An edited version of a talk delivered at an information day for Simple Love, a group of Christians serving refugees in Australian communities by providing food parcels to welfare organizations specializing in meeting the needs of refugees. A shorter version of this article was first published by the Bible Society at http://www.biblesociety.org.au/news/refugees-good-samaritan-neighbour.
I. IDENTITY QUESTIONS
Our country is deeply confused and conflicted about the situation of refugees. The situation gets constant airplay, and with a media devoted to snappy sound bites and a twenty-four hour, fast-paced news cycle, it can be hard to separate fact from fiction and work out what’s really going on.
This confused and conflicted conversation is often dominated by questions about who these people really are. Where are they coming from? Why are they coming? Why have they chosen to come to here, and not somewhere else? Did they break the law in order to get here? Will they be a good fit for our communities? On the basis of our answers to those questions, we determine our responsibilities towards them.
All of these questions are questions about identity. They all ask something about who these refugees are. Identities form the basis of our relationships with others and determine our responsibilities towards them.
For Christians, this begs the question: what do the scriptures say about the identity of those coming to us as refugees and asylum seekers? This is the way to determine, according to the scriptures, what our relationship and responsibility towards them might be.
II. BEING A NEIGHBOUR
One place where these questions of identity, relationship and responsibility come together in a remarkable way is the story Jesus tells about the Good Samaritan, recorded for us in Luke 10.
Just then, an expert in the law stood up to test Him, saying, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the law?” [Jesus] asked him. “How do you read it?”
He answered: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and [love] your neighbour as yourself.”
“You’ve answered correctly,” Jesus told him. “Do this and you will live.”
The teacher of the law goes straight away to the most basic ethical teaching in the Old Testament: God’s people are to love Him and love their neighbours. Those two commands are to shape their whole lives. But the teacher of the law isn’t satisfied.
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?”
Do you see what he’s doing here? He’s asking a question about identity. He’s happy with the idea that he is supposed to love his neighbour; but he wants to know who qualifies as a neighbour. Is this person my neighbour? The answer to this identity question will determine his relationship and responsibility toward this person.
Jesus responds by telling the familiar story of the Good Samaritan, which gives us a picture of what neighbourly love looks like. But before addressing the story Jesus tells and its implications, it is worth recognizing how Luke brings the story to an end.
After Jesus has told his famous parable, he asks the teacher of the law a question.
“Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
“The one who showed mercy to him,” he said.
Then Jesus told him, “Go and do the same.”
Notice that Jesus plays a little trick on the teacher of the law here. The teacher of the law had asked ‘Who is my neighbour?’ In response, Jesus asks the question, ‘Who proved to be a neighbour?’ This is important. Jesus turns the question around. Instead of asking ‘Who qualifies as one I am to relate to as my neighbour?’, Jesus is asking ‘Who will you be a neighbour to?’ Jesus has turned what began as a question about another’s identity into a question about the teacher of the law’s identity. Is he a neighour to others? The effect of this is that our responsibility towards others is not rightly determined by a question about them, but by a question about us. Jesus says that the question that should determine our responsibility toward others is not ‘Who are they?’ but rather ‘Who are you?’ Our identity determines how we are to relate to others.
What does this mean for us as we think about serving refugees in our communities? It means that we need first to ask the question ‘Who are we?’ If we are the people of the Lord Jesus Christ, then the answer to that question is ‘We are neighbours.’ With that question in place, the most fundamental thing we can say about the identity of the refugees in our communities is that they are our neighbours. They are our neighbours because we were first called to be neighbours to them. The questions we began with, the questions that dominate the national conversation, may all be good reasons to ask; but they are not the most fundamental and basic question. Whoever they are, we rightly say: ‘I am their neighbour.’
III. WHAT NEIGHBOURLY LOVE LOOKS LIKE
So, having answered the identity question, let’s go back to the parable Jesus tells and find out what our responsibility toward our neighbours is. Let’s pick up the story at Luke 10:30.
“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him, beat him up, and fled, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down that road. When he saw him, he passed by on the other side. In the same way, a Levite, when he arrived at the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan on his journey came up to him, and when he saw the man…”
We all remember what happens next, of course, but it’s worth reading it in full anyway:
When he saw the man, he stopped, and began to wonder what he should do. He could probably help out a bit, but he was already running late. He didn’t know the man. He looked Jewish. For all he knew he might be a pretty rotten guy. He might even have been injured in the act of committing a crime! So the Samaritan stooped down and roused the man from his unconscious state, saying to him: “Who are you? What happened?” The man, with blood, tears and sweat in his eyes, gasping for breath, said: “Thieves, robbers…”
Not being able to verify the man’s story, the Samaritan searches the man’s possessions for identity papers. Finding them to be up to date, he conceded that he was probably an okay guy, the Samaritan put him on his donkey and took him to an inn. When they arrived, the Samaritan ran inside and said to the innkeeper: “Sir, I’m running really late, and I’m not coming back this way. Here’s fifty dollars to cover a room for a few hours. If he comes too and can’t pay, call the police.”
