. Martha is portrayed as being in the kitchen preparing food. She is usually pitted against her sister with the ultimate question asked of whether one is a ‘Mary’ or a ‘Martha.’ Mary’s decision is described as being ‘better,’ but this is not what is written in the Greek.

We make the assumption that Martha received Jesus into her home. The Greek does not mention the disciples being received as well as Jesus. The two of them (Mary and Martha) were listening to Jesus. Our more literal translation includes the word: also. Mary, wherever she had been, came in and also listened to Jesus. But Martha was distracted. Yes, this could have been about food preparation – the hospitality required for guests. In many Bible translations, this distraction appears to refer to the tasks that a woman would be doing in the kitchen because this was the woman’s job in many different societies throughout the ages. However, the word used for service is diakoniaand is where we acquire our word ‘deacon.’ It is only in this point of Luke’s Gospel that the word is translated as ‘tasks’ (NRSV), ‘preparations’ (NIV & NEB), ‘serving’ (NKJV), ‘work’ (GNB). Strong’s Concordance shows that elsewhere in the Bible, diakonia refers to ministry, service, contribution for relief, mission, and support. 

Let us, therefore, take away the assumptions about food in this context and think on what really matters in this story. Martha was distracted. She was sitting and listening to Jesus but was possibly feeling guilty that she wasn’t doing what she felt she had to do – her ministry – whatever that entailed. Her ensuing conversation with Jesus shows that she felt able to talk to Jesus freely and that he treated her as an equal. Something we take for granted but was not common in that culture. She obviously wanted Mary to help her in her ministry and felt that Mary would obey the patriarchal figure of Jesus if he told her what to do. But of course, he doesn’t do what is expected of him. Jesus speaks of the necessity of listening to himself as the teacher. We have no idea what he was speaking on and who else was listening as this is irrelevant to Luke’s story. Therefore, what is Luke’s point? Could it be about our focus? When presented with a situation where we have a teacher with something important to say, what are we doing? Because whatever we are doing at that point in time is the most important thing in our life at that particular moment. What does that say about us as followers of Christ? This then is where the parable of the Good Samaritan comes into our lives.

“Just then a person stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “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.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” Jesus replied, “A person was going from ‘A’ to ‘B’ and broke a leg/fell ill/had a stroke/was hospitalised. Now by chance a pedestrian was going past; and when the person in need was seen, the pedestrian passed by on the other side. He said to himself, “I have no time. Someone else can meet their needs.” So likewise, another individual, when the person in need was seen, passed by on the other side, shrugged and said to him or herself, “I don’t really know that person.” But a Samaritan while travelling came near.. [you know the rest of the story].. “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the person who was unable to help themselves?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Now, in the original story, Jesus typecasts the two who passed on the other side as members of the Judaistic priestly class because he is teaching Jews. He uses imagery abhorrent to the Jews to make a point. He uses the idea of a Samaritan, a person cast away from the Jews because of their beliefs and principles as the kind, caring and compassionate one. Imagine, then, if I were to typecast the pedestrian and individual above as Christian No. 1 and Christian No. 2 and the Samaritan as a homeless person?

The pedestrian and the individual in the story above are so involved in their own lives that their focus is not on Christ. Martha is possibly feeling guilty that she is not getting on with her ministry – whatever that might be. Her focus is no longer on Christ, even though he is in her house at this very moment in time. 

This, then, is where our diakonia comes in. This is not just the responsibility of an ordained deacon in the church but is the call of everyone who chooses to follow Christ. To be a Samaritan to the person in need wherever that person is. Whether that person in need is visible and in front of us or is housebound or in hospital. The story of Martha and Mary shows that it is possible to have Christ live within us and still be caring and compassionate to those around us. We no longer have to choose whether we are a ‘Mary’ or a ‘Martha;’ we can be both. We can sit and learn from the Teacher of whom we follow as Christians and we can retain that focus and be in service and be a Samaritan. To do so shows that we are a part of the community around us and that our faith is relevant to the people we know and don’t yet know in our communities.

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