This is a very well known but deeply challenging passage: and I think that as we look at this together you will realise that it is saying slightly more than we might think on first reflection.
The situation is this: A lawyer comes to Jesus. He asks, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?"
I wonder how you would answer that question. I would probably say to people: You need to realise that God loves you and has a purpose for your life, but that you have rejected that purpose and that we have sinned. You need to repent of your sins and turn to Jesus and receive his free gift of forgiveness and eternal life.
But Jesus doesn't.
First of all, Jesus is much wiser than me. He is not in the business of giving people a list that they can tick off. 'Yes, I believe that; I've done that and I've prayed the prayer - so now I have eternal life.'
Jesus knows our hearts: he knows how easily we kid ourselves. He wants to take us deeper.
The lawyer comes to test Jesus. He wants to make sure that Jesus is cosher. He gets a shock, as do all of us when we come to Jesus. It is not us who examine Jesus; it is Jesus who examines us.
So Jesus turns the question back to him, back to his area of expertise: "What does the law say?" It was a standard debate in first century Judaism. Some refused to summarise the law. Others pointed to Psalm 34:11-14.
Others, like this lawyer, summed up the law in the words that we quote in most of our communion services: "`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, `Love your neighbor as yourself.'"
And Jesus says, "That's it. Do it and live!"
The problem is that it is too open. What does love mean? Who do I love? How much do I have to love in order to get into heaven? Because if I am honest, although I might seek to do so, I do not love God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength.
So the lawyer goes deeper. "But he wanted to justify himself". He wanted to justify the reason he asked the question - or did he actually want to justify his lack of love by qualifying it, limiting it. And he asks, "Who is my neighbour?"
And in reply, Jesus doesn't give the answer - don't we love giving the answers - but he tells a story. He tells the story of the good Samaritan who, unlike the priest and the Levite, has compassion on the man who fell into the hands of others. And then Jesus turns the question round.
The man asked: "Who is my neighbour?" He is in the centre and his looking for his neighbour. Is it the person next door to me? The person who lives in the same town as me? The person who is of the same faith as me?
Jesus answers, "Who was neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?" In other words, Jesus is saying: "The question we need to ask is not who is my neighbour, but who can I be a neighbour to?"
In other words, the neighbour is not them, but me. And I show compassion to you not because you are my neighbour, but because I am your neighbour.
It strips away any patronising elements in showing mercy: There is a nice quote, "She was the sort of person who went round doing good to others. You could tell the others by their harassed look"
And it also blows open the borders of who might be our neighbours: we can be a neighbour to anyone who we come into contact with.
I do not choose who my neigbours are - they are given to me
But I can choose who I become a neighbour to
The Levite and priest chose not to be neighbours to the beaten up man.
The Samaritan, although he came from a different place and a different race chose to become a neighbour to the beaten up man.
One of the people who most helped us in my previous church when we were setting up a centre for asylum seekers was a lady called Ann Morisy. She has written a book called, "Beyond the Good Samaritan".
In it, she talks about circles of comfort and of compassion
The inner circle is myself and my family and friends. I love, I choose to become a neighbour to (and here we are talking practical love, in terms of compassion for, service of and giving to) those who love me or who like me.
The next circle out is more risky. We move towards the edges of our comfort zone. I love those people who I do not necessarily like, but who do not pose a risk to me. Perhaps we share a similar interest: I get involved in service in church, in a club, in a choir, in a political party, in a parent and toddler group, in a lunch club, in the hospital or hospice - or it might be visiting or shopping for a shut-in neighbour. The test, I guess of our service, is what we do when the people we are involved with do things that we don't like: Do we still serve? Do we still give?
The final circle is more costly. It is good Samaritan stuff. It is when we go beyond our circles of comfort. It is when I love people - not because I like them, not because they like what I like or are like me - but simply because they are in need. Indeed their very existence may seem to threaten my self interest. Their existence threatens my well being, my sense of who I am and what I stand for: an asylum seeker family, a committed Moslem, a practising homosexual with full blown AIDS, an ex convict, someone who has paedophile tendencies. Would we choose to become neighbours to them? Would we be prepared to step out of our circles of comfort in order to love them?
Please don't think that I am having a go at anyone. This is as much a challenge to me.
We usually shake our head at the priest and the Levite in this story: how awful. But I'm with them. The beaten up man in the gutter may have been drunk. He certainly had not taken sufficient precautions and is partly to blame; I probably could not do anything for him anyway, and I really do have more important things to do: things that will help many more people.
Jesus is not telling us a little morality tale that is suitable for school assemblies.
When he says at the end, "Go and do likewise", he is saying to this man: "There are no limits to who you can be a neighbour to. Go beyond your boundaries. Love people as God loves them. Love people who I love. Love them to the point that - if they were in need - you would be willing to be crucified for your enemy."
I wonder what the Lawyer thought as he walked away from Jesus. Did he think, "I'll try harder?" Or did he see the gates of heaven closing on him as he thought, "I can't live like that".
I'm so grateful that eternal life does not depend on my love for God and others. If it did, I'm stuffed. It depends on God's love and mercy. The church fathers used to interpret this passage by saying that you and me are the beaten up man, and Jesus is the good Samaritan, who picks us up, and who at great cost to himself, takes us to the inn. He is the one who loves us, who died for us and who lives for us.
"Lord Jesus Christ. Look on us with our self-centred pitiless and pathetic love. Have mercy on us. Forgive us and change us. Fill us with your compassion and your love - that we might LIVE"