‘But wait!’ I hear you say, ‘That’s not what I was taught in Sunday School!’ Of course, you’re right: that’s not at all how the Samaritan treats the man. Obviously, the mis-telling of the story was deliberate. The point is that we need to pay attention to both what the Samaritan does do and what he does not do. Here’s the way Jesus’ story actually reads:
“[The Samaritan], when he saw the man, he had compassion. He went over to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on olive oil and wine. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out coins worth about two days’ wages, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him. When I come back I’ll reimburse you for whatever extra you spend.’”
This is what it looks like when someone is a neighbour to someone else.
There are five things we should note from Jesus about what it means for us to be neighbours. Each of them have implications for how we should relate to refugees in our communities.
1. A neighbour loves personally.
The Samaritan doesn’t phone a friend. He rolls up his sleeves and gets involved. We have plenty of excellent welfare and social services in Australia – praise God that our government, more than most, looks after us. But we can’t use that as an excuse to not get involved. If we are going to be a neighbour, we’ll need to get personally involved.
2. A neighbour’s love is not based on worthiness.
The Samaritan doesn’t stop to consider whether or not this is a good guy. His love is not contingent on the man’s moral worthiness. He sees someone in need, and without a second thought, acting as a neighbour, he gets in and helps. The full significance of this is seen in that the man of whom Jesus approves is a Samaritan. In the first century, Samaritans were not on good terms with Jews; a Jew would not have been likely to assist a Samaritan, and Jesus’ Jewish hearers would have been shocked to hear about a Samaritan helping a Jew! Despite this difference, the Samaritan in Jesus’ story asks nothing about the man in the road, but simply goes to his aid.
The vast majority of the refugees in our communities are normal people, not criminals; many of them are likely to be outstanding members of any community they are a part of. But even if their history is sketchy, a tapestry of darkness and light, we are still called to be a neighbour to them. For those who follow the Lord Jesus, the question ‘Are they worthy?’ is an invalid question: we are to love them nonetheless.
3. A neighbour’s love is risky.
The Samaritan doesn’t stop to worry about whether or not the man presents a threat or whether he might also be in danger of being mugged. All love is like this, really; to love someone is to make yourself vulnerable to manipulation, to rejection, or to hurt of various kinds. Our love might not be reciprocated, but if we aren’t willing to take that risk then it isn’t really love at all.
Some refugees in our community (almost certainly a tiny minority) may even turn out to be criminals who abuse our love. So be it; our responsibility to love them is not diminished by this risk.
4. A neighbour’s love is costly.
The Samaritan leaves a substantial sum of money and promises to pay any extra expenses. Likewise, if we are to prove to be neighbours to the refugees in our communities, we must not let the expense of money or time limit the love we show.
5. A neighbour’s love is comprehensive.
The Samaritan doesn’t only treat the man’s wounds, or only give him money, or only find him accommodation. Notice also that he isn’t satisfied with meeting the immediate needs only, but agrees to return to check on him. A neighbour will tackle needs from multiple angles and will recognize needs as ongoing.
There are a number of excellent organisations that seek to meet refugees’ needs in a comprehensive, holistic manner. Simple Love supports the work of the Asylum Seekers Centre and House of Welcome, organisations who support refugees in Sydney in multiple ways from multiple angles. Simple Love helps churches to be a part of this holistic care through providing food.
Perhaps the challenge for we Christians, seeking to be neighbours, to go beyond the practical need for food, clothing and accommodation to the need for relationship. I think we can characterise the neighbourliness of the Samaritan as friendship; he proves to be a friend to the man in the road. Refugees and asylum seekers desperately need friends. They need help to get around and to find their feet; they need communities to plug in to. How might we befriend the refugees among us and enfold them into communities of neighours? World Vision’s Welcome to My Place program can help with this.
IV. LOVING AS WE HAVE BEEN LOVED
This is the responsibility we have towards others if we are to prove to be neighbours. This is the kind of love we are called to as followers of the Lord Jesus. He calls us to enter into relationships marked by personal, generous, risky, costly and comprehensive love.
And that makes perfect sense, because that’s the kind of neighbourly love Jesus himself has shown to us. “But God proves His own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5v8). He loved us even at the cost of his own life.
Persevering in neighbourly love requires us to ask the right question: ‘Who are we?’ We are the people God has called to be neighbours. In loving like neighbours we express and show forth our love for God. Jesus says: “Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you must also love one another. By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13v34-35). The Apostle Paul says: “as we have opportunity, we must work for the good of all” (Galatians 6v10). Our love for one another and for all those whom we meet is an expression of our love for our God, who loved us first in Jesus Christ.
The Christian response to refugees in our midst is simple. Love. It’s as simple as that. But simple love doesn’t mean easy; being a neighbour is a hard and a high calling—but Jesus has already shown us the way. Let’s follow him in our approach to refugees by thinking of ourselves as neighbours.